Thursday, 7 July 2011

'Hard Spell' - Justin Gustainis

Until Angry Robot announced a trailer for Hard Spell I had not heard of the book. The trailer was  2:30 minutes long with some animated text and a gruff voice-over. I had a closer look at the blurb which introduced Markowski, a cop in a small town. What sets him apart from other cops is that in his job he carries a gun loaded with silver bullets and a wooden stake. Markowski is a member of Scranton PD's Occult Crimes Unit. I do like the Matt Richter novel which does some similar genre blending so I thought I'd give Hard Spell a go. Angry Robot kindly enough provided me with a review copy.

In Justin Gustainis’ Hard Spell, the world is populated by more than just humans. Europe has long been plagued by monsters and the undead. After the second great war, many an American soldier came back infected by the bite of a werewolf or that of a vampire. With the birth of cheap airlines even more beings came across. America, being the land of freedom and opportunity, quickly adapted to its new citizens. They were given rights and were expected to follow the law. For the times they didn't, the Occult Crimes Unit stepped in.

Stan Markowski is called to a crime scene. A man has been found bound to a chair and appears to have been subjected to brutal torture before being killed. A tattoo on the palm of his hand marks the victim as a wizard. The dead man must have had remarkable will power to withstand the torture for so long. In another room a safe is found opened, its contents bared to the world. Tens of thousands of dollars are still left inside. Whatever the murderer took, it is more valuable than money.

Not much time passes until the next body is found. Another brutal killing. This time the victim is a vampire. Strange symbols have been carved into the body. Markowski is struggling to find any clues to pursue. If only the dead could speak. Luckily for Stan Markowski, with a little help from the Occult Crime Unit’s witch, maybe they can. Dabbling with black magic is dangerous stuff and an application has to be made, much like getting a search warrant. Due process needs to be considered. Paper work filed and stamped.

I quite like how Hard Spell starts with a narrative from Stan Markowski giving us the necessary background information to understand the setting. It certainly gave me that noir feeling of the gruff detective I have seen in films. Justin Gustainis' detective pretty much follows the template of a fictional detective. Consumed by his work, he neglected his family and the consequences have tortured him. Not one to follow rules, he has had run-ins with Internal Affairs, who like in any other book are a real nuisance. His chief is a reasonable fellow and has his back. It makes me wary when even the chief is on the wrong side so that some comfort.

The supporting characters work well, especially Markowski's new partner, Karl Renfer, a tall, gangly, young detective who's not as dumb as he looks. Together they produce some fun dialogue. Another good character is, Lacey Brennan, a detective from another district who starts every conversation with a rather lame and politically incorrect joke. Never really that funny, but they are not supposed to be. Markowski likes to point out what a hottie she is, and pretty much every other female character he comes across. A bit a of a lecher our detective. Justin Gustainis manages well creating the right chemistry between the characters. There is a pulpy detective feel to Hard Spell. It has just the right amount of hard talk balanced with some friendly banter.

As much as I liked certain characters, I just cannot get over the feeling there is something missing with the concept of an Occult Crimes Unit. I think I would have liked it more if Stan Markowski was maybe supernatural himself or something else to make him more special. It would almost justify why you would need an Occult Crimes Unit in the first place. To manage creatures that are far superior in many ways to ordinary humans, you would need staff it with people who really packs a punch. Stan Markowski lacks that edge.

The plot itself, while it works, is not very convincing either. I found it unrealistic in places. Such as why leave a defenceless wizard guarding valuable things? Later in the book, Markowski receives some unexpected help from someone and then begins giving that person confidential information about the case. It’s required to move the plot forward, or even have one in the first place, but it does feel choppy and forced.

Overall, I'm afraid Hard Spell does not work for me. While there are positives to it, the negatives outweigh them. Although it is far from a terrible book, I would not recommend you place it high on your reading list. There are just too many better books out there.

Hard Spell weighs in at 416 pages and is published by Angry Robot.

Recommendation: don't read


  1. I disagree! I really liked the book. I know it's not a classic or anything, and for the most part it is similar to most other books in the "Urban Fantasy" genre, but I thought it was a refreshing change for the lead to be human, struggling against supernaturals, rather than fighting magic with magic.

    I say worth a read!

  2. If you liked Hard Spell you might like 'Black Magic Woman' by the same author. This is also a story about a hard boiled human detective in a Occult Crime Unit. Published in 2009, but still available on Amazon.