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Saturday, June 9, 2012
Justin Gustainis: OCCULT CRIMES UNIT INVESTIGATION SERIES
This police procedural series is set in the Wyoming Valley in Northeast Pennsylvania in the area in which the author grew up. In this alternate world, this part of Pennsylvania has an above-normal population of supernaturals (aka "supes") because it is located at the intersection of ten different ley lines. According to this mythology, supernaturals were relatively uncommon in the U.S. prior to World War II, having been scared off centuries ago by the fanatically religious Puritans and the Salem witch trials. During the War, however, many soldiers were infected by European supes and returned home as vampires and werewolves. Others met up with various sorcerers and necromancers and became intrigued with the black arts. Increased access to air travel after the War allowed fast and easy travel to the U.S., and the supernatural population has been rising ever since. Gustainis weaves the supes into the stories nicely, each species having its own characteristics, history, and language.
History in this world mimics the real world, but with supernatural twists. For example in this series, Senator Joe McCarthy's Congressional hearings in the 1950s were literally a witch hunt as he demanded "Are you now, or have you even been, a member of a coven?" (p. 12) Later, Martin Luther King's famous "I Have a Dream Speech" included naturals and supernaturals on the list of disparate groups that he dreamed would live in harmony. Gustainis has fun twisting pop culture icons into supernatural parodies. Stan shops for blood at the Vlad Mart. He enjoys reading John Steinbeck's novel, Of Elves and Men. A James Bond film is entitled From Transylvania with Love. At first, this is quite entertaining, but by the end of book 2 it starts to get a bit old.
The hero (or anti-hero) of the series is Detective Sergeant Stanley (Stan) Markowski of the Scranton Police Department's Occult and Supernatural Crimes Investigation Unit (aka the Supe Squad). In book 1 he introduces himself to us in a Joe-Friday-esqe manner, but with a supernatural spin: "My name's Markowski. I carry a badge. Also a crucifix, some wooden stakes, a big vial of holy water, and a 9 mm Beretta loaded with silver bullets." The trailer for book 1 even imitates Dragnet's opening credits, showing a full-screen shot of a police badge, but instead of 714, the number is 666. When Markowski and his partner need back-up, they call in the SWAT team, but in this world SWAT stands for Sacred Weapons and Tactics unit, and some of its members are priests.
The humor is dark and sardonic and makes much of Markowski's Polish heritage. In book 1, for example, Markowski tucks a container of fresh crushed garlic in his shirt pocket and proclaims, "I could either repel a vampire or season some kielbasa, depending on how things worked out." (p. 18) Markowski has the usual tragic personal history that plagues all UF heroes and heroines. His wife has been dead for six years, accidentally desanguinated by her vampire lover (of whom Markowski had been completely unaware), and his daughter is a vampire, changed over at her father's behest when she was dying from leukemia. Father and daughter maintain an uneasy civility, but in book 1 Markowski refuses to invite her into his home or even to give her a hug because his hatred of vamps is so great (due, of course, to his wife's betrayal).
BOOK 1: Hard Spell
As the story opens, Stan and his new partner, Karl Renfer, break up a demon summoning where Karl is forced to throw one of the summoners to the demon in order to save Stan's life. In their next case, they are called to a gruesome murder scene. The victim is George Kulick, a wizard, who was tortured horribly until he gave up the combination to his hidden safe, which the murderer then robbed. Unfortunately, the cops don't know what was stolen. As Stan and Karl investigate the case, they come up clueless, but Stan gives it one last shot when he asks Rachel Proctor, the police department's white witch, to raise the victim's spirit from the grave so that she can visualize his last moments. Unfortunately, the wizard's spirit possesses Rachel, and he/she takes off on a personal hunt for the murderer. Luckily for Stan, a wizard-vampire named Ernst Vollman shows up offering information about the case. According to Vollman, the murderer stole a rare book called the Opus Mago that contains rituals and spells used for extremely dark purposes. White wizards have hidden the book for centuries to keep it out of the hands of dark practitioners. Now, one of those practitioners has the book and is preparing to cast a dark spell that will give him or her great power over both vampires and humans. As the murderer begins to kill vampires in preparation for casting the spell, Stan and Karl are running out of time.
The story follows Stan and Karl as they collect clues, track down potential suspects and witnesses, and deal with the fact that someone is trying to use magic to kill them. In the climactic final scene, all of the story threads—even those related to Stan's personal life—come together in a satisfying resolution with life-changing results for some of the characters.
Just an informative note here: Karl frequently uses the word "haina" as in "Guy's throat was sliced, haina?" (p. 98) or "He used a sword, haina?" (p. 161) According to UrbanDictionary.com, this is a verb commonly used in the Wyoming Valley that has its roots in the phrase, "aint' it?"
Stan Markowski is an engaging character, with his sardonic humor and his straightforward narration. Although the mythology of the series isn't particularly fresh, the plot of this book is compelling as the action gets off to a slow start and then accelerates quickly as Stan and Karl crack the case. Secondary characters add humor and quirkiness to the story. If you enjoy Jim Butcher's DRESDEN FILES, Mark Del Franco's CONNOR GREY, P. N. Elrod's VAMPIRE FILES, or Gustainis' ownMORRIS & CHASTAIN series, you'll probably enjoy this one.
BOOK 2: Evil Dark
This book begins a few months later, and Karl has settled down into his new undead life. Stan has made peace with his daughter, Christine, and she has even moved back home to spend her days in his refurbished basement. As the story opens, Stan rescues a fairy who is threatening to leap from the ledge of a tall building. Unfortunately, although the scene is entertaining, it has nothing at all to do with the rest of the story. So why is it included? Your guess is as good as mine. The real opening scene comes next, when two FBI agents come to town to investigate a series of snuff videos each showing a demon summoning that involves demonic possession and torturous death. The agents are sure that the films are being shot in Scranton, so the detectives add this to their already long list of assignments. Then, they get called to a murder scene in which someone has tied a witch to a tree and burned her alive. Soon, more charred witches turn up around Scranton, and Stan and Karl move this case to the top of their list. The story follows the usual police-procedural format: collect clues, interview witnesses, and ponder suspects, one of which is the anti-supernatural Church of the True Cross. Several other "suspects" turn out to be red herrings who are mentioned in passing and then disappear from the story. Eventually, as in book 1, all of the plot threads are woven together in the final scenes.
For me, this book is not as strong as book 1. The disconnected opening scene with its fairy jumper is the first of several wrong notes. As Stan and Karl talk with various supes in the process of their investigation, they tell these people everything they know about the videos and the burnt witches even though the FBI has made it clear that the video case is hush-hush. When a newspaper prints a story about the videos, everyone is shocked. As it turns out, the newspaper is connected with the bad guys, so it isn't Stan's fault that the information got out, but having Stan blab all the facts to everyone is a definite weakness in the plot. It's not something that a real police detective would do.
Gustainis' male characters are definitely more fully developed than his female characters. His females pop up randomly and never show any real depth (except for Lacey's heartbreaking scene when she learns her sister's fate). Stan's attitude toward women is complicated but shallow—if that's possible. His bantering with Lacey is filled with subtle and not-so-subtle sexual innuendo. He is tempted by the female FBI agent's invitation for sex in her hotel room, but there's no real passion in his reaction to her. It's as if he's playing the role of a Sam Spade type of guy who is expected to react to women in a certain way, but not to go too far—until the very last scene of this book, that is. That scene is completely unexpected and could have been written by a horny adolescent boy who has watched too many porn videos. As Karl would say, "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?" Both the first scene and, especially, the last scene of this book are like an overdose of literary condiments—added in an attempt to introduce tangy humor or zesty shock to the book, but with no real flavor match-up to the main plot. It's as if the author is afraid the story can't stand on its own without the extra added flavorings.