Author: Justin Gustainis
Publisher: Angry Robot
Release Date: 1st Aug 2013
This third novel in the Occult Crimes Unit Investigation featuring detective Stan Markowski kicks off in usual Gustainis form; with a witty punch. The novel starts mid scene with a tirade from Markowski about how he doesn’t like elves especially elves with guns. Markowski’s partner Karl Renfer was turned into a vampire against his choice in the previous novel. Luckily they work the night shift. At 1am they’re having their coffee break at Jerry’s Diner when the two gun toting elves enter the joint. They have no choice really; sworn to protect the public Markowski and Renfer take action to down the elves. The thing us, elves are normally peaceful, so what the hell were the doing taking down a diner? And why was Thor (yes, Thor) acting just like a junkie in withdrawal when supes (supernaturals) didn’t take drugs? Turns out the elves are taking something called Slide. At the same time it looks as though there might be a turf war going on between two vampire factions. When the local Vampfather is attacked in the streets Markowski has a decision to make, after all sometimes the devil you know is better than the one you don’t.
The narrative as usual is laced with Gustainis’ distinctive brand of humour, dark, ironic and witty; “the street was cleaner than a nun’s asshole”.
There is racial tension examined throughout the novel as vampire detective Renfer deals with every day xenophobia and discrimination against supes, or supernaturals, who legally and sometimes morally are still considered second class citizens. There are also comparisons made with the Nazis. The supes hang out at bars like Varneys or Renfields and it is the night life of Scranton and Markowski’s grizzled noir cop that adds flavour to the novel. This series doesn’t disappoint and I want to see more of the Occult Crimes Unit shenanigans. Cracking stuff.
Interview with Justin Gustainis
TD: Justin, I’ve read all of the Occult Investigations series books so far and what strikes me most is the authenticity of the world you have created, in which the supernatural is accepted as an everyday occurrence. In some urban fantasy/ supernatural novels the world remains “hidden” to all but those special few. Why did you decide to make it an open everyday world?
JG: For one thing, I wanted to take a different approach from the one followed in my other series, the Morris and Chastain Investigations, that I write for Solaris. That group of novels, novellas, and short stories is set in what some horror scholars call a “masquerade.” It’s as you have described it – the knowledge of the supernatural is restricted to the supernatural creatures themselves, those who would seek to exploit them, and those brave souls whose mission is to combat them.
One of the first books I ever read in what today is called urban fantasy was The Haunted Earth, a 1973 novel by a then-obscure writer named Dean R. Koontz. The first scene tickled me no end – a private eye and his assistant (who happens to be a talking hellhound) are conducting covert surveillance of a vampire, Count Something-or-Other. The Count is in the process of seducing what appears to be a very willing lady, but there is a procedure he’s supposed to follow, based on a U.S. Supreme Court decision. It anticipated by several years the “sexual codes of conduct” that some colleges instituted in an attempt to combat date rape and similar forms of sexual assault – “May I place my hand on your bosom?” “Do I have permission to gently place my fangs against the flesh of your neck?” etc. But the Count gets carried away by his bloodlust. He skips a couple of steps and goes, literally, for the jugular. That’s when our private eye jumps out from cover, waving a cross and banishing the offending vampire into the night – much to the annoyance of his would-be victim, I might add. The plot then veers off into something much more like science fiction, but that chapter (and its premises) has stayed with me.
It just occurred to me that Koontz’s private eye might have been the seed that, many years later, grew into Detective Sergeant Stan Markowski of the Scranton Occult Crimes Unit.
TD: Given the authenticity of the occult elements, what sort of research did you have to do?
Not very much, most of the time. When dealing with magic (both white and black) I try to get the spells, rituals, and texts correct – to the extent the word “correct” can be used in that context. But I don’t always succeed. In Hard Spell I have a white witch doing a quarter call (don’t ask – it’s complicated), and I’m still hearing from people (often witches, but not always) pointing out that she left out the final quarter. My bad. For the monsters, I rely on standard cultural tropes – or maybe I should say traditional cultural tropes. My vampires do not sparkle. But sometimes, the cultural tropes are ambiguous. What does an elf look like, after all – is the “North Pole” model the only one? It turns out there are other descriptions of elves from various mythological traditions, so I took the one that worked best for me.
TD:. I also noted the realistic feel of the police procedural elements including crime scenes, how did you approach making these as realistic as possible?
JG: If you think about it, that kind of thing doesn’t have to be realistic – it only has to seem realistic. Everything I know about law enforcement practices and procedures comes from popular culture. If it weren’t for the late Ed McBain’s “87th Precinct” novels and the TV shows Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, I wouldn’t have any idea what to write on that subject. Oh, and Dragnet – definitely Dragnet.
TD: The novels have got a wonderful Raymond Chandler/Maltese Falcon noir vibe to them which makes them seem timeless. Was this intentional? What sort of reading have you done in the past that might fit this sort of vibe?
Thank you for the compliment – I appreciate that. I’ve read Hammett and Chandler, of course. A few years ago, I edited a book of occult detective stories, and my introduction was titled, “Down These Mean Crypts a (Wo)man Must Go.” Fans of Chandler will recognize the reference. I also think that Robert Crais and the late Robert B. parker are very skilled in communicating a sense of place (L.A. and Boston, respectively) in their stories. If I can do for Scranton what they’ve down for their towns, I will be very, very proud.
TD: Stan Markowski has a slightly complicated relationship with his daughter, in that she’s a vampire. It could’ve gone wrong in so many ways. How did you decide to approach it in the positive way that you did?
It didn’t start out that way. If you remember, at the beginning of Hard Spell, Stan and Christine are estranged. They still talk once in a while, but Stan won’t invite her into his house (the same home where she grew up before “turning”) and Christine won’t tell Stan where she spends the day. But the climactic scene of that book puts Stan in a place where he has to make two life-and-death decisions. The way he resolved those meant that his relationship with his daughter (and his partner) would inevitably change. And, in later books, Christine makes a nice window for Stan into the doings of the local vampire community — information that sometimes comes in very handy for his investigations.
TD: Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions.