With Hard Dark, I had the impression Gustainis was having fun. Enjoying the hell out of himself, in fact, and the enthusiasm translated to an entertaining read. This time, the writing feels forced, rote instead of fun. World-building, characterization and writing all left me left me wishing I had picked up my academic reading instead.
The third installment in the Occult Crimes Unit series begins in a local diner where Detective Sergeant Stan Markowski and his partner, Karl Renfer, are having a coffee break–or blood break in Karl’s case. Karl’s musings on the latest James Bond flick are interrupted by a pair of elves holding up the patrons. The elves are behaving like strung-out drug addicts, but everyone knows supernaturals can’t get addicted to drugs, with the exception of those pesky goblins and their meth problem. Unfortunately, Renfer and Mark are about to discover a new drug that works on supes has made its way to Stanton. Before they can follow-up, they’re diverted to a mass shooting where members of a local vampire crime family are permanently dead, murdered by an out of town gang moving in on their territory. A supernatural drug, a local gang war, and the growth of the local Patriot Party all add up to trouble. Could they possibly be connected?
As a bit of background, while there isn’t anything new or surprising about the world Gustainis has created (unless you count the alternate history that includes Steinbeck writing Of Elves and Men), it’s been largely serviceable world-building. Normally, if world-building isn’t particularly unique, I focus on character or plotting, but alas–the same cut-and-paste from genre tropes is apparent. Stan
Sipowitcz as detective. Impaired but recovering relationship with daughter as well as partner. New drug moving into the city causing gang war. Supernatural discrimination. Not-so-shadowy figure who wants to incite a cultural revolution. Stan’s willingness to be jury and judge with lawbreakers.
I wasn’t offended by Detective Stan’s flirtation with the judgmental side of defending his city. I was, however, offended by the facile characterization–and read absolutely no political implications in my complaints–which relied on copy-n-paste anti-immigrant Tea Party description into the anti-supernatural Patriot Party. Ditto the insertion of every Italian mob stereotype you might remember from Godfather-knock-offs into the vampire mob family (“the devil you know…”).
Even more concerning is the general awkwardness of the writing. Take this fragment from a discussion between Markowski and Castle, the head of the supernaturals:
“‘It may surprise you, detective, but I also have read the works of Mister Ian Fleming. Mostly, I regard them as light entertainment, but sometimes, as in your present example…’ The fingers were drumming again, softly as tears falling on a coffin.”
Or the awkward justification where Markowski admits he lied to his fellow officers, lied to a gang leader, but is willing to tell the police department he was lying if he needs to turn in the gang leader (dizzy yet?). Then the transition after Markowski helpfully summarizes his reasoning and plans for
the reader his adult daughter:
“She swirled the remaining liquid in her mug and studied the little whirlpool that resulted. ‘This cop stuff gets pretty complicated sometimes, doesn’t it?’
‘Yeah, but it’s nothing that a master detective like your old man can’t handle.”
Yes, I suppose “this cop stuff” is complicated when you are an author and need your character to behave in an uncharacteristic way, but don’t want to re-write everything you’ve done so far.
Then there’s a weird scene thrown in where the department witch does some sympathetic magic, so she kisses our lead. I’d accuse Gustainis of being a bit of a sexist, since the few women characters are only accessories to our lead–except that virtually all the characters are one-note, so it’s hard to say it’s a female-only issue. It is worth noting that when females do appear, Markowski has a definite preoccupation with their sexuality (including his daughter’s, ew).
Quite honestly, I was bored reading, never a good sign. The only reason I didn’t quit was that then I’d have to read three chapters of Study Guide for Understanding Pathophysiology. It was the worst of both worlds; the guilt of procrastination coupled with annoyance at an unsatisfactory diversion. Perhaps I was trying to outwit myself, by selecting a book that would help me study? I like to think so, but I’m afraid I might just be witless.