When I read an author's work for the first time I tend to go with my gut instincts. If I've not started to enjoy a novel after the first couple of chapters then there is a reasonably good chance that the book in question isn't going to win me over. I'm pleased to say, that I was completely sold on the premise of Hard Spell within nine pages. As soon as I read the paragraph describing goblins high on crystal meth I knew this novel had captured and, more importantly, was going to retain my interest.
In an alternate United States where supernatural beings are the norm, the reader is introduced to Stan Markowski, and the other men and women of the Occult Crimes Unit. Like other cities, Scranton has its fair share of the usual problems. On top of that however, by a fluke of geography Scranton happens to have been built on the spot where a number of ley lines intersect creating a major hub for the supernatural. Just about every type of supernatural being you can think of appears in Hard Spell in one form or another. Everything from demons, vampires, werewolves, witches, wizards, zombies, cultists, ogres, trolls and the aforementioned meth-goblins get a look in.
The novel is told directly from Markowski's perspective and the writing is such that it is easy to get an overall picture of him. Slightly down at heel since a family tragedy, spending all of his time on the job, Markowski is an old school cop. He is by the book and doesn't suffer fools gladly. I found it impossible not to be won over by his gruff but honourable demeanour. Stan is the kind of cop that just won't quit till the job gets done.
Hard Spell contains a lot for any reader to enjoy. The combination of police procedural drama mixed with fantasy and horror elements seems like a natural fit, and blends well together. Anyone who loves TV shows like Hill Street Blues or Homicide: Life on the Streets but always felt they were somewhat lacking in the black magic department, will be in hog heaven. The plot involves a renegade magic user attempting to complete a dangerous ritual that, if completed, will have disastrous consequences. It is up to Stan and his partner, Karl, to track him down. The action continues to pick up momentum as the book rushes toward a climactic end.
In addition to this there is some great banter between Stan and Karl that adds some nice, darkly comic moments. Karl has a James Bond obsession and this is brought up a number of times. There is also a nice touch mentioning a television show about a well to-do southern vampire named Bill that is a documentary rather than a drama in Stan's universe.
Hard Spell has a similar premise to a few other novels that I have read before. (Nekropolis by Tim Waggoner and the Nightside novels by Simon R Green spring to mind). I am sure that if you have read either you will love the Occult Crimes Unit. Hard Spell contains a quality of writing and attention to detail that makes the world of Stan Markowski come to life in vivid detail. It has a fantastically pulply quality and hard-boiled style all of its own.
Those cheeky blighters from Angry Robot have only gone and included a nice little extra at the end of Hard Spell as well. There is a sample chapter of the next Occult Crimes Unit novel, Evil Dark, just big enough to whet this reviewer's appetite. Good to know that Markowski and his cohorts will return again at some point in the future.