Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Welcome back to the alternative Scranton, where the supernatural is out in the open, and Stan Markowski and his partner, the undead Karl Renfer, have to investigate supernatural crimes. Evil Dark is the second entry in Justin Gustainis’ Occult Investigations series. Stan, Karl, Christine, et al continue to process the aftermath of the first book. Then two FBI agents rock up to town, looking for some help tracking down the creators of supernatural snuff films. Stan and Karl investigate, only to find themselves on the trail of a conspiracy to incite the race war to end … well … everything.
The spoiler alert is purely about the last three pages of this book, and not so much actual details of the plot, for what it’s worth.
Too long a time has elapsed since I read Hard Spell. I had completely forgotten Stan and the other characters and anything that occurred in the first book. Fortunately, Evil Dark leaves enough breadcrumbs to let you get a morsel-sized idea of what happened. But this book is mostly self-contained. Stan has to deal with the fallout from the first book, but the mysteries are new.
Both mysteries (which, surprise surprise, turn out to be related) are interesting. Gustainis is good at describing police procedure without going into so much detail that it becomes tedious. I like that Stan is not a “shoot first, ask questions later” cop; not only does he try to do things by the book, but he goes out of his way to be courtesy both to his colleagues and to people who are in distress. The scene in which Stan talks an ogre into surrendering himself instead of shooting the ogre outright reminded me of how, in our world, cops are very quick to shoot first, particularly if the person they are confronting is Black and/or mentally ill. In Stan’s world, supernatural creatures are not de facto bad people. Some supes just want to get by. Others are criminals—just like some humans are criminals.
If you like urban fantasy mysteries, then, or like police crime novels and don’t mind a little supernatural layered on top, then Evil Dark will appeal. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “hard-boiled” or noir. But Gustainis has a lot of success translating the police procedural into an urban fantasy novel format. I can’t say I was ever bored while reading; seldom was I happy to put it down when the real world beckoned.
But what the fuck was up with those last three pages??
Look, the elephant in this book, for me, is the creepy male gaze forced down our throats by Stan-the-narrator-man. I noticed it in Hard Spell, going by my review, and it’s back and then some here. Stan can’t help but comment on the attractiveness of any female characters (who are not related to him) and whether or not he’s interested in sleeping with them. For some characters, like Lacey Brennan, this comes up repeatedly. There’s a scene where she starts stripping to her non-sexy underwear to interrogate a prisoner by sexually exciting him. Gustainis tries to play Stan as a “nice guy” by having him leave the room before Lacey gets totally naked, but it’s … just unnecessary. And while there is nothing wrong with a straight male character remarking on when he finds a woman attractive, the frequency and way in which Stan does it becomes uncomfortable, particularly given that he is the narrator. And I can’t help but wonder who Gustainis assumes his target audience is—is this just the #everydaysexism of the “wink, wink, nudge nudge, know what I mean?” Because I really don’t.
I was going to mention the male gaze in any event in this review, but I was mostly going to downplay it and brush it off. Because I did enjoy this book! I want to recommend it. I want to critique it, but I want to recommend it too.
Then that little epilogue happened, and now I can’t do that.
So the story is over. The bad guys are caught (or at least discovered). We can all go home. And then in the last scene, Stan wakes up in bed next to Lacey Brennan, who is described as such:
her blonde hair disarrayed in what my partner Karl, who is known to be crude, would call a "freshly fucked look"
And then we learn that he didn’t just get it on with Lacey, no, it’s actually a threesome with the lady FBI agent who was hot for him earlier in the novel (emphasis original):
I closed my eyes, but when I opened them, Lacey was still there. "You, me, and Thorwald… celebrating? Together?"
Lacey nodded. "I don't normally do things like that, but it was a special occasion. And, besides – you know what they say."
"Uh, no, Lace – what do they say?"
"That every straight woman is just two drinks away from bisexuality. And I know I had more than two."
"OK, now I'm positive I'm dreaming," I said. "But the only complaint I have is, sooner or later, I'm gonna wake up."
I felt weight shift on the mattress to my right. The sheet moved a bit, and then Linda Thorwald was looking down at me from the other side. Her hair was pretty mussy, too.
To be clear, Stan is not dreaming. Even if he were dreaming this would be an odd and uncomfortable way to end the novel. As it is, this is just strange straight dude fantasy wish fulfillment: “awww yeah Stan saved the day and now he gets to trophy fuck the two hot, competent lady law enforcement agents written expressly for this purpose”.
It’s superfluous and, the way it’s written, gross. It’s hard enough ignoring Stan’s chauvinism for the majority of the novel, but then these last three pages are like Gustainis running up to you and slapping you with a fish of fuckery.
I wish I could say “read Evil Dark because it’s a good urban fantasy mystery novel.” Alas, all I can say is that you shouldn’t read Evil Dark because it’s a good urban fantasy mystery novel utterly ruined by patriarchy. Which is why we can’t have nice things.