Known Devil

by Justin Guatainis

Reviewed by Scott T. Barnes

Once I got past the elves in the first paragraph (elves as bad guys, really?) I enjoyed Known Devil immensely. And don’t worry, the elves segue into far more fearsome creatures.

Justin Gustainis is the king of supernatural detective stories. We have reviewed three of his books here before, The Hades Project, Black Magic Woman, and Sympathy for the Devil. Known Devil is similar in tone to Sympathy.

Once again the hero is a hard boiled, human cop-detective (say that three times fast.) Stan Markowski works for the Scranton, Pennsylvania police department. His partner is Karl Renfer, a vampire. The book opens with the detectives having a coffee break inside Jerry’s Diner when two elves try to hold up the place. The elves are desperate for loot so they can buy the latest designer drug, slide.

The cops bust them without much trouble. The trouble is, supernaturals (supes for short) can’t become addicted to drugs. It’s impossible. Everybody knows it. (Except for goblins, of course—they take to meth like cold sores to prom queen’s lips.)  This could bring an ugly new dimension to the drug wars.

Thus begins an investigation into the supernatural criminal world of Scranton. The hold-up is quickly followed by a shootout between mafia kingpins. A bomb destroys the unofficial leader of the supes, a vampire. All hell begins to break loose.
Detective Stan lives with his daughter Christine, a vampire like Karl, and from the beginning we get the sense that she is in danger, either from slide or from the gangsters Stan is trying to bring down. Christine has a neat personality and the father/daughter scenes are some of my favorite.

The plot can be summed up with occult crimes detective Carmela Aquilina’s words, “A new drug on the streets, addicted supes going crazy, and a gang war, to boot. God, I love this job!”

All of this ends up being peripheral to a race war between certain members of the community and the supes reminiscent of the conflicts between humans and mutants in the X-men. In Known Devil, the “Patriot Party” wants to cut property taxes in half and bring about corresponding cuts in government services, cuts the Patriot Party aims squarely at “poor people, unwed mothers, or people with substance abuse problems…” 

Besides hating on poor people, unwed mothers, and addicts (Gustainis throws in gays as well), the Patriot’s primary objection is to supernaturals.

“Since supes weren’t human, their argument went, they couldn’t be considered citizens and therefore had no basis to claim civil rights.” Fortunately this ill-disguised slam on the tea-party is followed by detective Stan’s observation, “I wondered if that meant the supes didn’t have to pay taxes, either.” Stan’s matter-of-fact sense of humor is his most redeeming quality and one of the principal attractions of Gustainis’ work.

The intrusion of a contemporary political attack eliminates the possibility of Known Devil delivering a universal message on tolerance. You’re either going to cheer the book on or cringe at the stereotyping of tea party politics, but you aren’t going to absorb any meaningful lessons.

Like Gustainis’ other books, Known Devil isn’t really a who-done-it. Most of the clues comes out within the first third of the novel and the rest can be guessed at. The fun comes in watching the police bring the perps down—and in reading the fabulous dialog. Stan has to be one of the funniest cops since Eddie Murphy played in Beverly Hills Cops I.

On the negative side, I would have rather seen the supernaturals act a bit more uncanny. These supes walk around like people, eat, drive cars, and get heartburn just like the rest of us. They are plagued by the same personality disorders and bad hair days. Even the vampires prefer to get in a gunfight than to use their super strength. Apparently they can why don't they? I would be flying all over the place if I could do it. Apart from a few notable exceptions, most of the action could have taken place in a Mario Puzo novel set in present day. 

All in all, Known Devil will satisfy supernatural detective fans and is a good place to start for anyone wishing to dip a toe in this subgenre. The theme can be summarized by a quote Gustainis chose for his opening:  

All sin tends to be addictive, and the terminal point of addiction is what is called damnation. – poet W.H. Auden