In these books, Quincey Morris would be the ordinary person – although he’s anything but ordinary in the ordinary sense of the word, being tough as nails and very cool under pressure (in the wonderful set piece that opens Evil Ways, he takes on an entire clutch of vampires that have infested a small Texas hotel, and you get a visceral sense of how good Morris is in a tight corner – and a sly tip of the hat from Gustainis, whose conceit is that his Morris is a direct descendant of Bram Stoker’s ill-fated Dracula-hunting Quincey Morris). He’s joined by ‘white witch’ Libby Chastain, another distinctly idiosyncratic fictional creation who spends a good deal of her time explaining the difference between her kind of witch and the bad kind (for all the world like nobody in these books had ever seen The Wizard of Oz)(or Bewitched, for that matter):
“White magic derives its power from nature,” Libby told him. “From the four essential elements of earth, air, fire, and water, as well as from the sun and moon.”
“Is all that a fancy way of saying ‘from God?’” LaRue asked.
Libby thought for a moment. “Well, it can be – although some of us might use other terms, including ‘Goddess.’”
“And if you want to posit God as the source of white magic,” Morris said, “it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out where the other side comes from.”
“No, I suppose not,” LaRue said. He looked at Libby Chastain and asked, “Which is the stronger?”
There’s no easy answer to that question, of course (or these would be mighty short books), but you can see the snap and pace of Gustainis’ prose – that prose is the real secret behind these books; most supernatural thrillers (hell, most sci-fi and fantasy just in general) are flatly, horribly written and don’t care if you know it – they figure if they deliver their requisite cargo of blood, guts, and demons, they’ve done their job and should be allowed to collect their paycheck. In this they take their cue from mainstream thriller writers like James Patterson and his ilk, whose books are mere plot-skeletons, delivery devices for climaxes and cheesy one-liners, not really books at all.
Gustainis doesn’t got that route, and as a result, even his book’s throwaway scene-settings are often memorably good:
Not unlike Caesar’s Gaul, all American college towns are divided into three parts. There’s the campus itself, usually a sprawling mass of concrete and brick (except in New England, where its usually wood, ivy, and rot), the jungle (where the students tend to reside and recreate), and the town (where the permanent residents live – usually as far away from the campus and the jungle as they can get).
Another refreshing aspect of these books – let’s hope it stays strong as the series continues – is the depth and complexity given to the non-supernatural side of every investigation, specifically the efforts of the FBI’s behavioral sciences teams out of Quantico, usually headed by recurring character Agent Fenton (whose persistent, completely uncontrolled potty mouth is just about the only false note the author strikes in any of this – you simply won’t find an FBI field agent who talks that way around the general public, but it’s a small point). Gustainis signals at every turn that wants this side of his mostly-paranormal investigations to be both realistic and tautly gripping in its own right, and at one point he does this signaling in the manner most likely to grab the attention of police procedural buffs: he invokes God – i.e. Thomas Harris. Quincey Morris asks if Jack Crawford is still in charge of behavioral sciences for the FBI at Quantico.
He’s told Crawford died of a heart attack a while back. But the fight against crime – natural or otherwise – goes on, and if Will Graham and Clarice Starling aren’t available, Quincey Morris and Libby Chastain will do in a pinch.