In writing a novel, when in doubt, have two guys come through the door with guns.”
― Raymond Chandler
Do the Genre Mash! (or How to Write a Bestselling Book/Hit Movie) :
Genre mashups are a great way to breathe life into established genres. And it’s fun: just pick a genre—any genre—and then mix with one or two more that have nothing to do with it. Two quick and easy ways to do it are to add take a stock genre where we already know the tropes by heart (western, romantic comedy, etc.) and add supernatural creatures, and/or set it in an unexpected location such as outer space.
Take for example, Shrouds of Darkness—basically Philip Marlow (the hardboiled detective one) meets Angel (the vampire one). It mashes the genres while walking a fine line between dark fantasy and horror.
So what’s the difference between dark fantasy and horror? I’ve heard lots of theories, and read lots of examples. Actually, that last bit is a lie—I’m a complete wuss when it comes to horror anything, so I do my level best to avoid it. The shower scene from Psycho? Any movie involving a chain saw, doll that comes to life (to any sound effect other than Tchaikovsky), clowns, sharks (swimming or tornadoed) or the word Halloween? Never watched a single one. Never will. However, one does not need to see vast numbers of teens get turned into chunky tomato soup in the creepy basement in order to form opinions on the genre, so here goes. The differences between dark fantasy and horror are the following:
- Magic? Dark fantasy’s gotta have it. Sure it can be a thin line. You can have monsters (Game of Thrones) without true horror, and you can have horror without magic (Psycho). But by definition, your dark fantasy is going to include aspects of the paranormal. In either case, magic might be evil, corrupt its users, rob them of their humanity (Voldemort), or demand a heavy price.
- Plot Thickens? In dark fantasy, not so much. There might be a lot of sub-plotty twists and turns, but basically there’s usually a hero who encounters creepy/scary/dangerous situations and lives to tell the tale. Of course if it’s horror, a bunch of (attractive and/or adorable) people will encounter creepy/scary/dangerous situations and get turned into gazpacho.
- Character Development? In dark fantasy, the hero might not be heroic, or perhaps even be downright morally ambiguous, but in the end development is usually limited to mastering some form of magic. In horror, of course, characters are too busy attempting to survive to do much character development.
- Ick Factor? For dark fantasy, sex and violence are usually part of the story. For horror, the sex, violence, gore, and more gore ARE the story.
To sum up? I would say the differences are that dark fantasy has heroes (however flawed) while horror has monsters (however human). How does this play out in a genre mashup like Shrouds of Darkness?
New York has a problem few are aware of. Creatures of myth and darkness prowl the night-shrouded streets, preying on those who won’t be missed. At least, those are the rules. Bodies are turning up, and their deaths are far from natural. Our kind’s existence depends on remaining nothing more than folklore and fairytales, but someone has decided to break the rules. Now it’s my job to stop a conspiracy before it threatens to expose the truth about vampires and werewolves. My name is Leo Malone, and when things go bump in the night, I bump back. If the price is right.
Brooklyn Shadows is a fantastic page-turning action thriller for anyone who enjoys action and laugh out loud banter regardless of genre.
“Don’t be too sure I’m as crooked as I’m supposed to be. That sort of reputation might be good business, bringing high price jobs and making it easier to deal with the enemy.”—Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon, 1942 based on Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 novel)
Leo Malone is a private investigator, a knight in dubiously-rusty armor who is ten times as antisocial and unfriendly as his hardboiled detective models—and a lot more dead, or at least undead. Told mostly in the first person from Leo’s POV, we soon realize his private eye monologue about how detached he is and how little he cares about people doesn’t exactly match up to his actions. When we meet him, in fact, the first two items on his to-do list are to stop an abusive father and a rapist. But just in case we miss that point, Leo muses, “It’s possible, and this is a stretch, the pretense is me not giving a shit. Maybe I am pretending to be a heartless bastard so I can go on doing what I do without becoming a complete basket case.”
Author Brock E. Deskins goes on to check off most of the remaining hardboiled detective tropes:
- Trenchcoat: You just know Leo is a spiritual descendant of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe because he wears a trenchcoat. (Although Leo’s is one of a dozen identical three-thousand dollar coats, each a “custom-made Miguel Caballero bullet resistant trench coat.”)
- Femme fatale: we all know about her—she’s called a “dame” and she has “gams” that defy nature when she appears in our gloomy detective’s even gloomier office with a job for him. In this case, the blonde bombshell comes in the form of Katherine Goldstein, whose father is missing. “Her long golden hair cascades over her shoulders better than halfway to her narrow waist and seems to glow with a light all of its own.”
- Set up to take the fall: Leo knows he’s probably going down, and has a pretty good idea of who is behind it, but just doesn’t know how to be the kind of person who behaves any differently. What he is, though, is pragmatic about how to face the coming doom. “Fortunately, being a pain in the ass is what I do best, and the more I’m a pain in the ass, the more overt they’ll have to get to deal with me.”
- Friendly villain: the real monsters are of course, the ones most like Leo. But in true homage to his film noir roots, Leo works as contract bodyguard for Yuri, a good(ish) bad guy who models himself on The Godfather and stays bought. Leo muses, “I don’t know if I would go so far as to say I like Yuri, but we have a mutual sort of respect for each other. I’m not real quick to judge the lifestyles of others.”
- Girl Friday: For most hard-boiled detectives, an assistant is out of the question. A lucky few like Maltese Falcon’s Sam Spade, though, do have the “office wife” to shelter, mother, and cater to their every whim. Leo? Not so much. His occasional assistant is Marvin, a computer genius and would-be badass hampered by the unfortunate circumstances of having a father who is dean of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and a mother who is a world-renowned biologist and Nobel nominee.” [NOTE: Leo must have used his vampire mojo to find out that one, since the Nobel committees do not divulge the names of nominees.]
- MacGuffin: This could be anything—Jason’s Golden Fleece, the LOTR rings, Indiana Jones’ Arc of the Covenant, and especially hard-boiled detective Marlow’s Maltese Falcon statue—an object that moves the story along without actually being important in itself. In this case, the macguffin comes in the person of mild-mannered Martin, accountant to the mob, and missing father of blonde bombshell Katherine. Oh, and… a werewolf.
- Bittersweet ending? Don’t be ridiculous. This is just the first of a series which already stretches to three volumes.
Although this book got off to a slow start with a fairly massive info dump about the flavor of vampires and werewolves in Leo’s world, it did pick up with plenty of fast-paced and bloody action, accompanied by lots of suitably snarky observations from Leo. I just had a few problems with some of it. For one thing, there was the racism. Some of Leo’s comments about “squints” (Asians) he attempts to dismiss by playing the age card, claiming that’s what they called them when he was growing up. But he clearly knows better, and in fact refers to the rapist he stops as “black” (instead of the term we all know he would have heard those eighty years past)—although, he doesn’t ever bother to name the races of (presumably) white characters. Women seem to fall into the angel or whore categories, usually by haircolor. In fact, the vampiress who turns him has black hair, while the golden-haired Katherine is a smart and beautiful and willing to sleep with him without any of that annoying wooing or foreplay.
But for me, the missing pieces that usually make all this genre-mashing palatable are humor and a little humility. If the protagonist isn’t just so unstoppably able to defeat every single threat with literally superhuman acts of strength, I might legitimately feel more tension over the outcome. And if there’s a sense that everyone tacitly accepts their whole preposterous world is built on the fluffiest of fantasy, and is thus willing to laugh at themselves and their situations, the reader is so much more likely to willingly suspend disbelief and go along with the fun. At least, this reader is.
Still, if you’re looking for a fast-paced action story with plenty of blood, a clever plot, standard tropes, and comfortably-familiar characters, then Shrouds of Darkness might be for you. It’s certainly those features which will have me round up my three and a half star rating to four stars for online reviews.
*I received this book for free from the publisher or author to facilitate an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.*