Is the act of writing a book where you subvert genre tropes itself a trope? Because that seems to be happening a lot lately, in both short fiction and longer works.
I guess a lot of authors are doing it because it works, and because it can be funny. But there’s a lot to be said for putting your own spin on the tropes themselves — not quite subverting them, but being aware of their power and using them for good, instead of evil. That’s what author KT Katzmann has done in his debut novel, Murder with Monsters.
Picture it, if you will: New York City, present-day, but an alternate universe where a group of — for lack of a better term — patron saints oversee all the monsters we’ve read about in other media. Gargoyles, werewolves, harpies, they’re all here. And so are vampires, golems, and sasquatches, which are the three main non-human races in this particular book.
Told from the POV of Detective Mildred Heavewater, a vampire who, in her words, is almost old enough to collect social security (despite having been turned at age 16), the book opens on a domestic dispute between a golem (the cleverly-named Mr. Loew) and said golem’s wife. But it soon becomes a murder mystery — hence the title — as Mildred and her partner Arthur “Newbie” Newville are called in on a murder committed by a golem.
Let me step to one side here and fill you in on golems, if you don’t know what they are: they’re creatures made of clay, brought to life by holy words, and can only do what the words say. Kind of like Asimov’s laws of robotics.
In Katzmann’s world, golems simply cannot commit murder. It’s ensured by their patron saint, Tammuz. But the evidence points to a golem having done the deed. Which, by the way, occurred at a yeshiva school in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn (and yes, the author does reference the Crown Heights riot). The victim was a rabbinical student, and Mildred herself grew up Jewish before being turned.
Are you sensing a theme here? You’ll catch it in the first few pages of the book. Mildred, being Jewish (and also a vampire, which is an interesting dichotomy in a group that isn’t allowed to consume blood), sees everything through the lens of her upbringing and her attempt to come to terms with both her vampirism and her Judaism. The book is full of clever Jewish humor as well as pitch-perfect characterization. I grew up Jewish, and spent almost ten years married into an Orthodox family; I know of which I speak. For this reason sometimes the jokes fall a little flat — I read several of them to my fiancee, who grew up in the Christian faith, and she didn’t find them as funny — but enough of them are hits that the occasional miss is okay.
At its core, Murder with Monsters is a detective story, with all of the trappings therein — including plenty of misdirects, subplots, and a romance arc for the main character. Because Mildred is quite taken with the new medical examiner, Lance Levant. He happens to be a sasquatch, and Katzmann has developed their race in a way that I haven’t seen before (though it might just be a logical extension of the fact that no one has actually seen a sasquatch). He does the same level of racial development with the mythological and horror-genre creatures in the book: his vampires have strengths and weaknesses (one of which I’m pretty sure comes directly out of Terry Pratchett’s Carpe Jugulum), his harpies and gargoyles and headless horsemen have enough insight into their lives that they’re whole characters, and his golems act in a way that is completely believable. As do his humans, by the way.
The book is funny and reads quickly. If it does have a flaw, it’s that I personally didn’t buy into the main villain’s motivation, although it’s very neatly laid-out by Heavewater in the final sequence. Good news, though: it didn’t sour me on the book in the same way that I felt after slogging through Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian only to get two pages of Dracula and then it was over (sorry for the spoiler, but the book is ten years old; I think it’s fair game). It’s full of clever, creative references; dry wit and genre awareness; and even a celebrity cameo that I truly wasn’t expecting.
Read this book. You’ll like it. I’m looking forward to a sequel.
Murder with Monsters is available now on Amazon. Also, in the spirit of full disclosure, the novelist and I have been friends since 1996. I’m about 90 percent sure that I introduced him to his wife, come to think of it.
Note to Parents: This book contains adult language, violence, and one scene of nudity. I would probably rate it a hard PG-13 or a soft-R. It’s safe for mature teens. Of course, you should use your own best judgment when it comes to your children.
About the Reviewer
Josh Roseman (not the trombonist; the other one) lives in Georgia. His fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Escape Pod, and the Crossed Genres anthology Fat Girl in a Strange Land, and is forthcoming in Stupefying Stories. His voice has been heard around the fiction podosphere as well, including here on Escape Pod. Find him online at roseplusman.com, or on Twitter @listener42, and check out his column “Six of the Best” over @nerderypublic.