It is difficult to write a mash-up between dark fantasy and a police procedural. There must always be a temptation to bring in a deus-ex-machina to solve difficult plot points, as well as to keep the mystery fair, so that a reader can make a good, educated guess as to how the mystery will be resolved. Irwin accomplishes the blending of the genres to excellent effect in The Broken Ones by Stephen M. Irwin.
Irwin tells us in the first three pages of the book that Gray Wednesday was three years ago, on September 10 (the year is unstated). That was the day the earth’s magnetic poles switched, causing every plane then in the air to plummet to the earth when their navigation systems failed. All post-Cold War satellites similarly failed and fell, making global telecommunications cease functioning. The world plunged into an economic depression, with unemployment as high as 30% in some countries — at least those where data is obtainable; Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and a number of other countries have closed their borders completely. Energy is in short supply and manufacturing has taken a downturn. Food is difficult to come by, setting off a spike in inflation. Weather patterns have changed dramatically, with average temperatures increasing by seven degrees Fahrenheit. Governments are still in place, but they’re struggling.
But the worst change to come with the shifting of the poles was the ghosts. Every person has a ghost, and only that person can see his or her own ghost. Some of the ghosts are familiar faces to the person they haunt; some are strangers. But that ghost is there all the time, watching, not through normal eyes, but spirals that constantly turn, like whirlpools.
Oscar Mariani is a police officer in this unhappy world, and is perhaps even unhappier than the average citizen. He is divorced, but still loves the ex-wife who has since remarried and had a child. He has a dead end job in a squad called the Barelies, so called because the real name of their unit, the Nine-Ten Investigation Unit, sounds enough like “19” that they remind coarse-minded cops of women who are barely old enough to consent to sex (that is, they’re “barely legal”). The unit is named for the September 10 addition of ghosts to the world, which have caused their own sort of insanity. The ghosts drive some people to try to murder them, and often someone else gets in the way. The police hate this unit, which they see as relieving guilty people of proper punishment. And sometimes it is, in fact, an excuse, as in the crime Oscar is called to investigate in the first chapter of the book.
Oscar has wound up in this dead-end because in his previous position with the Ethical Standards Division he went after a corrupt but powerful fellow officer, Inspector Haig, and failed to bring him down. His position is worse, and Haig is even more powerful, than would have been the case had Oscar never made the attempt. And now it appears that the Nine-Ten Investigation Unit is about to be eliminated, having dwindled over time to Oscar and one other officer, Neve de Rossa.
But they catch one last case. A woman’s body — at least what remains of it — has been discovered at a public works plant, caught in a huge industrial auger. Her face has been torn off by the machinery, as have several of her limbs, and it does not seem like it will be possible to identify her. On her stomach has been carved a complex symbol, or series of symbols, in a seven-pointed star. Oscar believes this symbol is a sufficient connection to the occult to require his unit to keep the case, to the chagrin of Neve, the anger of Haig and the resigned go-ahead from their boss, Moechtar.
Things start to go awry in the investigation almost immediately. First, the body is shipped off for cremation before an autopsy can be performed. Oscar, suspecting deliberate sabotage, gets to the body at the last moment before it can be consigned to the fire, and takes it to a butcher shop, where a rather shady friend does an autopsy. He also closely photographs the symbol carved into the woman’s flesh, and undertakes to find out what it can mean.
The novel takes off like a rocket from there, but I’ll leave the many plot turns for you to discover. The plot is complicated and convoluted, but it never seems to be so for the mere purpose of complication; to the contrary, each twist arises organically from the investigation. When coincidence raises its head, as it seems to do in most mysteries, it does not seem artificial, but again, proceeds naturally from what has gone before. Irwin has much firmer control of his much more complicated plot in this, his sophomore effort after The Dead Path (reviewed here). Oscar is an excellent character, a man of his new world, a man of what seems to be extreme integrity in a world that no longer seems to consider that a positive trait. The atmospherics of the novel are intense and well-drawn, with the grayness of that Gray Monday pervading Oscar’s world in every way. But best of all, this is both a full-fledged mystery and a complete horror novel. Irwin plays fair with his readers within the confines of the universe he has created, down to the last detail.