A long time ago, I was an active member of the Camarilla Fan Club. I think I might still be a member now that I think about it, but I haven’t played in a game in like 8 years? One of my least favorite things about the franchise was how the global chronicle tended to drift towards “Super Friends, But We Dress Dark And Sometimes the DM Makes Our Characters Drink Blood (Because He’s an Asshole).” One of my *favorite* things about it was how player creativity could clash with at times gritty modern fantasy to create personal stories that bled between different players (pun not intended.)
William C. Markham’s Mason Gray series really feels like it falls into the later. It comes off as a gritty detective story that starts out so heavy handed that it is practically a parody, which helps set the tone of the humor when the bad things happens. It’s ultimately a story about a detective that hasn’t so much bitten off more than he can chew as it is a character who has been bitten by more than he can swallow.
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Earl Mason Gray is a disgraced Chicago Police Officer turned private detective. He’s a little neurotic, and he’s the sort of guy who isn’t afraid to bend the rules to get the result he needs and then hopes the consequences don’t break after the fact. He works as part of an agency but a lot of his work is decisively solo.
A dead body in his apartment leads Mason on an unusual cat-and-mouse chase as he attempts to discover a missing woman who has political ties with a city alderman, tying into real estate fraud and slave trafficking and the life of Mason’s friends being placed on the line. In between it all, Mason himself comes off as competent enough to get himself out of trouble but just incompetent enough to keep finding himself tripping into it. It helps, in some ways, that while Mason is a solid detective and a loyal friend his methods come off as just unlikeable enough that when he finds himself in trouble the reader will be concerned but not horrified. Some characters deserve to get their come-uppance, after all.
The story beats take a while to get to their supernatural elements, but at least in this they aren’t heavily used. Solid detective work and creative thinking take the front seat in this story, while legendary creatures who can move faster than the eye are merely a bit of a quiet but firm backseat driver. This is great not just for the grittiness of the novel, but for helping firmly ground it in locales in and near Chicago. I can’t tell if Mr. Markham has lived in the suburbs or simply did his research, and frankly that’s the way it should be.
I feel like the worst thing I could say about this book is that some of the heavy handed story beats are familiar. That’s it. Not even “done before,” just “familiar.” Also, this first book is kind of short at 154 pages, not including the extra chapters from the second book in the series. There’s also a clear Dresden Files influence in the style of writing, which I’d argue is a good thing, but some mileages may vary.
Overall, this is a fairly easy book to recommend for those who are into the modern fantasy genre and are looking for a grittier detective noir style story. Those of us with even a passing familiarity with Chicago will appreciate some of the light that is shed on the Mud City, the clever use of puns and descriptions is sure to be a hit with those who enjoy this type of thing, and the fact that the fantasy aspect of the world stays in the shadow until needed it certain to be seen as a solid stroke of storytelling.
Missing: a Mason Gray Case was written by William C. Markham (whom I know from Tiktok! Hey Mr. Markham!) and is listed at 180 pages. It can be purchased from Amazon in ebook format for $2.99, is also available in hardcover and paperback edition, and can be read at no additional cost as part of a Kindle Unlimited subscription.