Genre-bending murder mystery blends magic with communism

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When a magician is murdered, his punk rock acolyte must use what he has taught her to find the killer. Golden Dawn is armed with her orange mohawk, her avowed status as a “fucking genius” and her understanding that there is no such thing as a coincidence. In a boom-and-bust town during the Cold War, she fights Reagan with Crowley and mixes magic with Marx. The result is “Love is the Law” by local Hugo Award-nominated author Nick Mamatas, a novel that almost defies description.

“Love is the Law” is a murder mystery — technically. It begins with a dead body and the question of who did it. It also begins with the understanding that some drugs open the doors of perception while others slam them shut. It dwells on Cold War politics but reminds the reader that the origin of all change in the last century is 1968. It is an occult novel that pokes fun at the occult, calling Crowley a drug-addled fraud when it’s true and a genius when it’s due. It’s the story of a young woman who does not fall in love, who uses her sexuality callously and without attaching importance to it and treats herself as the final authority on all moral matters. It does not end the way a murder mystery is supposed to end. “Love is the Law” is an enigma.

“It’s a noir,” says author Nick Mamatas. “There’s such a pull in mystery right now to include a supernatural element, like a ghost leaves a clue. ‘Love is the Law’ has fantastical elements, but they’re not really supernatural. More noir than any of that.”

Magic plays a central role in the novel, but it’s of the ceremonial variety rather than the romantic or vampiric sort. Communism likewise appears center stage but does so in a way that is more theoretical than practical. Mamatas is skillful in writing about both of these topics, which are often thick with jargon and elusive to the layperson. He delivers them through the damaged discourse of a nuanced main character who is making her way without money or power toward some kind of truth.

In a particularly unusual turn, Mamatas writes Dawn as heavier than average, a fact that changes the way she looks but not the way she feels about herself. When asked about this choice, the author explains, “A lot of women heroes are very not fat. Like, we talk about their abs, their panties hanging off their thigh bones, and I said, ‘I want to write a fat girl.’ ” Dawn’s weight does not define her, but it does save her in one moment of danger. It’s a bold choice — one that readers do not see often.

The climactic moments of the book are handled brilliantly, with an impeccably clear visual flow of events in even frenzied fight scenes. When asked why he chose to write such physical violence for a female protagonist, Mamatas scoffed a little. “A lot of stories, even tough chick stories, you always get that bit where she’s going to get raped or she has to fight a strong dude. Of course she’s tough, but the thing, is her opponents aren’t tough. They’re a lot of middle-class types, so they’re not prepared for her violence. She’s just more prepared because she’s a tough person,” he said. That toughness carries Dawn through, but the ending is anything but predictable for the average tough heroine.

So who should read “Love is the Law”? “People who like noir. Fat girls and people who like fat girls, which should be everybody. People who are on the left. People who believe in magic. And people who want a different experience. People who want to explore should read this book.”

If you have a choice and if it’s not assigned to you, I suggest you read this and not that; unless you’re devoted to them, do not read Aleister Crowley, Leon Trotsky or Karl Marx. None of them make much sense without a magician to teach you. Instead, read “Love is the Law.” Chances are, you’re on that list somewhere.

Meg Elison covers literature. Contact her at [email protected]

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