Stacia Kane has a knack for writing damaged characters. Chess Putnam, from her Downside Ghosts series, is a high-functioning junkie (and ghostbuster) with a knee-breaker of a boyfriend. While reading, there were times I would have to close my eyes and take a deep breath, as Chess made one staggeringly bad choice after another. Yet I honestly love her, and her bad choices, because everything she does flows convincingly from both her faults and her strengths. In Made For Sin, Kane introduces us to private investigator E.L. Speare, who, like Chess, is struggling with a few personal demons. Unlike Chess, this demon happens to be the literal kind.
Speare has a demon in his head. It’s been there since he was a teenager, and it demands to be fed, riding him to commit at least one mortal sin a day. If he doesn’t feed the beast, it cracks out and asserts control, taking the sins it needs in the most depraved way possible. Speare lives in Las Vegas, of course; where else but Sin City? Kane draws her Vegas with all the casual depravity the city is infamous for, with aging Mafiosi, pick pockets, safe-crackers, fences, compromised cops, chorus girls, and thieves rounding out the cast. But here, with a twist: the crime families are steeped in the occult, and outfitted with darker magics than the glitter and glamour of a city designed to part you from your money posthaste.
Speare is the son of a chorus girl. While he’s not entirely sure who his father is, “Uncle Laz” is the likely candidate. Neither is willing to claim the relationship, though for different, and ultimately antagonistic, reasons. At the start of Made For Sin, Speare is called in by his Uncle Laz to solve a problem: Laz’s right-hand man has turned up dead, minus his right arm. The limb was severed using a demon-sword, a dark magical object. Speare is partnered with the thief Ardeth Coyne, daughter of a legendary Vegas thief, and the game is afoot. So to speak.
Speare and Ardeth knock sparks off each other, but their affair is complicated by the beast in his head. He’s known for the casual hookup because, as he observes, anonymous sex is one of the deadly sins that isn’t actually deadly, and everyone can have a good time. But actually caring for someone? The beast is always there to twist and pervert every honest human emotion. Speare has done terrible things to feed the beast, things he knows he’s ultimately accountable for, but he can only live with so much guilt. His fear of letting the demon get at those he cares for keeps him well and truly alone.
The demon inside is a slippery metaphor: does it work like an addiction, a craving for the destructive in its myriad forms? Is it a personification of his id-based impulses, the dark self given form? Either way, despite his tenuous control over his body and his actions, the beast rules Speare’s life. Even knowing his struggle and his pain, I had real reservations about our (anti-)hero: it’s possible this demon business is a con, and he’s just a terrible person. It’s something he thinks with regularity himself, terrified he’s just as bad as his actions; intent only matters so much. This is precisely why I love Kane’s characters: they manifest a deep and riveting moral ambivalence, acted out in dark and magical worlds.