I finally got a chance to read one of Graham Masterton's most recent novels, The 5th Witch, and I thought I'd share some thoughts about it! (In fact, there's an even more recent novel, House of Bones, which I'm going to get ASAP.)
The tale begins with the bizarre deaths of 3 undercover police officers. While trying to gain incriminating evidence about one of the city's crime bosses, they are burned to death in their car -- but only after spitting up a stomach full of cockroaches each. Detective Dan Fisher quickly realizes that their deaths were no accident -- and not even a natural death. Each of the three major crime bosses in Los Angeles now has a mysterious woman accompanying him, using sinister powers to further his goals. The city is plagued by unexplained and gruesome deaths, and the police themselves are subjugated under the power of the three witches -- and a mysterious fourth witch who follows them (and what about 'the 5th witch'?). Detective Fisher works to uncover the weaknesses of the four witches before he is killed, and must overcome not only his own ignorance on the subject but the skepticism of his colleagues.
The book is certainly enjoyable, and is very much a typical Masterton story: almost too typical, in that it contains what I consider to be some of Masterton's weakest story aspects as well as his strongest. On the weaker side, there isn't much attempt to make sympathetic or realistic characters. Detective Fisher doesn't seem to have much of a personality beyond a tragic event in his past. The motivations of the crime lords, and the witches, seem rather cartoonish: they are evidently only motivated by power. It is never explained how the alliance between the witches and the crime lords came about in the first place, either.
If you get past the rather vacuous background of the story, it is a fast-paced, fun and gruesome ride. Masterton's witches are not the stereotypical pointy-hat cackling broom-riding type that only exist for laughs, but devilish, incredibly powerful, utterly amoral and completely lacking restraint. Lots of ghastly spells are cast, and each of the witches comes from a different background and has a unique array of demonic tools at her disposal. Seeing what they can do is much of the fun of a tale like this.
What is it about witches that makes them so captivating as characters? My naive impression is that tales of witches arose from a fear of strong-willed, independent women. No doubt there's more to the power of witch tales than this; I'll return in a future post to explore such stories in more detail. In the meantime, I can suggest Masterton's The 5th Witch is an entertaining, quick read, though not one of his best.
One final thing about the book bugged me: it has a bit of a 'twist' ending in the last few paragraphs. It may just be me, but I just didn't understand it. I'm not sure if it was supposed to be humorous, mysterious, or horrifying.