more reading

Early this morning (don’t ask) I finished Grave Peril, the third book in Jim Butcher‘s modern supernatural detective series, The Dresden Files.

I picked up the first book in the line, Storm Front, late last year, and after devouring the novel in a short period of time I snapped up the subsequent titles as far as the sixth book, Blood Rites.

The hero of Butcher’s series is Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden, the only wizard in Chicago who advertises in the Yellow Pages. He makes his living as a consultant for the city’s police department in “unusual cases”, as well as helping out the few people who are desperate enough to hire him (he won’t do divorces).

Each book revolves around a central supernatural threat: a black magician in the first novel, werewolves in the second book, and ghosts in the third. Woven into the stories are a cast of recurring characters such as the Bianca, the head of the Red Court of vampires, Michael, a knight and champion of God, Lea, Harry’s wicked Faerie Godmother, Susan, his sometimes girlfriend and reporter for the trash occult press, Bill, Harry’s occult expert that’s a spirit that inhabits a skull in his basement, and Karrin Murphy, the tough no-nonsense director of the police Special Investigations department who has the unhappy job of dealing with all the weird cases in Chicago.

The books are all written from Harry’s point of view, and they are fast-paced, populated with unusual but realistic characters, and are hugely entertaining. While there are plenty of supernatural and occult events in the novel, what makes them enjoyable is the intersection of these happenings with the mundane world. Characters live in the real world, have natural reactions to the awful things that happen, and learn to cope with the bizarre (and deadly) situations that occur.

Butcher is not afraid to put Harry through the mill. The wizard gets into terrible trouble all the time. Partly because Harry is written as a character with an absolute moral compass who has a chivalrous streak. This is great from the perspective of plot because it lands him in the middle of problems again and again, but it alienates him from his friends at times because in his romantic rush to protect people he sometimes lies to them. Not surprisingly his line of work brings with it trust issues, and his relationships suffer. Being a friend of Harry’s can be dangerous.

Butcher’s central premise is not original, but as with most entertaining projects it is his execution of the premise that elevates it from average to memorable. The Dresden worldview is skillfully established, characters are complex and often irritatingly stubborn, the action is fast, and exposition is weaved into the story seamlessly without ever bringing the plot to a screeching halt.

I was unsurprised to learn that the books have been optioned. Paul Blackthorne has been cast to play Harry in the Dresden Files TV movie for the SciFi channel that will air this year. If it is well received it should become a series. Actor James Masters turned down the role since it would likely involve a five-year relocation to Toronto to shoot the show. Since Butcher is lashing out the Dresden novels at a furious pace then there should be plenty of work for the TV programme to plunder.

There is a lot of material out there like this at the moment. I just caught the first episode of the American series Supernatural, which has this kind of flavour to it. There is an insatiable public appetite for the weird and the scary, and how people cope with unnatural forces intruding into their lives. I could posit reasons to do with the unstable and complex world in which we live, but these kinds of stories have been around forever.

The important thing is that the creator/writer puts a new spin on the material, and can hook us into the world with three-dimensional characters. That is not an easy trick, and it is why novels like The Dresden Files are popular (Jim Butcher has his own convention this year: ButcherCon), grabs attention, and are optioned for TV or the big screen.

I’m looking forward to reading the fourth book in the series, Summer Knight, and watching the TV movie. I hope the adaptation to the small screen will be successful, and will be a worthy reworking of the source texts.