Cataline Recommends: Dresden Files Dead Beat

“…down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor—by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.

“He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him.

“The story is this man’s adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in.”

-Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder

In the mid-1990s Jim Butcher was a young college graduate, working the night shift and attending Deborah Chester’s writing course during the day. In those days, Butcher was a ‘pantser’ and like all of his breed looked down on ‘plotters’ as hacks who could only be creative by using cookie-cutter templates. Chester was teaching her class how to plot stories. He decided to show her what was what by following her formula to the letter. Knowing in his deepest heart that the results would be as shallow as they were fallow. He put pen to paper in this quest and Harry Dresden was alive.

Butcher has become a multiple New York Times Number One Best Selling Author using this cookie-cutter template so I guess he’s shown his old teacher the error of her ways.

Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series was originally inspired by Laurell K. Hamilton. This might shock any of you who have actually read Hamilton’s Anita Blake books but there was a time that they were a lot less “out there.” You can see Dresden’s DNA in those early works of Hamilotn’s.

Like any young author, Jim Butcher’s project was drastically over-ambitious in scope. The Dresden Files is meant to be a twenty book series and he will be publishing book sixteen this summer.

If you are interested in this series and haven’t read it yet, I would recommend Dead Beat which is not the first book in the series but the seventh. I know that may seem a little odd but I think it’s a fair way to judge if you are interested enough in this world to commit yourself to reading the whole thing. If you aren’t interested in entire the whole Dresden catalog, you’ve at least read an excellent book.

Here are the reasons why.

(A) Dead Beat is a more mature work by Butcher. The early Dresden books were good but this the work of an author who has had enough “time in the bottle.”

(B) It was written from the ground up to be an introduction to the Dresden-verse. Dead Beat was Butcher’s first hardcover book. That means a lot more promotion, a prominent position on the “Just Published” table and in consequence a lot more new readers.

(C) Butcher had actually gotten to know his setting by then. He had more or less picked Chicago as a default because Washington and New York were off-limits for various reasons. He didn’t want to set in LA and Detroit is Detroit. But he had never lived in the Windy City. Consequently, his early works had some errors that were pretty obvious to the natives. Chi-Town doesn’t exactly have a downtown for example and he was frequently getting travel times between points wrong. But by Dead Beat, he knew the city well enough to get it right.

(D) Zombie dinosaur. I mean, come on, Zombie dinosaur!

Harry Dresden easily fits Chandler’s description of the gumshoe detective. It’s a tried and true formula. You can’t argue with it. But what this means and what a lot of people miss, (to include Butcher himself from time to time) is that the Dresden Files aren’t urban fantasy in their deepest hearts they are mysteries.

In the early books Butcher was a little formulaic in that regard. “It started with a dame. It always starts with a dame.” He’d gotten over that by book seven, although it actually does start with a dame, she’s just not alive all.

Quick note on vampires in the Dresden-verse. There are three varieties. White court. Red Court. And Black Court. The Whites are succubi and incubi who feed off of the life-force of people. The Reds drink blood. The Black Court are straight-up liches and while they drink blood they actually feed off of death. The wizards of the White Council (Harry’s group) are at war with all of the vampire courts at the moment.

Mavra, queen of the Black Court, blackmails Harry into finding a book called the Word of Kemmler. Kemmler was the most powerful necromancer that ever lived. Harry has to deliver the book by Halloween night. Problem; he ain’t the only one that wants it. Kemmler’s disciples want the book themselves.

Early in the story, Harry goes to the morgue to ask his friend Butters if there has been any particularly strange deaths recently. Doctor Waldo Butters is a medical examiner. Turns out there has been but before the corpse gets a proper look-see they are attacked by the first of Kemmler’s disciples.

Now, Butters up until this book was little more than a background character but since Butcher was writing this book as an introduction he needed an exposition character. A role that the polka loving Waldo Butters filled admirably. Yes, Butters is a complete and total nerd to include coke bottle glasses. A lot of this story is Butters character arc from coward to hero. You as the audience are seeing Harry’s world through Butters eyes, even though like any good Chandler detective story, the Dresden Files are told through a first-person perspective.

Throughout this story you are introduced to all the major characters of the Dresden Files, ** Johnny Marcone the head of the Chicago Outfit, Harry’s half brother Thomas the White Court vampire, Billy Borden who leads a pack of friendly were-wolves. Bob the Skull. The Fairy Queen of Air and Darkness, Mouse the giant Foo-dog. And local Chicago celebrity; Sue the T-Rex skeleton who will leave her usual perch in the Field Museum and do battle with the forces of darkness on Halloween night.

If you haven’t read any of the Dresden books but have thought about giving the series a shot. Start with Dead Beat. If you prefer audio, that version was an excellent production featuring James Marsters (Spike from Buffy) who does a great job with the read.

Cataline Recommends with Enthusiasm.

*At least so far as I know it’s still coming out in July. Likely the bricks and mortar stores will be open again by then.

** At this time anyway. Several more were added later.

12 thoughts on “Cataline Recommends: Dresden Files Dead Beat

  1. A fellow Dresden enthusiast! I knew you were good people. Dead Beat is freaking awesome. And Jim is the best. Maybe a bit of a squish, but he seems like a genuinely decent guy.

    It’s been a while since I reread the series but I think it’s time. I mean, I just checked, and learned the release schedule for the next entry in the Dresden Files…after 5+ years with no new Dresden Files, we get #16 & #17 in the same freaking year! I need to refresh my memory.

    Side note: there’s going to be *23-24* books in the series. Don’t make it shorter than it’s already going to be, dangit. Because when it comes to Dresden, 23 books isn’t enough.


    1. I got the twenty from an old podcast with Butcher. I assume that was his original goal line.

      And frankly I suspect he’s more than a little reluctant to hang up Harry’s guns. The cash cow is still giving good milk after all.


      1. Yeah, the 23-24 comes from the “final apocalyptic trilogy” he plans for the end of the series.

        I really enjoy Dresden, so I have hopes that he’ll stretch it out further, but I also hope he doesn’t sacrifice quality for quantity. He doesn’t seem like he’d really be capable of it though, he’s not mercenary enough, and he cares too much about the worlds he creates.

        Have you tried Codex Alera or The Cinder Spires? I bought Cinder Spires during my withdrawal from Dresden, and it was actually pretty darn good steampunk. Codex Alera has a literal secret king, but it’s a fun fantasy series with an interesting magic system…and Roman legions.


  2. I’m currently re-reading the series now and I have Small Favor next to me as I write this. Glad to see you enjoy the series too. I originally read the series before learning about the Socio-Sexual Hierarchy, and my current read of the series leaves me with the uncomfortable feeling that Mr. Butcher, Harry Dresden, or both, are classic Gammas. Snarky responses all the time, women throwing themselves at Dresden, etc. It’s still an enjoyable read, and Dead Beat is my favorite novel of the series (who doesn’t want to ride a dinosaur?), but the Gamma aspect is more off-putting now than before.


    1. Yes, Harry’s Gamma nature (though I didn’t know to call it that then) was the main thing that turned me off the series, though it took about a dozen books, so there’s a lot of good stuff aside from that. At the beginning, it felt more like Mike Hammer-style cynical wit, but as the series goes on, it becomes more self-pitying and Gamma, with a lot of faux self-deprecation. The worst aspect of that is the fedora-scented atheism. As Harry moves beyond mere ghosts and vampires to literal demons and angels, his stance of neutrality becomes more and more nonsensical and feels like the author showing through.

      Having said that, I very much enjoyed the first 10-12 books. I was really hooked with the introduction of Michael Carpenter in book 3. As a truly good, Christian family man, he’s a great balance to the aspects of Harry’s character I mentioned above. Unfortunately, though Butcher plays the character straight and respectfully, it doesn’t feel like he ever believed in him the way he does Harry, so Michael doesn’t even appear in all the books. As the series goes on, Butcher finds ways to nerf Michael until he’s kind of a minor character with a daughter for Harry to be weird about.

      My recommendation would be to start with book 1 so you get all the context, and read until you can’t take Harry anymore.


      1. One of the interesting quirks of the Dresden stories, which SyFy channel ‘s TV series disastrously reversed, is that Harry Dresden is self-deprecating in his own head. In what would be the “voice-over” of a show, Harry Dresden continually minimizes and doubts his virtues: his magical ability, his skills, his strengths, etc. But he plugs away, and keeps going; “too stubborn to quit” even though he knows he’s outclassed.

        And then, like Frodo, against all hope, and at great cost, he saves the day. So the growing respect and loyalty good men and women in his life have for him make sense. And again, in the interior monologues, Dresden “knows” he doesn’t deserve it, but stubbornly tries to live up to their trust anyway, because they deserve it.

        Something a lot on men don’t get, and young women don’t appreciate, is that competence is sexy. It’s catnip; and, if you’re the one capable guy in a room full of soy-infused bug-men you get to be The Man to the ladies present then, even if you’re stout and balding. Skill stacks. Not just for long-term employment prospects.

        So SyFy = uber gamma. Book: Not so much.

        Also, in the Dresden-verse a lot of the babes use sex as a weapon, because they know if they can get Harry Dresden to punch that ticket it will corrupt him and make him less of a threat. I leave it to the reader to decide how realistic that is.


  3. I disagree, Dresden is not a Gamma.

    Gamma heroes have several reliable defining traits, that I haven’t seen in the Dresden Files.

    The biggest trait of a gamma hero is that his power is a Gift-That-Makes-Him-Uniquely-Special. However this gift is usually very nebulous in nature and he almost never uses it except to occasionally take it out and demonstrate it’s power. And then he puts it away again once the Alphas have been cowed by it.

    The second biggest trait of the Gamma hero is that he will win the extra special girl away from the underserving Alpha by a passionate declaration of his true and worthy love for her. This never happens in the Dresden Files but very much did happen in Monster Hunter International.

    The romance between Dresden and Sheila Starr in Dead Beat is not remotely Gamma.

    Last, I just don’t see Alpha resentment. Harry will get in an Alpha’s face but it’s combative in nature. Gamma heroes aren’t combative, even in their fiction. It’s usually their girlfriend that defeats the Alpha by kicking him in the nuts.

    Now, there are some eye-rollers in the series. Murphy kicks a ludicrous amount of ass for a 5-foot tall woman without any kind of power. Butcher does seem to love him some women warriors, which is I freely admit a very Gamma trait.

    However, it’s also good marketing. Seventy percent of the trad-pub readership is female. Which Butcher knows full well.

    As for the man himself, I am NOT a personal friend of Jim. Butcher but I have met him on a couple of occasions. For what it is worth he strikes me as a Delta male who is also a Libertarian.


    1. Eh, the “oooooooh” she’s a 5′ feisty fighter who can take out a 7′ troll (and not with a sniper rifle) is a guy thing, that some guys have made into a sexy trope. The only women who lurve that are the blue-haired feminists, and if they’re enjoying your books, you have to question where you went wrong. Though the U.S.A. does have the tripe of the beautiful “manly” woman who puts effete Euro-boys to shame: Because all the true-blue fighting Americans are so manly, she is feminine in comparison.


  4. Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series was originally inspired by Laurell K. Hamilton.

    Now that one is news to me. I’d always thought he was writing “what if Goldie kidnapped Harry Potter instead of killing him? In America.”

    Great book talk, by the way. May I steal it to use this summer of I get the opportunity? I will credit or not As you prefer.


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