“…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.