STORM FRONT by Jim Butcher: a Dresden Files reread

Mark Yon has been a reviewer and web administrator at SFFWorld, one of the world’s biggest genre forum sites, for nearly ten years. He has also been on the David Gemmell Awards organisation committee for the last two years. In this series of rereads, Mark will guide us below through the whole of Jim Butcher’s fabulous Dresden Files series as we count down to the new hardback at the end of July.

And here’s where we commence the series.

Storm Front starts in typical film noir mode. With the sentence ‘I heard the mailman approach my office door, half an hour earlier than usual’, we are introduced to Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden. And he’s the only person in Chicago’s director enquiries listed under ‘Wizard’.

However, this Harry is not the ‘Potter’ type. As we see from his advertisement, his stock in trade is: ‘Lost items found. Paranormal Investigations. Consulting. Reasonable rates. No love potions, endless purses or other entertainment’. Harry is more of your paranormal dealing, insoluble crime-solving type of guy, and the only wizard used as a consultant by the Chicago Police Special Investigations Department. They need him when dealing with the demons and ghouls that live in the strange other-world of the Nevernever.

Harry is in his typically seedy office when a phone call from Chicago’s SI chief, Lieutenant Karrin Murphy, involves him in a double murder investigation. The male victim is a bodyguard for the local mobster, Johnny Marcone. The other victim is Jennifer Stanton, an escort from the Velvet Room, a gentleman’s club run by one of Chicago’s vampire families.

Things get really interesting when Harry discovers that the murders involve black magic, and a black mage is behind them. And more worryingly, though Harry doesn’t know who it is, the black mage knows him. And is out to get him.

OK – you get the idea. Detective / film noir style novel, looks like Bogart or Jim Rockford, reads like a Raymond Chandler novel but with added X Files style stuff, (vampires, demons, magic), right? At first glance, you could almost write a checklist of the features here that are essential for a fantasy crime novel – dark, urban environment; rain and wind; downtrodden detective; magic realism; spooky creatures; dirty dealings etc, etc.

Before you look away though, Jim Butcher’s version is a lot of fun. The dry, knowing humour of Jim’s protagonist is a real winner and as the tale is told in the first person, quickly engaging the reader. Jim clearly knows that he’s messing with familiar territory, yet has a great time with it. I think that’s what I liked most about the book.

To keep the reader further amused, Harry has an charming troupe of assistants – there’s Harry’s cat (named Mister), whose main job seems to be to perform Garfield-like functions, Bob, Harry’s reference guide, who also happens to be an air-spirit kept in a skull with an unhealthy interest in sex, and Toot-toot, a faerie guide who will do almost anything for a piece of bread with milk and honey. There’s also Morgan – Harry’s Warden for the White Council. Morgan is his wizard police-tag, if you like, designed to stop Harry from being of any use magically, whose bumblings are a lighter counterpoise to the darker goings-on in the book. Such a wide variety of engaging characters allow the reader to see fun in life’s difficulties, for Harry’s life can be pretty tough at times.

Using humour can be difficult when dealing with horror – it’s meant to scare people, after all – but Jim managed to make me chuckle and creep me out at the same time. Whilst laughing at Harry’s misfortunes with technology (being a wizard means that modern stuff doesn’t always work that well), I was also simultaneously thrilled at the sheer unpleasantness of characters such as Bianca, the vampire Mistress. To switch from humour to horror in a matter of sentences is a clever trick, and not always well done. It’s not an easy thing to do and can easily go wrong, but it worked for me here.

So: sex, magic, humour, vampires, demons and a wizard: what more could you want? This is a great start to the series and introduces settings and characters that you’ll meet again in later books. And what’s more, the series gets even better after this!