Dresden Files rang a bell when a buddy of mine recommended it last month, but when he said “It’s like a detective series, but he’s also a wizard”, I was immediately curious. (Plus the fact that, weirdly, he thought of it cuz I’d been telling him about the classic cyberpunk novel Snow Crash.)
Harry Dresden is a well-conceived character. He’s got that Sam Spade swagger, a bit of Friendly Neighborhood Spiderman banter, and takes his work seriously enough that you’re invested in that journey for something more than wanting to know how the magical locked-room-mystery ends.
One of my favorite traits of Harry Dresden is that he has a weak stomach.
Novels in this vein, y’know, always open with a big splashy grisly murder. You don’t send for [INSERT CHARMING ANTI-HERO’S NAME HERE] to investigate a B&E-stolen-TV case. Hell, CSI‘s Quip To Black (thank you Tvtropes. And whoever came up with that:) has been endlessly parodied, and–in one of my favorite riffs–Last Week Tonight points out that these quips are sometimes in horrifically poor taste.
Which brings us back to Harry Dresden.
All of the stories (as I picked up some of the Dresden comics-adaptation<<<<cannot recommend enough.) I’ve read from the D-Files begin with one of those grisly scenes. Well, Proven Guilty starts with an execution by the White Council (the wizarding-order Dresden is part of): a young wizard who has broken one of the seven Laws Of Magic……and gawdamn. Looking back at that opening, for this blog, I see that there is an astoundingly subtle bookending here.
And at all of these scenes, Harry Dresden spills his cookies massively.
Not at the opening of this novel, so…..damn. Flipping back through, letting my essaying legs stretch a bit tonight (as I figure out what my SPUF-voice is gonna be, more consistently.), I’m finding so many good, so many GREAT things.
The following, from Chapter Seventeen of this novel, displays a remarkable sense of that characteristic:
(WARNING!!! EXCERPT BELOW CONTAINS GRAPHIC SHIT)
As my Sight focused on her, I saw more. The girl’s psyche had been savagely mauled, and as I watched her, phantom bruises darkened a few patches of skin that remained, and blood and watery fluids oozed from the rest of her torn flesh. Her mouth was set in a continual, silent wail, and beneath the real-world glaze, her eyes were wide with terror. If there’d been enough left of her behind those eyes, she would have been screaming.
My stomach rolled and I barely spotted a trash can in time to throw up into it.
Murphy crouched down at my side, her hand on my back. “Harry? Are you okay?”
Anger and empathy and grief warred for first place in my thoughts. Across the room, I was dimly conscious of a clock radio warbling to life and dying in a puff of smoke. The room’s fluorescent lights began to flicker as the violent emotions played hell with the aura of magic around me.
That first paragraph might seem excessively gory, but Harry’s reaction to it emphasizes the deeply moral core which underlies all the comedy and intrigue. I’ve only just discovered Jim Butcher (Twitter-handle: @longshotauthor), but am massively impressed by how consistently good these stories are. Great characters, great adventure–great high-concept stuff, with the wizards and vampires and faerie beings.
Most stories with adventure-hungry protagonists tend toward people who are hardened to unusual levels of violence, who can handle shit like this. But Dresden is easily disgusted by the effects of black magic, and similarly disturbed by more human cruelties.
Making space for this kind of rumination isn’t in the playbook for thriller-novels (which these are–and top-notch ones, as well!). James Bond never stops to consider his body-count, because–if the Hero gets blood on his hands–most writers (and the audiences they play to) tend to either justify the kills (the Bad Guys smacked the hero’s girl[or boy-]friend around), or simply move on before you have time to consider what those mooks had planned for later in the evening, before John Wick came through and murdered everyone with a colored-pencil set.
Harry Dresden might be able to conjure fireballs and demons, but part of the magic which sets him apart from other heroes of this type/genre lies in the genuine deep empathy which isn’t just paid lip-service a few times, but in many ways defines Dresden.