Jim Butcher’s first Harry Dresden novel, STORM FRONT established urban fantasy as it’s now known — magical protagonists fighting evil in an urban environment. Before that I’d seen the term used for fantasy stories set in contemporary cities but nothing like what it means now. And while Butcher isn’t the first wizard PI, Glen Cook’s Garrett and Michael Reaves’ Darkworld Detective were operating in a fantasy setting, not contemporary America.
It’s noteworthy that Butcher spends the first few pages establishing the premise. A mailman sees the “Harry Dresden, Wizard” sign on Harry’s office door and makes some jokes. Harry explains that yes, he is a real wizard tackling magical matters — something anyone picking up an urban fantasy two decades later probably takes for granted.
After the light, expository start, things get serious. Murphy, Harry’s friend on the force, calls him in to investigate two people whose hearts were ripped from their breast during sex. Harry confirms that yes, it’s magical. There’s also a worried woman who wants Harry to find her missing husband. Complications ramp up fast. Johnny Marcone, the Chicago mob-master, warns Harry off Murphy’s case (if there was an explanation later in the book, I skimmed over it). One of the victims worked for a vampire running an escort service. A wizard who thinks Harry is a killer — Harry had to murder his mentor in self-defense years earlier — is convinced he’s behind whatever’s going on. The killer’s magic attacks on Harry get stronger and stronger.
It’s a really good book and holds up despite the boom in urban fantasy since. I’m not sure if the plot ties together perfectly but it moves fast enough I don’t mind. My only real issue is that Harry’s a sexist jerk who feels women are beautiful flowers who should be sheltered and cared for accordingly, even someone as tough as Murphy. The book (and the characters) keep calling Harry on his sexism but as I’ve said before, that’s not good enough.
I was reading this to get a better handle on urban fantasy as a genre in relation to Southern Discomfort and Impossible Takes a Little Longer (you can see some of my past reading on those lines here). The first thing I noticed is that it’s very much in the hardboiled PI vein. Harry’s a loner (though unlike Raymond Chandler’s heroes he has a very large supporting cast), largely isolated from the police and almost as cut off from the wizarding world. His friendship with Murphy is a tenuous one as there are things he can’t tell her. The worried wife who hires him has a hidden agenda. There’s nasty stuff going on below the surface of Chicago and not everyone’s what they seem. And yes, the wife hiring him ties into the big murder case.
Another is that after the low-key opening, things get tense — the bloody murder doesn’t hurt — and keep getting tenser. Harry’s unable to tell Murphy everything because of wizard rules, which makes her increasingly hostile and unhelpful. Initially the focus is on the mystery; then, as he gets a few clues, the personal attacks start. They elevate in intensity until at the climax Harry is dealing with the wizard’s attacks, plus some giant scorpions, plus a demon. By the time of the recent Peace Talk, Harry’s suffered from the same kind of power creep as Superman, so nothing less than a demigod can take him down. Here, though, everything’s still manageable.
Unlike Date With Death and Crossroads of Bones (see the list-link above), the tension doesn’t fade away when Harry gets involved with Susan, a tabloid reporter interested him as both a story and a guy. Harry’s apartment is under attack and he’s dragged Susan inside a protective circle. Unfortunately she’s downed a love potion Harry made (not for unethical reasons) and now Harry’s having to fend her off while also fending off the mage attacks.
As I’ve commented before, I’m not sure much of this will help with Southern Discomfort because it’s more urban fantasy-adjacent than UF itself. But it does make me think I’m on the right track in my Impossible rewrite: tighter plot (not everything coming together), more mystery, rising threat levels. So it was worth the time, aside from my enjoyment.
#SFWApro. Cover by Lee Macleod, all rights to image remain with current holder.