Noir, With Feelings

noirdresden-small.jpgSome types of stories are so familiar that the only way to tell your own version of, say, a detective yarn is to find an interesting new angle. Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden series makes the title character a wizard who solves supernatural crimes in Chicago. Additionally, Harry has feelings, which seems like the more interesting wrinkle to me.

In one of first scenes in the series, Harry is called to a gory crime
scene. Typically, the forensics experts and/or action hero can look at
the most disgusting and nauseating crime scene and coldly analyze it for
clues. Harry arrives, and promptly uses the same vomit bucket that all
the other cops have already used. It sets the tone for what’s to follow – not literally, since
there’s no more vomiting! But a story of action and villainy where the
good guy gets emotionally affected by the events… how novel!

What’s more, Harry makes it a point to follow the rules of magic, as
laid down by the body in charge of such things, the White Council. The most basic rule is that magic is generated by the living
creatures in the world, so magic should not be used to take a life. There are hints of Harry’s dark past in Storm Front, the first book, but he sticks to his current set of choices fairly strictly. Not only does this make for an intriguing character, but it makes the book’s plot stand out from other similar entries.

For example, the eventual antagonist in Storm Front is someone who just sees power when
he sees magic, and has a habit of simply killing anyone in his way. Harry, for his own reasons, can’t kill the enemy, which adds a rather
intriguing layer of suspense to the proceedings. Harry could have
snuffed him out from the laneway outside the bad guy’s hideout, but still decides to
enter the inferno. Is it a handicap? Or is it what saves him in the
end?? That might be a spoiler, except that it’s really entertaining to
find out how he gets out of all the near-death scrapes. Without breaking his rules, and becoming rather battered, emotionally and physically, along the way.

I guess I’m conflating two things here: the development of the modern action hero, and the roots of noir. The action hero of Hollywood fame is a bizarre construct when you sit down and think about him (and it’s definitely a man, in most cases). A complete sociopath
really. The action hero will kill dozens and hundreds of people to, say, rescue his little daughter (that classic bit of 80s action cheese, Commando, is probably too handy of an example for this sort of argument!). Whereas if you trace back the roots of noir, you find soldiers returning from
war, wearing their (literal) trench coats, trying to get by in a civilian
society that had never seen the horrors they had seen. In other words, psychologically damaged, but still thinking, grieving human beings, not death-dealing machines.

noirdresden-big.jpgSo if I’m surprised at the way Harry is a sensitive man, that might just be the idea in my head that genre protagonists have become more action-hero-esque over the years. In other words, Harry Dresden is not Gandalf crossed with The Punisher, and that struck this reader as a very welcome thing!

Butcher’s Dresden series has proven to be rather popular, and I had the notion that it’s been around for a long time. That’s not the case: the first book in the series was only published in 2000. Granted, Butcher’s been putting out a new volume every year like clockwork, so the series is up to ten entries already.

I recently listened to Storm
, the first book in the series, as read by James Marsters (a match between narrator and material which turns out to be a good one – Marsters makes the hard work of narrating laconic noir seem smooth and easy). I’m curious
to venture further. I feel like Butcher has carefully set up lots of factions, hints of a dark past, and so on. Although it feels like a lot of the conflicts have been resolved at the end of the first book. Where to from here? I’m a few chapters into Fool Moon, book two, and we’re getting a full-on treatment of werewolves next.

There was a recent TV series, which was apparently a bit of a bust. I’m wary of SciFi (now known of course as SyFy), so I avoided the show. Now I’m glad I got to the book first. See book cover at right, complete with “As seen on TV” – that’s apparently the stamp of ultimate approval, except when the show gets cancelled!

1 reply »

  1. Oooh, good choice! One of the things that sets Dresden (and Buchter) apart from the herd is the way Harry grows and changes during the series. He makes not only enemies, but also allies, and he learns from his mistakes.
    It’s a great series. And the newest one: wow.


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