This week, for the thirtieth entry of Down the Stacks, I will be looking at one of my top favorite series: The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. I’ve previously looked at another o butcher’s projects, The Codex Alera, but The Dresden Files is a completely different beast. Dresden is bigger, longer, and a bit darker than Alera, and it’s the series that Butcher has put the majority of his lie into. The Dresden Files is a supernatural mystery series set in a world where just about any myth and fairy tale is true or has a kernel of truth to it.
The Dresden Files are told from the perspective of one Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden, a private detective and police consultant who takes some pride in pointing out that he’s the only entry under “wizard” in the Chicago phone book. Harry’s bread and butter is finding lost items and people, looking into possible marital infidelities, and other common PI work, but the books concern the big cases that get him wrapped up in wizard or fairy politics or crossing paths with necromancy cults, demons, insane vampires, and Chicago’s organized crime network, among other things. Each of the fifteen (and counting) books focuses on a single case, which tends to start out fairly routine but unfolds into a bigger problem, with each book gradually escalating the stakes.
As our narrator, Harry’s character is presented to us mostly through his own perceptions and colored by his troubled past. His childhood was darkened by the death of both parents - irst his wizard mother and then his stage magician father - followed by being fostered, trained, and abused by a dark wizard that Harry eventually had to kill to escape from. That act has placed him on the watch list of the White Council, the world’s governing body of wizards who have a zero-tolerance policy toward stuff like mind control and raising the dead. Add in a history of failed romances, crossing swords with local vampire counts, and occasional unavoidable property damage, and Harry Dresden is not considered the safest person to be around, but he’s the only guy that Chicago PD’s Special Investigations unit can trust to help out with their “weird” cases.
As a wizard, Harry’s actually fairly average. He has a lot of power, but not an exceptional amount of skill. Magic in the Dresdenverse requires ritual, materials, and set-up time, so Harry can’t just whip out any old spell he wants. He does tend to carry around several magically prepared items to accelerate casting time on the spells he tends to use a lot for defense and attack - primarily throwing out bolts of force, wind, or fire as appropriate. Due to the nature of his work, Harry’s best spells are for locating and tracking specific people, and he dabbles in potions in the early books.
As a person, Harry is the picture of tall, hardboiled detective. His sense of humor is very dry and his narration is saturated in sarcasm. He nicknames his villains all the time and loves drawing parallels to pop culture and classic movies, no matter how big a stretch may be required. Case in point: he refers to his Volkswagon as the Blue Beetle, despite the fact that the car has been repaired on the cheap so often that it’s practically every color except blue. Harry is a firm believer in chivalry to the point that pretty woman are a weakness to him; he’ll linger on describing female characters, good or bad, and has a gut instinct to protect and help women even if it’s not in his best interest.
Like any heroic private eye, Harry Dresden has an eclectic cast of allies that pop up throughout the series. The most frequently appearing is Karrin Murphy of CPD’s Special Investigations unit. Special Investigations is the “joke” unit of Chicago’s Police, because any case that carries hints of magic or the supernatural lands on their desks, and most normal humans are blissfully unaware of the reality of magic and supernatural creatures. Murphy, of course, is well aware of all that reality, and she consults with Harry in almost every book on some strange murder or impossible event. Harry notes that Murphy is petite and cute, but also that she’s a black-belt in Akido and about as tough as a cop can be. She doesn’t understand the magic world as well as Harry, which means she’s occasionally confused or skeptical about what Harry considers to be necessary actions, but in the end she’s a reliable ally.
Another character who always gets at least one scene in each book is Bob. Bob is an intelligence spirit housed in a skull that Harry keeps in his basement workshop. Bob has an encyclopedic knowledge of fairies, monsters, and wizards of historical importance which Harry often tries to delve into for leads or counter-strategies. The problem is that Bob is an inveterate pervert and demands bribes in the form of porno magazines and whatnot, and he also has a bit of Harry’s snarky wit, so scenes involving him can take an amusing while to get to the point. Once Bob is properly focused, however, he’s never wrong about what he knows.
Occasional allies include Michael Carpenter, a deeply religious Christian and family man who happens to wield one of three sacred sword forged with the nails used in the Crucifixion and teams up with Harry when the villain of the week comes from the Judeo-christian mythos, and Thomas Raithe, Harry’s half brother and White Court vampire, who tends to use Harry more than help but is still a decent guy for a humanoid parasite that feeds on lust. Then there are the people that Harry usually ends up working alongside or for despite their being technically bad: Queen Mab of the Fae’s Unseelie Court, Lara Raithe of the Vampire White Court, and Gentleman Johnny Marcone, head of the Chicago Mafia and magical hobbyist.
In a different context, Marcone would actually make a great protagonist with only minor tweaking.
Dresden usually confronts one-off villains, but there are a couple characters who keep coming back to give him grief. Chief of those is Nicodemus, leader of the Denarians. Denarians are humans who have willfully accepted possession by fallen angels, specifically one of a set of thirty bound into silver coins. Denarians are difficult to kill as a rule, but Nicodemus takes it a step farther by wearing the noose that Judas Iscariot hung himself with and makes the current wearer unkillable by anything except that very noose. Nicodemus tends to work in the shadows and in partnership with other bad guys in order to obtain specific religious items or some yet-unknown apocalyptic goal.
I enjoy the Dresden Files and highly recommend them. Jim Butcher has a well-developed skill for blending humor and magic into the mystery/crime genre, a good grasp on magic, myths, and folklore, and the ability to get all the disparate source materials to fit together in one world. The books require a bit of time to get through, but they’re worth it.