Note: Dead Beat is the 7th book in the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher. If you haven’t read the previous books in the series, you may want to look away now.
Dead Beat by Jim Butcher (2005)
There’s a tiny part of me that has been reluctant to post reviews for the books in the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher. Mostly because I don’t want to spoil plot points for new readers. Trust me, if you haven’t read the series from the beginning, avert your eyes and go and pick up Storm Front. I have been reading this series for a while now and I love it. In fact, I credit this series with introducing me to all the goodness that urban fantasy has to offer, and I repeatedly recommend it to readers who are skeptical about the sci-fi/fantasy genre as a whole. Yes, this series has as its protagonist a wizard, but it isn’t just about all that is supernatural and what goes bump in the night.
Harry Dresden – Wizard. His beat is Chicago, and that’s another thing I like about this series. I happen to love Chicago, and I love all the references to places in the city that I have been to. This particular novel has several scenes that take place at the Field Museum and the big skeleton of Tyrannosaurus Rex plays an important role in the end of the story. Here’s your basic plot summary that is hopefully free of spoilers. Harry is summoned by Mavra, the Red Court vampire with whom he had an epic battle a couple of books ago. Mavra wants to meet Harry at his grave—yes, Harry has his own grave, courtesy of some of his enemies as a reminder that they intend to put him in it post haste. The inscription on the tombstone reads, “He died doing the right thing.” Needless to say, it creeps Harry out, but he goes to meet Mavra anyway because she is threatening Karrin Murphy, head of Special Investigations for the Chicago PD and Harry’s friend. Mavra demands that Harry bring her The Word of Kemmler in exchange for incriminating photos that could land Murphy in jail if turned over to the police. Being the kind of guy Harry is, he is willing to do what he has to do to save Murphy. Also typical of Harry, he has no idea what The Word of Kemmler is, but he’s going to find out, and as usual, it’s not going to be anything good.
Although Murphy is being threatened by Mavra, she’s actually absent for nearly the entirety of the novel, so Butcher has to surround Harry with old and new friends and enemies. Queen Mab makes an appearance, as do Thomas and Bob, Billy and Georgia, and Gentleman Johnnie Marcone. There’s also Harry’s new dog, Mouse, and even Morgan the Council Warden returns to Chicago. Indeed, the people in Harry’s life are an important part of Harry’s evolution. At the beginning of the series, Harry was the typical loner, isolated from the wizard community and not entirely fitting into the “human” world. Over the course of the series, Harry has lost some people that he cared about, but he has also become part of a family. Now more than ever before, Harry has a lot to lose, but that also means he has a lot to protect. It’s not just Harry and his cat, Mister. It’s Mouse, and Thomas, and Murphy, and Billy and Georgia, and even Bock–a bookstore owner who at one point in the novel tells Harry that he doesn’t want him coming into his store anymore because trouble always follows him. It’s a horrible moment for Harry, and though he understands Bock’s request, it’s sad too because Harry thinks it’s no less than he deserves. This is all to say that the supporting characters that Butcher brings into the novel are wonderfully drawn and they do exactly what they are supposed to do—show us different parts of Harry’s character, the inner conflicts that he struggles with, and why he keeps going even when all odds are against him. Butcher surrounds Harry with people who care about him, believe in him, and help him to see the good inside of him. They give him reason to hope and make the struggle worthwhile.
There’s a lot happening in this book, but the part I want to focus on is something that happens near the end. One of the characteristics of hardboiled detective fiction is that the detective finds himself in a situation where he faces temptation and is forced to cross a line that violates his personal code of ethics in order to save lives. Harry finds himself in this very situation, and indeed crosses a line. I have no doubt that it will be a choice that haunts him as the series continues. It’s a combination of yielding to the temptation of power, doing what must be done to save lives, and having to live with the consequences. Harry says several times in the novel that he doesn’t think of himself as a hero. He doesn’t even think of himself as a good person, but now there’s the sense that he has absorbed just a little of the corruption and evil that he fights against. His soul bears a permanent scar that mirrors the physical scar on his hand. In this book, Harry is fundamentally changed on the inside.
With each new installment, Butcher succeeds in making Harry more complex and conflicted. He forces readers to question the nature of heroism and the personal costs to the individual who would act heroically. Harry does not live in a black and white world, and because of that he cannot be wholly good and succeed in defeating evil. If you like well-written, suspenseful action stories with strong characters, read the books in this series. Harry Dresden might just become one of your favorite characters.