Monday, June 10, 2013

Jim Butcher's STORM FRONT, Part 2

NOTE:  If you’ve not read last Monday’s article introducing the subject and defining the urban fantasy novel, please do.


The American private eye novel gained its popularity during the Thirties and Forties with writers like Dashiell Hammett (Sam Spade) and Raymond Chandler (Philip Marlowe).  

These "hardboiled" mysteries were about out-of-luck downtrodden PIs who worked the mean streets of a big city where the law and the establishment were often as crooked or incompetent as the criminals and gangsters. defines them this way, 

"The protagonist was usually a detective of the 'private eye' variety, or functionally similar. He or she used special expertise to restore a loss, which could mean finding a missing object or bringing a murderer to justice. They did so for little or no money, often simply for justice. They met challenges, trials, obstacles, and temporary defeats — were kidnapped, beaten, shot, knifed, snubbed, humiliated, and dismissed as inferiors. It became a ritual that the protagonist had to pass out, either from a beating or drugs."

The detective may be crooked to survive in this brutal world, but he lives by a code.  Again,

"The detective should be anonymous, eschew publicity, be close-mouthed, and secretive. He or she protects good people from bad people, who do not live by the rules; thus, one may break the rules in dealing with them. The detective ignores rules and conventions of behavior, because the client pays for this. Loyalty to the client is very important, but may be superseded by a personal sense of justice or the rule of law. The detective must keep an emotional distance from the people in the case, retain an objective point of view, and consider all pertinent clues."

Most versions of the "code" share these common points. The private eye is 

1. dedicated to the client, 
2. economical, if not thrifty, in his expenses and personal habits, 
3. loyal to his profession, 
4. cooperative, to some degree, with the police, 
5. concerned with self-survival, and
6. unwilling to be duped by anyone. 

In this type of mystery, the duality of good and evil are obvious.  For every good or reasonably good type of character, an evil one exists.  Two worlds also exist--that of poverty and helplessness in contrast to a world of power and money.  The PI is able to go to both worlds to gain some sort of justice for his client.

Ironically, he isn't accepted in either world.

In this mix of two worlds of good and evil are good and bad cops, Madonnas and whores, crazed killers and criminal masterminds.

One of the most notable characters in the PI novel is the femme fatale.

"The femme fatale, defined simply, is an irresistibly attractive woman, especially one who leads men into danger. In hard-boiled fiction, she is usually the protagonist's romantic interest. …   The protagonist's involvement with her may range from mild flirtation to passionate sex, but in the denouement he must reject or leave her, for the revealed plot shows her to be one of the causes of the crime."

The classic example of the PI novel and the noir movie is Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon starring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade.  (You can rent it from iTunes or Netflix if you've never seen it, and you should since it's one of the best movies of all time.)  

To read a synopsis of the movie plot, I suggest this Wikipedia entry.


Although a wizard, Harry has most PI tropes down pat.  In the first scene, his voice is that of a world-weary detective with added snark, mainly about being a wizard.  His office rent is late, and he is money and case poor in the best tradition of the PI.

He has a close connection with an honest cop, Karrin Murphy.

He also has the chivalry common to the knight errant PI.  He protects the weak, and he is polite to the ladies.

<<I opened the door for her, and gallantly gestured for her to go in. It was an old contest of ours. Maybe my values are outdated, but I come from an old school of thought. I think that men ought to treat women like something other than just shorter, weaker men with breasts. Try and convict me if I'm a bad person for thinking so.  I enjoy treating a woman like a lady, opening doors for her, paying for shared meals, giving flowers--all that sort of thing.>>

Murphy even gets him to help her by playing the damsel in distress when she calls him into the murder scene that starts the novel.

Throughout this novel, he follows the detective's code listed above.

1. He remains dedicated and perseveres for both of his clients-- Murphy and Monica, even at the cost of his own safety.

2. He needs his fees from both women, but it isn't about the money for him.  It is about the justice and his need to protect Monica and her children as well as Murphy from a dark world of magic she cannot survive.

3. He believes in his profession of helping others as well as his magical calling.  Magic, for him, is beautiful and life-affirming, and the black wizard who kills by blowing peoples' chests apart is a blasphemy to life and magic.

4. He is willing to work with the police, but he cannot cross certain lines of privacy and information about magic and the magical world which they must not be a part of.

5. He is concerned about self-survival, and his own coming death from the black wizard and a thunderstorm are what drives him to face impossible odds, but he is also willing to fight a giant scorpion to save Murphy's life when he could run.

6. He also refuses to be lied to by those for and against him, and he is driven to find out the truth despite the dangers to himself.


The PI is caught between two worlds, usually that of the powerful and rich and that of the poor and dispossessed.  He walks between these worlds to find the solution to the crime and to save his client who is trapped in some way.

Harry's two worlds are the real world and the magical world.

By his own choice, Harry has set himself up as a wizard for hire in the real world, an unprecedented decision because wizards of the NeverNever tend to be secretive about their gifts, and they don't employ them to help nonmagicals.

Harry's motivation for this decision is his own past.  He was betrayed by his magical mentor and had to save his own life against black magic by killing the other man.  This killing is not only antithetical to the nature of and his belief in magic; it made him a bad guy to his own people.  Only through the intervention of Ebenezar McCoy was he saved from summary execution. 

The killing of his mentor, even though it was justified, bothers Harry, and his PI work is part of his way of making amends. He has also felt the helplessness of being accused of a crime with no one on his side to help him so he is very much for the underdog.

At the  beginning of STORM FRONT, he is under the Doom of Damocles which means he faces execution for the slightest crime.  He is an outcast among his own people, and he receives no help from the Wardens and White Council when he faces magical enemies.

Living among humans as a wizard, however, insures that Harry is an outcast among humans, as well.  In the first scene, the mailman mocks him for being crazy, and every human he encounters either has the same feeling, or they fear Harry.  Few will meet his gaze, and most won't tell him their names for fear of a controlling spell being used against them.

His only allies are Murphy who is also an outcast in the police force for believing in the supernatural and for being the head of the reviled Special Investigations Unit, and Mac McAnally a barkeeper in the real world with a clientele of the much less powerful magicals in Chicago.

But when Murphy's own career is threatened and she no longer trusts Harry enough to believe his silence about the magical murders is for her own sake, she is more than willing to take Harry down.  


The duality of good and evil is also shown with the characters in the novel.

Murphy is obviously the good cop.  She does her job honestly, and she is open to the possibility of the supernatural.  Like most good cops, she is hindered by an incompetent bureaucracy as well as her own tendency to go outside standard rules to get her job done.

Warden Morgan is the bad cop who hinders more than helps by his threats to Harry as well as his blindness to Harry's innocence and the presence of the black wizard. The irony, of course, is that Harry must do the job of the Wardens by stopping the black wizard.


John Marcone is the local human crime boss.  Like a tiger, he goes for the kill in the most efficient way possible with little emotion and less regret.  However, he has such control over local crime that chaos no longer reigns, and he has his own sense of order as well as his own honorable code of behavior.  

Bianca is his magical counterpart.  A Red Court vampire, she runs an expensive escort service.  She is ruled by her passions and attacks Harry from fear rather than logic.  She is also vain about her human seeming and hates Harry for seeing the decaying monster she truly is.  

Both Bianca and Marcone are tied together because her prostitute and his bodyguard are killed by the black wizard who blows out both victims' hearts.


Linda is dead prostitute Jennifer's close friend.  A former prostitute herself, she uses her sexuality against Harry and leads him closer to finding the identity of the black wizard.  Her own duplicity about her employers and the magical orgies at the lake house seal her fate.  

Susan is the nice girl.  Although a reporter who would love Harry's knowledge of the supernatural, she is genuinely interested in him, and she takes a demon attack with aplomb.  


Harry, of course, is the good wizard who follows the laws of magic and refuses to do evil.

Victor Sells is everything Harry isn't but could be.

The most telling scene is when Harry starts walking toward the lake house for his final confrontation and is nearly seduced by the black magic of the place with its offers of limitless power.  Harry refuses it, and he avoids black magic when he fights Victor and the demon although he's in way over his head.


I would be remiss after mentioning the scene of Harry's temptation not to mention the presence of his mother who pushes his hand to her pentacle which represents good magic and saves him.

Monica is the bad mom who can't protect her children from her perverted and evil husband and must depend on her sister Jennifer and Harry to do this for her.

On a side note, Harry's mom's ghostly presence has never been used since in the series, and I wonder if Butcher has dropped this element or whether she will be a stronger presence in the coming novels.


No comments: