The Evil Of Innocence And Nature



Jim Butcher (Author), James Masters (Reading by)

At The Melbourne Review of Books we attempt to bring intelligent discussion to all forms of fiction, whether popular genre works or more obscure literary pieces. We want to bring something thoughtful to the discussion, not just a simple I liked this or I didn’t.

The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher is a phenomenally successful urban fantasy series mixed up with mystery and gumshoe flavours. Unlike a lot of urban fantasy, it is less of a supernatural romance romp and more of a supernatural crime thriller, though the genre sort of demands some sex somewhere, so you will get that too.

In writing my review of Book 3 – Grave Peril – I found myself more or less working through the basic questions and basic answers. Yes, this is a good book. As an audiobook it thoroughly shimmers – James Masters (who played Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer) brings the story to life in a way that would make any author jealous. His voice and character work leaps out of the speakers and takes on a sort of physicality in the air. And also, yes, you have probably heard that you might as well skip Books 1 and 2, because Book 3 really is where the story starts. That’s true. Just jump in at Book 3 and go from there. You won’t miss much and you won’t risk getting bogged down in Books 1 and 2 and giving up on the series as a result.

But pretty soon I looked back over my review and began to reflect. How was what I’d just written different from a Good Reads review of middling quality? How was it anything other than a basic recommendation to read (or in this case listen to) the work? And then I began to think about how I could re-review the work in a way that put this book more into the context of culture, drew out what precisely it is that makes this a very entertaining read, and provided something – anything – in the way of intelligent critique and discussion. And I immediately found this to be extremely hard.

Not, I should say, because Jim Butcher’s writing is somehow unintelligent. It is not. It is very smart writing. There is subtlety in character and plot and story. Even the world is handled deftly – as a reader you are never entirely sure whether this is supposed to be our world but with secret fantasticals hidden away in the shadows or whether it is a full-blown secondary world in which everyone sort of knows there are supernatural things around and about, but no one really wants to talk about them openly.

But a discussion of the complexities of the story still eludes me. And this has started to lead me towards an odd realisation. I’m beginning to wonder if this sort of ‘good story, well told’ book is actually quite difficult to examine critically. Such work has gone into making it seamless, that picking at the seams is tricky. There are no flourishes of poetical language to focus on, no deep themes beyond the basic theme that human struggle is worthwhile and friends are worthwhile and sticking to your word is worthwhile – but those are almost trite, and not exactly deep, nuanced or considered. The characters are compelling but not intricate or brought to life in a way that allows for pseudo-psychological analysis. We don’t really have glimpses of the author’s neuroses to explore, an age of life, a time or a place, and nor do we really have a grand statement, good or ill, about human nature. This is at its heart a good story, well told.

And if I were to try and pull the work apart on those grounds alone, this discussion would turn into something that would read more like script doctor advice. Workmanlike. Cynical. Exploitative and manipulative of the reader even. It seems to me it is very difficult indeed to discuss why a compelling read works in the particular way it does. The language of such a discussion involves pacing, plot twists and stop-your-brain ideas, and this is vastly alien and removed from the usual language of literary discussion, in which message, theme, realism of character and psychology rule. But I am beginning to wonder if the reason literary reviews focus on those aspects of story is that those aspects are fundamentally easier to discuss. After all, it is easy to point a finger a poetic language. It is easy to note how an author has captured a sense of place. It is easy to reflect upon commentary on the human condition.

But it stretches the mind to work out why Grave Peril appeals in a way that is deeper than the utterly obvious. The characters are engaging. Sure. The good guys deserve to win, and they struggle to get to a win. Certainly. There are twists and turns. Okay. Yes. Not everything is quite as it seems. True. But you know what? If the ways in which Grave Peril works really were obvious, then everyone could write a compelling fly-off-the-shelf fiction, and Jim Butcher would not be paid the big bucks (relatively speaking, this is publishing after all) to do so. Right now, thinking this through, I do not have any great answers, but this is something that I want to focus much more on. Why do books that sell well because of their good story charms work, and how, and why – and how do we even arrive at a language of discussion for such works? I can make a few hazards and guesses. This particular book does appeal to a sense of natural justice – the philosophical idea that good things ought to happen to the good and bad things ought to happen to the bad. Fairy tales are replete with natural justice. The real world is not so much, no matter what a lawyer friend may tell you. But there are other deeper things going on: archetypal things. The language of Jung may not be much of a modern psychoanalytical theory any longer, but I’ve always had a suspicion that it remains one of the best languages and sets of terms we have for discussing story. Harry Dresden is the archetypal reluctant hero, and his holy sword wielding friend, Michael, is the archetypal virtuous paladin, a modern-day Galahad with all the weird issues that brings along with it. Bob the air spirit who lives in a skull on a shelf would be a trickster then. And the villain of this piece is more of a manipulator than a hungry beast or a force of nature. She is Fata Morganna, though perhaps not as easy to sympathise with as her mythological namesake, which makes her more easily dislikable.

This might be the most interesting aspect of the work: how does Grave Peril present the ideas of good and evil? The good (Harry and Michael in particular) are presented as the heroic, but also goodness is presented as a desire to help others, stick to one’s word and make self-sacrifice for the greater good. Innocence is not presented as an aspect of goodness, and possibly innocence may even fall closer to being within the realm of the evil. At least inasmuch as the innocent are self-innocent, or self-unaware, the villains of this book (vampires) are innocents, driven by rather childish desires and impulses, whereas Harry and Michael are much more adult, perhaps even corrupted, in the sense of being both worldly and worldweary. The heroes have complex adult motivations (marriage, parenthood, sex, a reliable pay check, promises and obligations) whereas evil is expressed much more simply as a desire to do what one wishes and follow one’s urges wherever they lead. This contrasts strongly with a vision of good as more natural, more impulse-driven, more innocent and closer to nature. It is the vampires that are most natural in this book, as they are animalistic and not substantially different in their behaviour to how an intelligent group of tigers would act. That they are evil at all is perhaps just a matter of the prey’s perspective… although they are certainly presented as evil. They are in fact strongly sign-posted as such, being hideous, off-putting, cold and giving off a sense of unnatural creepiness. They are clearly meant to be evil. We are not meant to sympathise with them, and yet if we boil down their behaviour we find that they are not doing anything that is not a part of their inner nature. It presents an ethical dilemma. If things that are natural are often (though perhaps falsely) assumed to be more good than things that are unnatural, where does this leave a group of creatures that act evilly due to their own true nature? Should we expect the vampires of Harry Dresden’s world to fight their nature? Perhaps.. without giving too much away, there is an example of a ‘vampire’ (or an almost vampire) fighting natural urges to feed on blood, although how successful that will to goodness might be is left open to doubt.

Past these, my thin and rather shallow observations, I’m not sure how much I can arrive at. A thoughtful examination of popular fiction is of course a path, a road, a stairway up the dark mountainside, and I will need some time traversing it.

So, in lieu of being able to say anything more profound: Grave Peril, Book 3 of The Dresden Files is a very compelling tale. You very certainly ought to purchase and listen to the audiobook version if you are at all interested in hearing a wonderful tale written by an astute writer and narrated by a talented voice actor.

Meantime, I’ll have to think through some things…

About Christopher Johnstone

Christopher Johnstone lives in Melbourne
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  1. I think one of the appeals of a detective story is seeing the detective stand up to company directors and other upper-crust types. It doesn’t surprise me that it feels satisfying to see a detective with something much more like our own social position confront them and question them and crack wise at their self-importance.

  2. Christopher Johnstone

    Yes – the vampires in this novel are very much like social elites, literally sucking the blood out of ordinary folks. Some critics have proposed that the Zombie/Vampire/Zombie cycle is really about the fear of the elite having power over you being replaced by the fear of the crowd and the fear of the elite and back and forth.

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