Spring is in the air and a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of love. My thoughts are turning to an old love this morning as I inhale the odors coming from the cheap eatery around the corner on University Avenue. They waft through the open window of my second-story office on Eighth. I’m not young anymore. The cheap eatery is a Jack in the Box, and the love I’m mooning about is an old one: science fiction, fantasy, and hard-boiled suspense. I used to keep company with all three fickle dames. Not so much these days. I used to keep an office bottle in the drawer beneath my typewriter. Not so much anymore. I used to use a typewriter, but they’ve gone the way of high-button shoes and 25-cent Cokes, edged out by science, “the largest religion of the twentieth century...somewhat tarnished by images of exploding space shuttles, crack babies, and a generation of complacent Americans who had allowed the television to raise their children.”
The quote is from the file on my desk, the first of The Dresden Files, compiled by scribe Jim Butcher. The ten book-length files concern “Harry Dresden — Wizard: Lost Items Found. Paranormal Investigations. Consulting. Advice. Reasonable Rates. No Love Potions, Endless Purses, Parties, or Other Entertainment.” Butcher has been chronicling Harry Dresden’s cases since 2000, and for the past eight years, well-meaning folk have suggested I read them. After all, they will tell me, “It’s your kind of stuff. You used to write SF, fantasy, and hard-boiled suspense. This is all that stuff rolled into one.” I tell them I’m not like that anymore, that times have changed, and that despite myself, I have too — more or less. But I read on.
The Dresden quote continues, “People were looking for something — I think they just didn’t know what. And even though they were once again starting to open their eyes to the world of magic and the arcane that had been with them all the while, they still thought I must be some kind of joke.”
And maybe I started out reading Storm Front, the first in the series, thinking that Harry Dresden was a joke. But by the time I finished it and decided to read the second case file, Fool Moon, maybe I figured I could use a good joke, at least a good story, and then another one.
Yeah, I’d been in love with this kind of stuff once upon a time. Ever since I read H.G. Wells as a kid and then the Hardy Boys, and later, guys like Roger Zelazny and Jack Williamson with, even later, into my 30s, side trips down Raymond Chandler’s mean streets. Sure that stuff was great, but that was 20 years ago. Besides, you start mixing those boys together on the page, you not only have a lot more disbelief to suspend, you’re asked to swallow the literary equivalents of chili con carne topped with chocolate ice cream. Separately, one at a time, they’re great, but you don’t put them in the same bowl.
Still, I haunt the used bookstores for old Ace Doubles and gaudily covered pop fiction from my youth the way some guys will skulk around their high school reunions trying to recapture a thrill with a glimpse of Bonnie Anne Del Veccio’s thighs. Or I’ll pick up an old Lancer paperback edition of The Return of Captain Blood, hoping to time travel back to that long midwestern summer before pubic hair and heartbreak. Maybe back to the days promising a long career with multiple book deals that were soon to be followed by corporate mergers, buy-outs, and sell-outs. Purchasing a stack of old pulp dreams, thinking it will usher back innocence and wonder isn’t far from putting the moves on some 19-year-old honey thinking she’ll restore youth to your balding, graying, and sagging old geezer ass.
Where’s the freaking office bottle? No bottle, but last night’s pizza, or half of it, anyway, congeals in its box on top of a stack of old occult books. I keep meaning to sell these or put them in storage. I reach in the pizza box and grab a cold slice. I see there are five left. I’ve got an idea. For old times’ sake. I arrange the five slices into a pentagram, a five-pointed, greasy, cheesy star. I leaf through one of the books and find a suitable incantation. It doesn’t take long for one corner of my shabby office to be engulfed in shadow. Voices of the damned come from the darkness, and I can smell sulfur and smoke, and I know I have the right paranormal universe. Reaching into the umbra of the shadow, I search for the correct Latin words and give up. English will have to do. “Kools!” I announce into the patch of void just beyond my desk. “Light! 100s! Hard pack!” In another moment, my hand closes around the pack, and I pull it back into the world where George W. Bush reigns and not Astaroth, Beelzebub, or Mephistopheles. I light one up. A good smoke. I quit a few weeks ago, but what the hell. No sales tax this way — and I did get rid of the office bottle of jaguar adrenaline.
I pick up Storm Front again. I’m entering a Chicago with organized and Italianate criminals cheek by jowl with trolls and vampires and, of course, cops. In the opening pages here, the director of special investigations in the downtown windy city calls Dresden to the scene of a grotesquely brutal crime. That a police detective would call a wizard to the scene of a double homicide is hardly less credible than the time-honored staple of crime fiction in general that has cops consulting P.I.s for any reason at all. But a Chicago cop calling a wizard into the case? I’ve had experience with Chicago cops; it seemed like the whole department threw a going-away party just for me just before I left that hometown for California the second week of August in 1968. It’s tough enough picturing Lt. Kowalski consulting H&R Block about his taxes much less a wizard for anything. Butcher makes a case for his Lt. Karrin Murphy (or my theoretical Lt. Kowalski) when he has her deliver the lines, “I am...tired of being looked at like I’m some sort of nutcase.... Most of them [her fellow cops] just scowl and spin their index fingers around their temples.... They don’t want to believe in anything they didn’t see on Mister Science when they were kids.”
Dresden looks on the scene of the bizarre violence perpetrated by magical means and observes to himself, “Magic is created by life, and most of all by the awareness, intelligence, emotions of a human being. To end such a life with the same magic that was born from it was hideous, almost incestuous somehow.
Butcher’s protagonist plays by rules; there is an internal logic to Dresden’s magical world. “The man or woman would have had to be there in the room with them. Tough to hide forensic evidence with something like that, and anyone who was skilled enough to pull off a spell like that would have had the sense to use a gun instead. It’s easier.”
Jim Butcher, the creator of Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden, will sign copies of Files and those of The Codex Alera, his fantasy series, at Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore, 7051 Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, at 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 5. In the meantime, “When things get strange,” Dresden suggests at the end of Storm Front, “when what goes bump in the night flicks on the lights, when no one else can help you, give me a call. I’m in the book.” And so is Mysterious Galaxy, yes, the entire galaxy, at 858-268-4747.