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Dead Until Dark

Living Dead in Dallas: two Sookie Stackhouse novels

by Charlaine Harris

(Dead Until Dark: Orbit, £5.99, 326 pages, paperback, first published 2001, this edition published March 2004. Living Dead in Dallas: Orbit £6.99, 279 pages, paperback, published April 2004.)

Review by Keith Brooke

The background: we're in small town Louisiana, a conservative area where anyone deviating from the "norm" -- gay, black, whatever -- gets a rough time. cover scanIn the last year or so, vampires have come out of the earthy closet: the invention of synthetic blood meaning their ways can be legitimised, and vampire culture can become just another strand of the mainstream.

And here, in sleepy Bon Temps, telepathic waitress Sookie Stackhouse is there when the town's first vampire turns up and is almost immediately set upon by a pair of vampire-drainers. While normally Sookie tries to block her "disability", as she refers to her telepathy, when a newcomer gets such an unfriendly welcome she just has to intervene and save the day, and the vampire. In fairly rapid order, an old classmate of Sookie's is found strangled. Sookie's dead former friend has old vampire bites on her groin (good blood supply), so she was clearly a "fang-banger". And now, a murdered fang-banger... While strangulation is not a vampire method (they have far better ways of killing) and the bites are old, the newly-arrived vampire becomes a convenient suspect. Sookie must put her telepathy to good use and investigate if she is to protect the newly-arrived vampire and her brother, another suspect.

All this conveniently sets the scene for what will be a series of Sookie Stackhouse supernatual whodunnit romances, with cover scanher undead sidekick, the vampire Bill Compton.

Perhaps the most intriguing challenge with this premise, both for the reader and as a technical exercise for the author, is how on earth you write a whodunnit with a telepathic protagonist... Taken literally, there could be no drama, just "oh, so it was you". So we need obstacles, rules that will prevent our detective from reading the answers too quickly, and the danger here is that these obstacles are all too clearly put there by the author to make things supenseful. Sookie starts out in the position where she has grown up shutting out other people's mental jabber, and so this is just her natural mode and she has never really tried to put her talent to practical use. All of which is just about convincing, so long as you try not to think too hard about the likelihood that a child growing up with this ability would really never be tempted to use it to their advantage. Also, in the first of this series at least, Sookie doesn't seem to realise she's in a whodunnit for most of the book, so it doesn't even occur to her to use her ability to test suspects; which, given what's at stake for the two men in her life, is a little harder to swallow. This kind of artifice can't last, though, and by the second story Sookie is learning to master her ability. There are still moments when the reader can't help but wonder why she's not even trying to read minds, but generally the balancing act works, and the suspense is certainly high in these books.

Sookie herself is a fun protagonist, and the stories are real page-turners -- so much so that, on finishing Dead Until Dark, I immediately started on its sequel. There are lots of nice little touches and asides about the incongruity of vampires and other supernatural beings settling into mainstream life. It seems particularly charming, for instance, to learn that Bill is a vampire with a soft spot for Kenny G. Harris has some great turns of phrase, too, twisting often-normal observations into witty barbs. In Living Dead in Dallas: "The girl began to sob. It was slow and heartrending, and almost unbelievably irritating under the circumstances." Later, an anti-vampire zealot's passion is described as looking "like she were having a really grim kind of orgasm".

Sookie, though, is a protagonist with a dark secret, which crops up just after halfway through Dead Until Dark and gets occasional brief mention in Living Dead in Dallas. For me, this is the one element in the mix that really didn't fit, intruding into what might patronisingly be described as thoroughly enjoyable light entertainments. Not that there's no place for serious issues in such novels, but as it appears here it reads as if Emotional Depth was being applied to the narrative -- cheap psychological layering. It's wheeled out, for instance, as an explanation for why Sookie fought so hard in volume two to save herself from a psychopath out to rape, hurt and kill her. Oh yeah? So if she didn't have this dark incident in her past she wouldn't have had nearly as much reason to struggle, huh?

That aside, I had a lot of fun with the first two Sookie Stackhouse novels, and I'm sure I'll return for Club Dead before too long. Highly recommended.

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