Review: Death Masks

So here’s the thing about Jim Butcher. He’s not a great writer. Jim uses phrases and vocabulary choices out of workshops for how not to imitate pulp writers. He’s straight-up B to B+ on a good day. Uses adverbs when simple description would be better. Chooses overly dramatic words like “gaze” and “horrific.” Tags his dialog with Tom Swifties, even when he’s not making a joke.

But.

His pacing keeps me reading, piling on the tension and the fun. His characters are deep and interesting, even though sometimes archetypical. He uses legend — ancient and urban — in a way that adds texture and meaning to his books. I like Harry Dresden. A lot.

In this particular episode, he’s up against the Forces of Evil in the form of fallen angels. Fights along side some bad-ass knights and ends up shutting down O’Hare Airport for a few hours. A romp through mythology and mayhem you just don’t see so much anymore. Jim’s having fun. I’m having fun. So what it it isn’t Shakespeare?

Death Masks ranks between Bite Me and Ned the Seal  on this year’s fiction reading list, coming it at #4 for the year. It’s likely I’ll binge read the next few Harrys, so in fairness I’ll probably treat the series as one entry going forward.

If you’re new to Harry Dresden, start with Fool Moon. The basic premise is as follows. Imagine the world posited in Harry Potter, with all its magic and supernatural skulduggery. Imagine an adult wizard living in that world. Imagine he’s a pulp noir P.I. in Chicago.

That’s all you need to know.

Writing Professionally: Pacing

One problem with taking on any profession is that it begins to taint how you look at the world. Cops and social workers probably get the worst end of that stick. On the other hand, spending a decade as a professional martial arts instructor gave me a new level of appreciation for film choreography and fight sports. I find the same thing is now affecting how I read.

I just finished the newest Virgil Flowers thriller by John Sandford: Bad Blood. Sandford’s books – and he’s certainly written his share – can be a mite formulaic, but I love the heck out of them. He’s not saying anything important, nor is he bucking for a Pulitzer or Nobel Prize for literature. He just turns out good stories year after year. Sandford (and, yes I am aware that’s a pen name) uses some very specific techniques to make his pacing tight and engaging even though he’s really telling us the same story over and over again.

Structure

Sandford presents the story in chunks: short sections of just a few paragraphs that hop from viewpoint to viewpoint. Readers never get a chance to be bored because we’re moving around as much as the characters are. He does this more often in is Lucas Davenport novels than with Flowers, Kidd and his other protagonists.

Point of View

He examines key points from multiple views. He’ll describe eight seconds of a gunfight from one point of view, then review four of those seconds from an additional point of view. This builds suspense by delaying our gratification while simultaneously giving us further compelling exposition on what’s already happened.

Inevitability

Sandford often shows you the bad guy from early in the first chapter. You know what he’s about, and  – if you know the protagonists – you have a guess as to what’s going to happen when they clash. Anticipating the train wreck is half the fun.

Twists

By far the most common plot twist Sandford uses is something going wrong. It might be bottoming out a pursuit car in a ditch, or the weather ruining visibility. A great example was a dead headlight in a surveillance car that tipped off the bad guy to the fact he was being watched, throwing a kink in the progress of the cops and the story. It’s a bit of deus ex machina, but Sandford uses realistic problems and loads them with so much emotion that they feel natural, right and tense.

Characterization, dialog and word choice are other well-used weapons in Sandford’s arsenal, and I’m certain he uses others I’m not good enough to notice yet. But these are the insights I drew tonight.

Thanks for listening.