Consider for a moment that magic is real, as real as science, in fact. Now consider the type of person who could or would wield such a power. Such a character would need to be nearly saint-like to avoid abusing such immense abilities. In Jim Butcher’s “Storm Front”, we are introduced to Harry Dresden, a private investigator who happens to be a wizard. While not a saint, Dresden is a good man in a bad world, an archetypal crime noir hero with magical powers to boot.
Butcher’s choice of first-person narrative fits easily with the detective fiction genre, serving as almost the default narrative choice for these types of stories. If one takes away the supernatural elements one is still left with a fast-paced, engrossing crime story. The choice of setting also assists greatly, establishing a violent tone due to the history of Chicago. Once the gangland capital of the central U.S. during Prohibition, Chicago makes the perfect choice (from a storytelling perspective) to be the epicenter of supernatural energies and occurrences. The old saying involving the dead voting (twice!) in Chicago takes a more ominous tone with Butcher’s weaving of magic and the real world. The city breathes and has a hard-boiled life of its own, which gives the character of Dresden and his setting a distinctive flair and moral landscape.
Dresden exists as a charming, conflicted knight errand, a good guy with a tarnished white hat. The novel, due to its first person structure, allows Butcher to write Harry’s thoughts, fears, and anguish as directly as possible. There’s no filter between the reader and Dresden’s anecdotes, stories, and suppositions, giving the reader a sense of familiarity with Dresden and his world. Butcher writes his main character as a 21st century hard-boiled detective, the proverbial tough but fair “one good man in a bad town” as I alluded earlier. This character type was made famous in the pulp detective novels that began appearing in the 1940s and 50s that created the genre. Unlike those foundational novels, Butcher decided to make Dresden both a gentleman and luckless with women, two traits not normally associated with the genre. Having said that, Dresden has a lot of hang-ups when it comes to sex and women, which means that his wandering eye tends to take in greater details of the female body than one would consider appropriate.
The rest of the characters round out a solid cast of character archetypes. In particular, there are two that make for interesting reoccurring characters for the rest of the series. The first is Detective Karrin Murphy, who serves as the hard-nosed detective foil. Karrin is a secondary antagonist in this novel, serving as someone who, while not a villain, still exists to make Harry’s life difficult. The hard-boiled crime series usually involves a private detective, someone who fought for truth and justice but did so to the beat of their own drum. To offset this rogue element, there is usually a character who serves as the official law enforcer. In this sinister version of Chicago, Murphy serves as one of Dresden’s only allies. Speaking of sinister, Johnny Marcone is a great example of the mob boss archetype. While not a metaphysical match for Dresden, Marcone serves as a mental equal; a mundane, every-day person who can frighten a wizard. The choice of Chicago as the setting was made by the author on a whim but it’s an apt choice for a number of reasons. Chicago has long been a city with a deep history of the supernatural (the old rumors of the dead being able to vote under Mayor Daly still persist to this day). And Marcone serves as a modern equivalent of Chicago’s checkered history with organized crime, since it was once the mecca of bootlegging in the mid-west under Al Capone.
Butcher has a tall order writing this book. A balance between world-building and storytelling has to be struck and the author manages this feat with deft skill. From mentions of the White Council and the Laws of Magic (as well as the multiple encounters with Morgan, an enforcer for the Council), Butcher illustrates that there is a hierarchy and a structure to this world. Morgan is a modern-day Javert (from the novel and musical “Les Miserables”): the dogged police officer who hounds the protagonist relentlessly. There are mentions of the Nevernever, a mystical realm of some import that I have no doubt is explored in further books.
Another obstacle Butcher overcomes is how magic operates in Dresden’s world. From a literary standpoint, magic is a keen, double-edged sword. Too much of it leads to magic being so ubiquitous that its impact is negligible. If the magic system is too soft, the reader can’t understand the stakes involved. One needs look no further than many of the other supernatural crime series that have gone off the rails due to over-reliance on magic. On the other hand, too little magic and the concept becomes an unnecessary accessory best left out of the story. Dresden is neither a god nor a new wizard. Butcher gives his hero just enough power and training to be threatening but not so much that the antagonist is a pushover. Conflict is key to any form of genre fiction. While there are a few missteps here and there in the story, Butcher is able to blend the magic into the story without becoming overly reliant on it to solve every problem.
More than anything, Butcher has crafted a well-developed world and hero. Dresden shows enough facets in “Storm Front” to make him feel seasoned, despite his age being indeterminate. The starting book of any series, especially in the supernatural or modern fantasy genre, has many potential pitfalls that Butcher successfully avoids. The continued popularity of the series is evidence that Butcher struck a nerve with the reading public. For any fan of modern supernatural stories (especially those that engage the dark fantasy side of the genre), I highly recommend “Storm Front” and the Dresden series.