Dead Until Dark
Living Dead in Dallas: two Sookie Stackhouse
(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
The background: we're in small town Louisiana, a conservative area
where anyone deviating from the "norm" -- gay, black, whatever -- gets
a rough time.
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
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.
Elsewhere in infinity plus: