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04.08.09

Call Him Dirty Harry Potter

Wizards, beware! Jim Butcher’s detective Harry Dresden is the new scourge of the underworld, and he’s packing heat. And a serious online following.

Jim Butcher, the author of the newly released Turn Coat, the latest installment in supernatural detective series The Dresden Files, is not like other authors: He’s beaten a Brazilian witchdoctor’s death curse.

The witchdoctor hexed him 20 years ago during a youth-group trip to Rio de Janeiro. That weekend, the youths piled into a bus and rambled into the country to a town that consisted of a red brick market plaza. Butcher accompanied some girls from his group on their way to get a Coke. As they walked across the plaza, a skinny man stepped out of the jungle. He had a beard, and mud matted his hair. Snakes hung on his neck and arms and writhed through his belt loops. He wore amulets of human bone. As the man started screaming, the 17-year-old Butcher stepped between his pointing finger and the girls and took the death curse.

Harry Dresden never gallops up on a white horse—a zombie Tyrannosaurus rex, maybe—and he seldom makes it to the end of a book without serious injury.

Over the next few days, Butcher encountered a fresh jaguar footprint in the jungle one night, a giant poisonous spider in his luggage, and a large venomous snake in the shower. But he survived.

Harry Dresden, the wizard detective that Butcher created, is also a survivor. The last three books in the series were New York Times bestsellers, the forums on Butcher’s Web site boast more than 15,000 members, and this year Chicago’s only wizard detective turned heads in his graphic-novel incarnation, which has been nominated for a Hugo Award. Move over Twilight, True Blood, and Harry Potter; Mr. Dresden is in the building, and he has a gun.

Harry Dresden is the underworld’s Philip Marlowe, although he totes a blasting rod and other magical gear in addition to the typical .44. A quirky band of associates helps Harry throughout the series, including a polka-loving medical examiner, a vampire with a French alter ego who runs an upscale hair salon, a nosy tabloid reporter, and a pixie who calls Harry the Pizza Lord.

Turn Coat is the 11th book in what Butcher says will be a 20-plus book series capped by a three-book apocalyptic trilogy. Turn Coat was one of his favorite Dresden books to write, and Butcher says he’s in no danger of losing steam. “I’m bouncing up and down with anticipation of writing the next few,” he said.

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Turn Coat. By Jim Butcher. 432 pages. Roc Hardcover. $26. ()

Set in modern-day Chicago, the book begins like any good noir novel, with a man showing up half-dead at the antihero’s door asking for help. Morgan is warden of the White Council, and essentially Harry’s old mystical parole officer. Harry spent much of his youth under the Doom of Damocles because he broke the Laws of Magic when he killed his master with a spell, but then it was self-defense; Harry’s mentor had been forcing him to practice dark magic. The insufferably righteous Morgan had followed Harry for years, waiting for him to slip up and break the rules again. They despise each other, but apparently Harry hates injustice more than he hates Morgan, who has been wrongly accused of treason and murder.

While a major theme of Turn Coat is how to separate justice from the law, the book, as Butcher put it, is not about “philosophical discussion.” Instead, Butcher said, “There’s lots of explosions and monsters. The special-effects budget is pretty high.”

Philip Marlowe spent his days flirting with every woman who crossed his path as a way of continually affirming his heterosexuality. Harry Dresden follows in his footsteps, unsubtly gazing upon the breasts of nearly every woman he encounters, while acknowledging, at least, that he’s a chauvinist. Still, for a journalist who took a number of feminist theory classes in college, the frequent use of the word “feminine” to describe women’s features and movements rankles and detracts from a slick narrative that otherwise sucks the reader in completely.

For fans of the series or first-time readers, Turn Coat is a page turner filled with dry humor, nonstop action, and plot twists that will whisk the reader into a world far from the one we live in. “The man has a pretzel for a straight edge when it comes to laying out his stories,” said Richard Shealy, 40, a fan who is part of the online Jim Butcher forums.

Online, Butcher usually goes by the moniker Longshot, a nickname he earned by braving the “long odds against attaining a career as a novelist,” according to his  Web site. For Butcher’s part, the online community serves several purposes. A group of forum members, including Shealy, also serve as his “beta readers,” scrutinizing his chapters for continuity errors as he writes them. Butcher is also able to contact folks from Chicago, where the Dresden series is based, and ask them questions about the physical town, which helps him write.

In addition to the graphic novel and a short-lived TV show on the Sci Fi channel, the Dresden Files have spawned a forthcoming role-playing game from Evil Hat Productions, no coincidence considering that Butcher avidly participates in dice-based and live-action role-playing games, or LARP. (Think of an unscripted version of Lord of the Rings as enacted by amateur actors without an audience.)

The NERO LARP that Butcher plays has helped him understand the physical reality of battles and espionage. LARP battles in which players fight each other with “boffers,” pieces of PVC pipe covered with foam for safety, have taught Butcher that combat can be “complete chaos,” a reality reflected in Harry Dresden’s adrenaline-pumping battle scenes, and no doubt aided by Butcher’s real-life martial-arts savvy—he knows kung fu, aikido, and four other disciplines.

LARPing has brought home smaller details to Butcher—like the way a person’s legs cramp up after being “crouched in the bushes at dawn trying” to ambush an enemy. The razor precision and clarity of physical detail that marks the Dresden Files probably owes something to Butcher’s unusual hobby.

As a teen in Kansas City, Missouri, Butcher practiced stunt- and exhibition-riding as part of a group called Rodeo Kids. Once, during a stunt gone wrong, he swung up behind his partner, overbalanced, and accidentally ripped off her shirt while trying to grab for something to steady him. The thousands of foreign-exchange students watching went wild over the wardrobe malfunction, to his partner’s mortification. Butcher describes his teen self as the bumbling sort. “I was the guy who almost met his doom and somehow managed to end up alive.”

Harry Dresden never gallops up on a white horse—a zombie Tyrannosaurus rex, maybe—and he seldom makes it to the end of a book without serious injury. The baddies and occasionally his friends burn, beat, shoot, claw, and mentally attack him, and it’s only by the courage of his convictions that Harry is able to continue. Occasionally he embarrasses himself, and he’s always up against long odds. It’s almost as if somehow, Butcher managed to translate the witchdoctor’s curse into fiction.

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Lizzie Stark is a freelance journalist who has written for the Philadelphia Inquirer and The Daily Beast . She also edits the lit-mag Fringe and is at work on a narrative nonfiction book about Live Action Role Play, or LARP.