Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Storm Front, chapters 18 and 19, in which repetition masquerades as exposition

So, how was your week?  I got a temporary cat (while his usual people are out of the country for a month) and he's very snuggly and he's pretty sure he needs to be fed twenty-nine times a day or society will crumble.

Here in the Department of Analysing Terrible Books the hate engine keeps chugging on.  We're closing in on the final act, with about a quarter of the book to go, and by the looks of it we have nothing to look forward to, so I added a puppy.

(Content: childbirth, parental death. Fun content: magicians, puppies, and the writer's-block panacea.)

Storm Front
Chapter Eighteen: If I Monologue Enough Maybe You Won't Notice These Plot Rails

I could just write MAN ANGST for a couple of lines instead of talking about the actual events that open this chapter.  It starts with "Have you ever felt despair?" and continues with "When I'm in turmoil [...] I go for walks. It's just one of those things I do" and eventually Dresden starts spewing backstory, but leave that a moment.  What we have here is something I tend to think of as emotional hipsterism, a hallmark of the truly pretentious man.  Sometimes he feels despair--but you've probably never heard of it.  He, you must understand, has difficult feelings that even he can't just shrug off immediately, despite his manliness, and so he must go for a walk--who can fathom the oddity of this?  Admittedly, the wizards in this world would make more sense if they were all solipsists.

Dresden refers to his wandering around Chicago at night as "pretty stupid, in retrospect", despite the established fact that he's carrying a heat cannon and a bulletproof shield.

Anyway, we hear a bit about Dresden's parents.  Of course they're both gone now, no points for guessing that, but for the lightning round question, cast your vote: which parent had a formative influence on Dresden?  If you guessed "his father, because his mother died in childbirth", you get all the points and Butcher gets none.  I looked up some statistics just to see how vanishingly unlikely that is, and the answer is 'very', especially when noting that mortality is closely related to the mother's socioeconomic factors of health and (spoilers, like you care) Dresden's mother was actually a fantastically powerful wizard.  (I don't know if Dresden knows that yet.)  I read enough to learn that Dresden's mom was actually killed by a curse, but I'm going to throw out a wild frickin' guess that Butcher decided on that later, as part of Operation: Continuity Is For Suckers.

So here the death of Dresden's mother is not merely sidelined but actually framed in reference to his father: "He wasn't there when I was born. He wasn't there when she died."  We're told that dad showed up a day later, "gave me the names of three magicians" (not Potter, blessedly, but Harry Houdini, Blackstone, and Copperfield) and then took him on the road with his travelling stage magic show.

(Dresden's dad wasn't an actual wizard, and I have so many questions about his parents' life and marriage and arrangement.  Did he know his wife was hella magical?  Did he care?  Did he choose to stay away because he felt inadequate?  Did he ever ask her to teach him?  It turns out that Dresden's mom's signature move was portal-hopping, so why wasn't she on the road with him?  Why didn't he have any actual enchanted tricks crafted by her?  Or friends in the wizard community?  Or did she hide all of that from him for undoubtedly super selfless reasons that coincidentally make this plot way simpler?)

In any case, Dresden's dad then died abruptly of an aneurysm when Dresden was six, and that sense of loneliness and despair is exactly what he feels now, facing certain doom from either his enemy wizard or his court session on Monday.  Which... I mean, Dresden has been in a lot of life-or-death situations before, even ones just referenced in his anecdotes, like He Who Walks Behind or his evil magic teacher for starters.  I know that if you want to shoehorn in some dead parents, you've got to make your own opportunities, but connecting his current situation to a six-year-old's fear of abandonment just doesn't ring true for me.  Others are welcome to make a countercase.  (Did neither of Dresden's parents make arrangements for the care of their son?  You'd think maybe this would be a moment for a wizard friend to swoop in and explain that he's Dresden's godfather.  But I guess Dresden's trying to hammer home DESSSPAAIIRRRRRR and so he leaves the backstory hanging in tension.)

Dresden finds that he randomly walks back to Linda Randall's apartment, a terrible idea if I ever heard one, exceeded only by his subsequent decision to magically unlock the door, duck the police tape, curl up on her bedroom carpet and fall asleep.
"This is stupid, Harry," I told myself. I guess I wasn't in the mood to listen.
The last three chapters have been an amazing parade of contrivance towards set pieces that Butcher clearly decided he wanted to feature but didn't know how to justify.  (Maybe I'm unrealistic, but surely you don't leave a fresh murder scene completely unguarded after just a couple of hours?  Surely there's some newbie who could stand to spend the early hours of the morning standing by a door and preventing entry or tampering?)

Dresden awakens when the sun has risen and literally talks to himself for half a page, with line breaks like dialogue, forcing me to picture him now as Smeagol/Gollum snipping at each other.
"Get off the floor and get to work." 
"Don't wanna. Tired. Go away."
He's telling himself to go away.  I could perhaps let this go as internal monologue, but literally speaking aloud to himself?  I feel like I'm reading fanfiction.

A shocking break from tradition follows: Dresden looks around the room and sees evidence that Linda was an actual person: "a high-school yearbook [...] several photographs serving as bookmarks" and a framed photo of herself at graduation between her smiling parents.  It's not much, especially since it's used to imply how happy she used to be before she got into sex work and everything was terrible forever, but it's the first hint we've had that she had any depth of character.

But that's just a preamble, because this whole weird walk and break-and-enter and murder-scene nap was all a prolonged version of that cliche where our hero is searching desperately for something, can't find it, gives up, lets his gaze fall in a random direction, and there it is, the next plot token--a little plastic film canister exactly like the one he found at the Sells' beach house.  It has a full an undeveloped roll of film inside.

Just how atrociously bad are these cops?

I mean, okay, you know there's magic involved and you can't explain what's going on and maybe there is no mundane evidence that could help, but of all the things in the room to overlook, a full roll of film didn't strike anyone as potentially important evidence?  It could be anything!  It could be blackmail material she was going to use against someone powerful!  It could be secret government documents!  It could be the first non-blurry sasquatch photos!  What kind of hard-driven murder investigator sweeps a crime scene and misses a roll of film because it's slightly under the bed?!

It's not like there was much else in the room for it to get lost in, given the total lack of character-building possessions.

Dresden immediately grabs his rod and sets forth to find "this photographer", implicitly dismissing any possibility that Linda might have taken the pictures herself.  Why would she have the pictures if she didn't take them?  Is there something I forget about her alibi, or does Dresden just assume she couldn't possibly have any skills or interests outside of sex work?  Whatever.  The chapter ends as somebody else unlocks the apartment door and bursts in.

Old noir master Raymond Chandler gave us the one-size-fits-all solution to any stuck plot--a man bursts into the room with a gun**--but Butcher has already given us alternatives such as toad demon attack, the spontaneous existence of tracking spells, and various meddling sex objects women, so I'm not sure if this is a nod to the classics or just running out of ideas.

Chapter Nineteen: The Latest Findings From The Faculty Of The Screamingly Obvious At We-Already-Knew-That University

Dresden hides behind the opening door and the stranger who enters doesn't notice him, despite his eyes sweeping the room in a panic.  (Dresden informs us that it's exactly this panic that causes him to miss Dresden in his peripheral vision, which doesn't really jive with human instincts, but sure, whatever.)
His hair, a listless shade of brown, was drawn back into a ponytail. [....] He was a good-looking man, or so it seemed, with strong lines to his jaw and cheekbones.
I went searching on variants of the phrase 'listless brown' to see if maybe this was just a kind of hue adjective I've never heard before, but all I found was this (you are welcome):

Pictured: an excellent but fatigued puppy.

Personally I feel like the listless ponytail is going to seriously detract from any dude's attractiveness, but who am I to tell our hero which men he should ogle?  More importantly, Hot Stranger Man makes "a strange, cawing little sound" when he sees the bloody bed and immediately dives to search underneath it.  Dresden immediately concludes that this man is the photographer in question, again for no reason I can perceive.

Dresden kicks the door shut, flashes his badge, and startles the man with a solid bluff check: "I knew we'd catch you if I just waited".  (Again, why aren't the cops watching this place?  Isn't returning to the scene of the crime an actual thing killers are known to do?  Google suggests it's not purely a TV tradition.)  The man defends himself as an innocent newspaper photographer, but Dresden produces the film roll and keeps pressing.
I tried to think of what Murphy would sound like, if I was downtown with her right now, waiting for her to ask me questions.
Or... like, maybe what a private detective would sound like if he was questioning someone connected to both of his current cases?  I mean.  This is literally your job, Dresden.  You should not be improvising this.  These are actual skills that you are supposed to have been trained in by actual people.  You are not an everyman hero swept up in circumstance.  You are on billable hours.

Their exchanges remain stupid ("Am I in some kind of trouble?" "We'll see about that."  Of course he's in trouble!  He broke into a cordoned-off murder scene!  You don't need to bluff on this, man!) but the guy identifies himself as Donny Wise before realising that Dresden isn't an actual cop.  He tries to run, Dresden slams the door shut with magic, and Wise freaks out that he's "one of them" and begs for mercy.  When Dresden says he's trying to catch the killer, Wise demands to know why he'd risk death if he wasn't even sleeping with Linda.  Dresden, never one to miss a humblebrag, just says "Who else is going to?", thus ignoring a much smoother opportunity to think about his motivations, instead of the pages upon pages of unprovoked navel-gazing we've had up to now.

Wise demands the film in exchange for telling Dresden all he knows, and insists the film itself is useless "if you don't know what you're looking at".  Then why is it so important to steal it back?

Wise says that he knew Linda because he sometimes does magazine photoshoots with sex workers around town, and she called him in to photograph her through the window at the beach house Wednesday night.  He saw the thunderstorm sorcerer orgy inside, took all the shots as requested, and delivered the film to Linda the next day.  He didn't recognise anyone else inside.
"I wasn't looking. But they wasn't being too particular, if you take my meaning. Turned my stomach."
I don't think I do take his meaning.  'Not particular' doesn't sound like weird kinky stuff.  Was it gay stuff?  Was that the stomach-turning part?  Fuck you too, Donny.  Anyway: Dresden intuits that Wise actually wants the film back so he can blackmail people, though he claims he'll destroy it.  Dresden, genius of the year, instead says "Fuego" and incinerates the film on the spot without actually checking whether Wise is telling the truth.  Also, if that was really Wise's only involvement in this incident, why does he react to demonstrations of magic with 'you're one of them'?  He saw naked things happening, not telekinesis.  Was it magic sex?  (Create your own most disturbing 'was this your card?' joke.)

Dresden lets Wise go, despite not actually getting any information out of him that we didn't already know or at least mightily suspect, and still with no reason that Wise should know wizards are real, let alone involved in this case.  Dresden finally takes the unfathomable leap of induction that it wasn't chance that he was sent to the Sells' house before knowing it was important in this case, concludes that perhaps Monica knows more than she is letting on, and sets out to find her.

I'm 90% sure that Monica never gave Dresden her address and we have no proof that 'Sells' is even her last name, so I'm not sure how he plans to do that, but it doesn't matter because the next chapter opens with him arriving at her suburban home, no questions asked.

I just don't know, y'all.

---

*I suppose I should make a consistent note that these books don't have chapter titles and I'm just making them up for funsies, lest new readers be confused that the titles are so much more entertaining and thoughtful than the text.

**The blogqueen also suggested the alternative "a gun bursts into the room with a man", which I hope to work into my own writing someday.

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