Thursday, April 2, 2015

Midnight Crossroad - Charlaine Harris

Midnight Crossroad is the first in a new series by Charlaine Harris – otherwise known for the now famous True Blood books. It’s set in the dilapidated town of Midnight, Texas, where, as ever, not everything is quite what it seems. Actually, almost nothing is what it seems, which becomes a bit of a problem – but more on that later.

The book ostensibly follows Manfred, an internet based psychic who may, or may not, actually be a psychic. He’s joined quite quickly by a rather extensive raft of supporting characters;  there’s a cheery pawn shop owner. There’s a semi-Wiccan witch (with appropriate cat). There’s two men running an antiques store (because, of course they do). There’s the taciturn owner of the wonderfully named ‘Gas and Go’. There’s the night shift tenant at the pawn shop, and his livr in girlfriend. And absolutely every single one of them refuses to talk about anything more personal than the weather. There’s a lot of dark glances, mutterings, and general closed-mouthedness.  Frankly I was surprised any of them managed to order breakfast at the diner (staffed by the only people in the entire town who seemed a) normal and b) able to hold a non-portentous or mysterious conversation).  What suffers here is characterisation. Whilst Manfred gets some back story, mentioned in passing, which works quite well, the only other characters to really feel like they’re being properly realised are the pawn shop owner – the marvellously named Bobo – and the mystical witch who carries a bit of a torch for him. In a sense, this is understandable, because they’re point-of-view characters alongside Manfred. On the other hand, the other characters do feel a bit like ciphers, exercising plot for reasons of their own, which are never entirely clear.

On the town of Midnight is an absolute star. Harris gives a wonderful description of a dusty, one stop, blow away town, clinging to the edge of nothingness, gradually withering into…well, nothing much, really. The sense of small town claustrophobia is evoked wonderfully, as is the feeling that the whole place is more an asylum for the terminally odd – Twin Peaks on the edge of nowhere.

The plot…the plot is a bit odd. It starts off slowly, drawing the reader into the town, introducing us to the characters, and telling us about how close-mouthed and thoroughly odd they all are. Along with the vivid description of the town itself, this bit works rather well. Then it all starts to get a bit excited – there’s a murder, there’s white supremacists, there’s kidnapping…there’s really just a lot going on. I’m not entirely convinced that it all needed to be happening in the same book, and we might have benefitted from a little more exploration of one or two threads, rather than the five or six that actually happened. On the other hand, it’s a very easy read, and the sheer bombardment of things happening kept me turning the pages. There’s some reveals that are just…dropped in, and some near the end which I don’t think you could see coming – which on one hand is good, there’s a lot of surprises here, but on the other, leaves the reader blindsided, unable to really see  what drives a character, because it might change at any moment.

Given it’s a new series, with no explicit connections to Harris’s other work, there’s also a certain unspoken reliance on the reader having read the True Blood series as well – apparently Manfred is a side character there, and the curious acceptance of the townsfolk for the supernatural (at least when convenient) may be explained by the world building in True Blood – on its own merits though,  without reference to earlier work, that acceptance just seems…odd.

Overall then, this is a good popcorn read, with some high points – I powered through ti in a couple of days, and can safely say that whilst the plot gets a bit ridiculous at times, it’s a lot of fun to read. The town is a delight, and it’s easy to imagine yourself in that world. There’s apparently a sequel in the series, so I’m hoping we’ll see a bit more character growth as the series grows, and a little less deus ex-machina around the plot. If you’re already a fan of Harris, you’ve probably already decided to give this a go. If you’re not an existing fan – it’s a good, if flawed read – snappy, fun, and worth picking up.

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