Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Day Shift - Charlaine Harris

Day Shift is the second in Charlaine Harris’s “Midnight – Texas” series.  As implied in the series name, it’s a supernatural mystery serial, set in the somewhat decrepit and isolated town of Midnight. The first book, Midnight Crossroad, was an entertaining enough adventure piece with a little mystery, but, to its detriment, it seemed determined to juggle too many narratives at once. Still, it was an entertaining read, so I was somewhat hopeful on approaching the sequel.

Day Shift opens with a punch, as we follow Manfred, the slightly odd psychic from the first novel, into the ‘big city’, where he goes to do in-person readings for a client. Shortly after arriving, he discovers that another Midnight resident is also in the city, and, in fact, at the same hotel. Shortly after that, there are a spate of unfortunate deaths at the hotel, and it looks like Manfred is going to get the blame.

Where Midnight Crossroad was part adventure, part travelogue, Day Shift feels a bit more focused. The reader is immediately presented with the mystery of several deaths, and given the stakes – Manfred is very much a suspect – and there’s less of the leisurely introduction of characters throughout. Instead, the textual emphasis is on the plot, on the mystery, and on solving that mystery. On balance, I think the text benefits from this clear direction.

From a plot point of view, the central mystery is quite entertaining.  There’s a fairly persistent investigation thread running through the text, and the clues that are dropped are sensible and cohesive. There’s also a couple of red herrings to throw the reader off the scent, and they also work quite well. Less effective is the introduction of another resident to Midnight, who happens to have a supernatural power, which just happens to prove very useful during the investigation. Coincidences abound, and may serve to remove some of the reader’s stake in the story – allowing for convenient resolution of otherwise intractable issues.  That said, I wanted to see how the mystery came out, and it was quite hard to put the book down until I knew the answer, so  on balance the plot approach was quite effective at keeping me in the narrative.

That said, there’s more focus on character in this book, which is a pleasant evolution from its predecessor. In particular, the reader gets a more in-depth view of Olivia, the armed and dangerous mystery woman of Midnight.  The text isn’t exactly filled with revelatory paragraphs, but it’s nice to see the character explored further, and given more of a personality outside of having a role to play. The same is true of several new Midnight residents – whilst they don’t get the same amount of screen time Olivia does, none of them feel like ciphers. There’s the usual tendency for Midnight residents not to talk about anything personal, ever, but the new characters do get their feelings and motivations fleshed out tolerably well.

That said, the supernatural population of Midnight now beggars belief. In a town widely described in the text as small and off the beaten track, pretty much the entire population appears to have some sort of supernatural power. At one point this is lampshaded by another character, who simply wants to know if anyone in the town is normal. The answer to which is…well, not really. It’s a shame, because there are some interesting tensions to be explored in that space between humanity and the supernatural, but here there’s a tendency to form the Supernatural Superfriends instead.

The prose is about on par with Midnight Crossroad – sparse, and a bit blunt, but eminently readable. It would be nice to get more in the way of character descriptions, but the environmental pieces are excellent – Midnight feels like a real town, albeit one slowly sliding into senescence, and it remains a pleasure to read about.

Overall, Day Shift is a decent sequel to Midnight Crossroad. It starts to address some of the issues with that text, giving us tighter plotting and more character depth. It’s still not perfect, but, for all it's flaws, it’s definitely getting there – and serves as a decent read in the meantime.

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