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Thursday, May 15, 2014

Charlaine Harris: MIDNIGHT TEXAS TRILOGY

Author:  Charlaine Harris
Series:  MIDNIGHT TEXAS TRILOGY   
Plot Type:  Urban (actually, Small-Town) Fantasy (UF)     
Ratings:  Violence3; Sensuality2; Humor—3 
Publisher and Titles:  Ace
          "In the Blue Hereafter" (prequel story about Manfred in Games Creatures Play, 4/2014)
          Midnight Crossroad (5/2014)  
          Day Shift (5/2015) 
          Night Shift (5/2016) (FINAL)

This ongoing post was revised and updated on 5/3/2016 to include a review of Night Shift, the third and FINAL novel in the series. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and reviews of the first two novels.

                         NOVEL 3:  Night Shift                         
PUBLISHER'S BLURB: 
     At Midnight’s local pawnshop, weapons are flying off the shelves—only to be used in sudden and dramatic suicides right at the main crossroads in town. 

     Who better to figure out why blood is being spilled than the vampire Lemuel, who, while translating mysterious texts, discovers what makes Midnight the town it is. There’s a reason why witches and werewolves, killers and psychics, have been drawn to this place. 


     And now they must come together to stop the bloodshed in the heart of Midnight. For if all hell breaks loose—which just might happen—it will put the secretive town on the map, where no one wants it to be.


MY REVIEW: 

     Harris winds up her terrific MIDNIGHT TEXAS series by setting up several story lines around a compelling central plot:

>  The main plot centers on discovering the “something” that is living under the crossroad in the middle of Midnight and figuring out how to stop it from destroying the town.

>  Olivia’s past comes to the fore as she and others in Midnight realize that several recent events in Midnight are connected to her wealthy father and that she is being watched by two sets of stalkers—one that wants her dead and one that wants to protect her.

>  A new owner—Sylvester Ravenwing—takes over the Gas-N-Go service station, and it turns out that he has a long-standing connection to one of Midnight’s citizens.

>  Fiji and Bobo’s relationship reaches a climax (in more ways than one), but not without a period of angst-filled misunderstandings.

>  The supernatural residents of Midnight are suspicious that Teacher and Madonna are hiding something so they use their various skills to figure their big secret.

     Harris hopscotches among these story lines, some of which eventually merge as secrets are revealed, teamwork succeeds, and love triumphs for several Midnight residents. Meanwhile, in the background, we watch Diederik dealing with the sexual issues of early manhood under the watchful eyes of Quinn and the Rev—very humorous. Nearly everyone from the first two books (except for the Lovell family) returns to play a part, even the three elderly reprobates from Las Vegas—Tommy, Mamie, and Suzie—who are now residents of the Safe Harbor assisted-living center.

     The first line of the book leads directly into the main plot: “The first suicide arrives one October night.” That man drives into town, parks his pickup, and heads for Midnight's lone traffic light at the crossroad, where he shoots himself in the head. As it turns out, this wasn’t the first suicide after all, though, because Lemuel (the only vampire in town) cleaned up the mess several days ago when a homeless woman stabbed herself in the heart in the middle of the night—also at the crossroad. As more people arrive at the traffic light with suicide in mind, Fiji works her witchy magic to keep them away. But then, a deep voice begins speaking in her mind, explaining who the suicidal people are and what their connection is to her. When swarms of animals begin falling dead at the crossroad, the tension rises and the action heats up.

     Meanwhile, Lemuel is doing his best to translate the ancient travelogue books that Bobo found hidden in the pawn shop. He is certain that they contain all the answers to the crossroad problem, but the most important of them is written in Etruscan, a language in which Lemuel is not fluent. He’ll have to solve that huge problem before Samhain, which is just days away.

     As the various story lines weave through the plot, Harris ties up each loose end, some of which have been dangling since the first book. In the process, she gives us much more backstory on several of the main characters, for example,  Lemuel, Teacher and Madonna, Manfred, the mysterious Sylvester, and Fiji. (She has an evil sister!) We even get Mr. Snuggly's full biography.

     Harris describes the book like this: “It’s kind of gruesome, kind of scary and kind of sweet,” and that’s a pretty good description. The story-telling is terrific and each conflict is resolved in a plausible, satisfying manner (as is the usual case in works by this author). Harris involves almost everyone in the narration as she tells the story from multiple perspectives in the third-person voice. Naturally, Harris’s writing also includes those dry asides and wry descriptions that make me chuckle every time. Here are some of my favorite bits:

>  Best line describing a character: “Other than the fact that Olivia killed people, she was just an ordinary Midnighter.”

>  Best Buffy reference: At one point, Fiji wonders if Midnight might be on the Hellmouth, like Buffy’s Sunnydale. “Manfred laughed…‘You must be Willow, and Olivia must be Buffy. And Lemuel is Angel.’” Fiji replies, “I would classify Olivia more as Faith,..Bobo can be Xander.” And Manfred ends the comparison with “So Diederik would be Oz.”

>  Another cute pop culture reference: A group of elderly residents at the town hotel are “talking about how to play Texas hold ‘em and debating how many books Nora Roberts had written.”

>  Question that brings the discussion at an important town meeting to a complete halt (except for one small voice): “Is there a virgin in Midnight?”

>  The character who deserves a medal of honor for bravery in protecting his witch: Mr. Snuggly

     The only section (very tiny) that gave me pause was the moment when Fiji “realized that Midnight was able to have its own little rainbow” because of the wide range of ethnicities and life styles among its small group of citizens. That came across to me as overkill, with Harris waving a huge (rainbow) flag rather than trusting her readers to “get” it. 

     The Houston Press describes Harris as “the Mark Twain of things that live under your bed,” and that's exactly right. Her characters are so wonderfully drawn that it’s hard to leave them behind now that the series has ended. Let’s hope that the TV version will be as well done as True Blood so that we can continue to immerse ourselves in the Midnight story.
A note about crossroads in folklore: If you know anything about the mythology of crossroads, you know that the suicides in Midnight are being caused by a Big Bad. (In addition to Buffy, the TV show Supernatural frequently uses crossroads events as the focus of its plots.) In folklore, a crossroad is seen as a no-man’s land, not owned by anyone, and, as such, is a perfect place to conduct a ritual or cast a spell. The crossroad is a location between the worlds, a site where supernatural spirits can be contacted and magical events can take place. Symbolically, it can mean a locality where two realms touch and therefore represents a place that is literally neither here nor there. Click HERE for more information about crossroads symbolism.
     To read or listen to an excerpt from Night Shift, click HERE to go to the book's Amazon.com page where you can click either on the cover art or the "Listen" icon.

FULL DISCLOSURE: My review of Night Shift is based on an electronic advance reading copy (ARC) of the book that I received from the publisher through NetGalley. I received no promotional or monetary rewards, and the opinions in this review are strictly my own.

                         WORLD-BUILDING                         
     The series is set in Midnight, Texas, a rundown town at the intersection of Witch Light Road and the Davy highway in West Texas. This crossroads town has 14 inhabitants, a lot of boarded-up windows, and a few struggling businesses. The citizens of Midnight are an interesting lot, mostly because they all harbor deep personal secrets and because some of those secrets are supernatural in nature. Even though each one has been drawn to Midnight for a different reason, they all realize immediately this this is where they fit.

Here are the 14 citizens of Midnight as the series opens:

    > Bobo Winthrop: He is the owner of Midnight Pawn and was in a karate class with Lily Bard back in Shakespeare, Arkansas.

    > Manfred Bernardo (aka the Incredible Manfredo): Bobo's tenant, a psychic who is new in town and is an old friend of Harper Connelly. He has also been to Bon Temps, where he met Sookie Stackhouse.

    > Lemuel Bridger: Bobo's basement tenant, a centuries-old, energy-sipping vampire who works the night shift at the pawnshop.

    > Olivia Charity: Bobo's other tenant, a mysterious woman who is frequently away on secretive travels. She and Lemuel have a "close" relationship.

    > Fiji (pronounced "Fee-gee") Cavanaugh: She is a witch who owns The Inquiring Mind, a shop filled with New Age paraphernalia and surrounded by a lush garden of flowers and herbs.

    > Joe Strong: Co-owner of the Antique Gallery and Nail Salon.

    > Chuy (pronounced "Chewy") Villegas: Joe's life partner, the other co-owner. They also co-own a Pekinese named Rasta.

    > Teacher and Madonna Reed: He is a handyman and she runs the Home Cookin Restaurant. They live with their infant son, Grady, in a double-wide trailer behind the restaurant

    > Reverend Emilio Sheehan (aka the Rev): He runs the Wedding Chapel and Pet Cemetery.

    > Shawn Lovell: Shawn owns the Gas-N-Go service station and lives with his two teenage children: his son, Connor, and his daughter, Creek. 

     Before you read the series, you might want to click HERE and watch the video trailer for Midnight Crossroad, which gives you a nicely creepy overview of Midnight.

    The MIDNIGHT TEXAS series will soon appear as an NBC TV series and is currently shooting on location in New Mexico. Click HERE and HERE for more details. Click HERE to read an on-line interview in which Harris describes visiting the set during filming.

                       STORY 1:  "In the Blue Hereafter"                       
     This story features Manfred Bernardo, one of the lead characters in the MIDNIGHT, TEXAS series. The character of Manfred originated in Harris's HARPER CONNELLY series as the psychic friend of the title character. Click HERE to read my reviews of the four novels in the HARPER CONNELLY series.

      This little tale is set in present-day Bon Temps, Louisiana, where Manfred meets Sookie Stackhouse when he attends a softball game at the behest of his dead grandmother. 


     Click HERE to read my review of this story and all the others in this anthology, Games Creatures Play. Click HERE to read my reviews of the novels in the SOOKIE STACKHOUSE SERIES.

                         NOVEL 1:  Midnight Crossroad                         
     The first thing that Manfred learns when he moves to Midnight is that everyone has secrets and that no one asks personal questions. The group is friendly and supportive of one another, but everyone is holding back information of some sort. 

     The primary plot line follows the disappearance of Bobo's girlfriend, Aubrey Hamilton. As the novel begins, Aubrey has been missing for about two months, and Bobo is still grieving because he believes that he must have done something to make her leave him. His friends don't have very high opinions of Aubrey and seem to think that her disappearance from Bobo's life is a blessing in disguise. Early in the story, Aubrey's skeletal remains are discovered on the bank of a near-by river, and everyone in town becomes a murder suspect, except for Manfred, who just moved to Midnight. The investigation of Aubrey's murder uncovers one of Bobo's secrets: that his grandfather was mixed up with a white supremacist group called the Men of Liberty (MOL).   


     The murder investigation plays out in a police procedural sort of way with brief interruptions for expositional information about the town and its quirky inhabitants. The sheriff who heads up the investigation is Arthur Smith, a character who has jumped over from Harris's AURORA TEAGARDEN mystery series. Harris follows the classic crime mystery format: providing fair but cunning clues, throwing in several plausible suspects, and keeping the killer's identity secret until the end. As the investigation moves along, some—but not all—of Midnight's secrets are gradually revealed. One word of advice to the reader: Keep an eye on Fiji's cat, Mr. Snuggly.


     In a break with tradition, Harris tells this story in the third person voice from various characters' perspectives, primarily Manfred, Bobo, and Fiji. In an on-line interview, Harris has this to say: "I was really stoked by the prospect of doing something new. I don't like to repeat myself, so I needed the challenge of the third-person point of view and the different premise and setting." Harris says that the second book will be narrated by a different set of characters than this first one. Although some have criticized Harris's break from her usual first-person female voice, this third-person male/female approach worked quite well for me. The characters are such unique personalities that there was never any confusion about whose words and thoughts I was hearing. The dialogue and the inner thoughts of the characters are quite entertaining as Harris continues to demonstrate her mastery of dry, matter-of-fact small-town Southern wisdom. She can make me laugh out loud with just a few wry words, and that happened a dozen or so times as I read this book.


     I find myself of two minds about this novel. On the one hand, I loved the characters and their eccentricities, but on the other hand, the pace is extremely slow. I realize that first novels require a great deal of exposition, so I'm willing to give a pass to the pacing. The more I think about the characters, the more I want to read more about them. I'm hoping that Harris will give us her usual blockbuster story in the second novel because I can't wait to see how the town's citizens handle any new mischief-making that occurs in Midnight.


     One scene midway through the novel suggests that some woo-woo action is on the way in future books. One night, hours after Fiji falls asleep, "something big brushed up against the outside of the house…After a few seconds, [her] cat heard huge feet padding away…The same creature visited every inhabited house in Midnight, sniffing at the air, inspecting the doors and windows. It spent the longest time giving its attention to the trailer in which Madonna and Teacher lived with their baby. There, it rumbled, deep in its throat. But no one woke." (p. 172) This isn't really a spoiler because this is the one and only time this "creature" is mentioned...but I'm certain it will be back.


     Click HERE and scroll down a bit to read the first four chapters (51 pages) from the British edition of Midnight Crossroad, which includes brief bios of Manfred, Fiji, Bobo, and Olivia.


                         NOVEL 2:  Day Shift                         

PUBLISHER'S BLURB:
There is no such thing as bad publicity, except in Midnight, Texas, where the residents like to keep to themselves. Even in a town full of secretive people, Olivia Charity is an enigma. She lives with the vampire Lemuel, but no one knows what she does; they only know that she’s beautiful and dangerous. 

     Psychic Manfred Bernardo finds out just how dangerous when he goes on a working weekend to Dallas and sees Olivia there with a couple who are both found dead the next day. To make matters worse, one of Manfred’s regular—and very wealthy—clients dies during a reading. 


     Manfred returns from Dallas embroiled in scandal and hounded by the press. He turns to Olivia for help; somehow he knows that the mysterious Olivia can get things back to normal. As normal as things get in Midnight…


MY REVIEW: 
     The primary mystery involves Manfred and his dead client, Rachel Goldthorpe. Rachel's loathsome son, Lewis, immediately claims that Manfred killed his mother and stole her expensive jewels, so Manfred is soon pulled in for questioning by the police and besieged with paparazzi at his home in Midnight, to the chagrin of the other residents, all of whom despise publicity of any kind (for reasons that are becoming more and more obvious).

     In addition to this main story line, Harris includes others that percolate mostly in the background:


    > A child named Diederik comes to stay with the Rev. When he arrives, he looks to be about four years old, but he seems to age a year or so for every day he is in Midnight.

     > Dark secrets from Olivia's past threaten her future when her face appears in a newspaper photo taken at the "death hotel" in Dallas.

     > A huge corporation renovates the broken down hotel in Midnight and reopens it to serve a specific population, some of whom are chosen under mysterious circumstances.

     Then, further in the background, Harris raises other questions. Why does Joe believe that Teacher and Madonna need to leave Midnight? Why is the owner of the Gas-N-Go unable to find a new manager? Lemuel, Midnight's guardian vampire, is out of town searching for someone who can help him translate the ancient books he discovered back in book 1. How will the content of those books affect the residents of Midnight?

     The bulk of the book deals with Manfred's dilemma as he and Olivia are forced to work together to solve the murder and find the jewels in order to stop the flow of outsiders into Midnight. We learn much more about Oliviaboth past and presentmaking her one of the most interesting characters in the book (although the most tragic part of her backstory is also the most banal). The story lines about the hotel and the mysterious child pull in two characters from the Sookie Stackhouse universe, one of whom assists Manfred and Olivia in their investigation. The other turns up near the end and fills us in on the recent events in his life (although the details don't match up perfectly with his bio in After Dead: What Came Next in the World of Sookie Stackhouse).


     Two interesting human characters are a part of the story: Arthur Smith, the sheriff, and Magdalena Orta Powell, Manfred's attorney. (She is also Lemuel's lawyer.) So…how much do these two really know about the supernatural world? Arthur plays the role of the laid-back good-old-boy, but seems to see everything with his big blue eyes and his disconcerting stare. Magdalena comes across as a tough, expensive, pragmatic lawyer, but as Manfred gets to know her better, he learns more about her private life, which includes the fact that her mother is one of his biggest fans.


     Harris does a great job in this book as she spins a moderately suspenseful murder mystery while revealing a few more secrets about the supernatural denizens of Midnight. One question that I raised in my review of the first book is answered in this one: the identity and nature of that "something big" creature that was stalking around town in the middle of the moonlit night.


     Harris tells the story in the third-person voice mostly from the perspectives of Manfred, Joe, and Olivia, although Fiji and Mr. Snuggly get a brief voice as well, mostly as observers rather than active participants. (The story tellers in the first book were Manfred, Bobo, and Fiji.) Although Harris is using multiple perspectives, Manfred appears to be the lead character in this quirky ensemble.


     I will admit up front that I have a positive bias toward Harris's fiction, and this book doesn't budge me from that stance. She always tells a great story by finely balancing suspenseful drama with quirky characters to concoct stories that draw in and engross the reader, stretching out the tension until the final scenes of resolution. By the end of this book, two of the story lines are resolved, which still leaves a number of mysterious yet to be revealed. I am particularly interested in what will happen next to Olivia and what the books reveal to Lemuel, not to mention the Teacher-Madonna situation. To read or listen to an excerpt from Day Shift, click HERE to go to the book's Amazon.com page where you can click either on the cover art or the "Listen" icon.

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