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Review: Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris

dead until dark charlaine harris Review: Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris

Im a notorious late adopter. I got around to reading Harry Potter only when the fifth book came out. I started wearing skinny jeans several years into the trend. Im still on the first season of Mad Men. I hyphenate words long ago adopted into the vernacular as happy little compounds. I still havent used my Myki. And so, here I am, at last, reviewing Dead Until Dark, the first of Charlaine Harriss best-selling vampire mystery series, of which there are eleven or so books, and several seasons worth of a television series.


Sookie Stackhouse is your typical fictional small-town waitress: sweet and charming, uneducated but razor-sharp, and with a tongue just as lacerating as a cat-o-nine tails. Of course, Sookie does have a secret or two that sets her apart from her fellow waitresses. Such as the fact that she can read minds, a skill, or as Sookie sees it, a disability, that makes it a little tough to keep her tongue in check sometimes. But still, for the most part, she gets on with the job. Except on occasions involving handsome vampires. And those who would like to see said handsome vampires bled dry for fun and profit. On such occasions our Sookie prefers to take the law into her own hands, and my, how such a small event can turn into something rather substantial. A torrid love affair between the living and the once-living. Stigma and suspicion. Fear of the unknown. And also murders. A whole lot of murders. Fortunately, Sookies no sook, and with her new vampire chap, happily sets off to fight crime in rural Louisianawith sometimes disastrous, and sometimes surprisingly effective, results.

My thoughts

Dead Until Dark is vampire fiction for the cozy mystery set. Fun, flippant, and not too taxing. While Harriss laconic, staccato style takes a while to warm to, her setting and characters are much easier with which to identify: both are simultaneously familiar and odd, offering a slightly canted perspective on day-to-day life. Sookie neatly fills the waitress stereotype, making her an instantly recognisable and sympathetic figure to the reader, and allowing her mind-reading (dis)ability to be more easily accepted. Similarly, the town of Bon Temps, is your small southern town with a slight twist: the fact that vampires and other creatures of the night roam its streets. The mix of the familiar and the slightly less so allows for easy suspension of disbelief, and Harriss approach to the way in which vampires, who are nominally citizens and who are subject to the same rights and responsibilities as their living counterparts, is quite interesting, and can be taken as an (admittedly insubstantial) allegory of race relations in this area. Its also nice to see something other than the middle class represented, although Harriss use of the vampires to potentially represent the cruel and overwhelming force of the middle classnot to mention her rather conscience-free cast of police officers, all of whom seem less than concerned about the not-so-piffling numbers of young girls winding up deaddoes feel a little squirm-inducing.

Sookie, too, has the potential to be an intriguing character, although in this, the first book, were not given the depth of character that I expect will begin to emerge later down the track. This can be one of the problems with a multi-book character arc: the type of plot, theme, and character development usually condensed into a single volume tends, like that last teaspoon of Vegemite in the jar, to be somewhat thinly spread in order to accommodate the breadth of the rest of the volume. Harris does, however, handle well Sookies mind-reading ability, and I was interested to see the ways in which this ability has so significantly affected so many of the domains of her life: her career, education, and romantic life, for example, have all been substantially guided or retarded by this ability, leading to Sookies dismissal of her skills as a disability. Of course, her perception of the same does begin to change as she finds herself embroiled in a murder investigationa sphere in which mind reading can be quite a useful skill, and not to mention rather more portable than a lie detector deviceand when she finds herself courting not one, but two, supernatural chaps. Its interesting to see Sookie begin to see that her ability offers opportunities in addition to its limitations, and to watch her historically black and white approach to dealing with the world become a little less chiaroscuro and a little more grey. I did, however, find myself a little bemused by Sookies weird romantic ambivalence and constant about-facing when it came to her self-worth, and then felt more than a little frustrated by the dark past reason given as a precipitating factor for these particular feelings.

As a lover of cozies that traverse all manner of hobbies (scrapbooking mysteries!), professions (dry cleaning sleuths!), and settings (Ancient Mayan civilisation!) I rather enjoyed the mystery element of this book, and did take to kooky Sookie as a small-town detective. However, some of the other elements of the book didnt quite work for me as a reader. The pacing of the novel is rather uneven, and has certain slow-burning elements that frustrated the instant-gratification-seeking Gen Y in me, and other elements that are over so quickly that a girl cant help but wonder is that it? While establishing a pace that satisfies at both the series and single volume level is certainly a challenge, I felt that more could have been done here to even out the novel. Particular areas of frustration include the integration of the legal status of vampires, the first Sookie-to-the-resuce scene, the rather prolonged series of jokes regarding an undead Elvis, and the love triangle between Sookie and her two night-lovin suitors. Similarly, the romance angle here was something that I rather struggled withadmittedly this may be to do rather with my absolute loathing of manipulative, possessive alpha males. While Im a romantic at heart, Im also deeply cynical, and find it rather irritating to have characters proclaiming their undying (erm, or whatever the vampiric equivalent isun-undying?) love for one another after a few fangtastic romps and some meaningful glances over filter coffee. This, perhaps, speaks to the difficulty of bridging two distinct genres: while I could imagine that paranormal romance fans would be pleading for greater emphasis on this element, I can similarly see mystery lovers wishing for it to be dialled back in order to focus on the gumshoe angleand particularly so given Harriss background as a mystery writer.


Dead Until Dark is fun, fluffy, and immensely readable, and I can see how it has managed to pique the interest of such a substantial audience. Its sweet and charming, and doesnt pretend to be anything more, which is refreshing. As the first in the series, its a book that promises good things to come, although admittedly if it were pitched as a standalone Id be rather less impressed. Sookies no-nonsense approach to vampire varmints is enjoyable, and despite a few painfully cliched plot elements, such as Sookies unspoken-of past, an over-reliance on the familiar and archetypal, and some plotting and pacing issues, the book offers a solid few hundred pages of escapism.

Rating: star Review: Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harrisstar Review: Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harrishalfstar Review: Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harrisblankstar Review: Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harrisblankstar Review: Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris (not bad)

With thanks to Gollancz Australia for the review copy

See also our review of Living Dead in Dallas

Purchase Dead Until Dark from Amazon | Book Depository UK | Book Depository USA

Other books by Charlaine Harris:

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  1. I still wont wear skinny jeans! And Ive never read this series, which I guess makes mea non-adopter? an avoider? Ive just never been a vampire person, so these books have never appealed to me. Sounds like itd be good mind candy, though!

  2. Stephanie /

    Thanks for visiting, Erin! Ive just read the second of these, and the series is starting to grow on me, although Im still having issues with all of those awful alpha males!

  3. Hi Stephanie, great review. I was really expecting to love this one but unfortunately fonund myself disappointed. Im keeping my fingers crossed that it gets better as the series continues. I love the True Blood TV show though :)

  4. Stephanie /

    Hi Sarah, me too! Id heard such wonderful things about it. Ive heard that the TV show is quite different, though, so I might have a look at that instead. :)