Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris
True Blood and the Sookie Stackhouse Mysteries the show is based on has been on the edge of my radar for a while. I appreciated the fact that Harris’ vampires were old-school vampires, in contrast with the sparklepires of Twilight. Due to True Blood, though, the books are very in demand at public libraries. I finally got my hands on a copy after foolishly allowing one to slip away from me at a library sale. (It was even the lovely mass market cover rather than the one shown here.)
Dead Until Dark follows Sookie Stackhouse, a Louisiana waitress with a “disability”–she can read people’s thoughts. This makes Sookie’s life very complicated, and her love life is nonexistent. One evening, a vampire walks into the bar and Sookie, to her great surprise, cannot hear his thoughts. Delighted with this, Sookie and the vampire, Bill, start dating. However, women who have been involved with vampires start turning up dead in Sookie’s parish. Sookie has to deal with her suddenly very active love life and discover the killer, because she might be next…
The whole atmosphere in Dead Until Dark is much too cozy, especially concerning Sookie. She is, to me, an unbelievable character. She has a bigger and more negative reaction to Bill walking into the bar with a girl on his arm than she does to realizing he doesn’t have a heartbeat or chastising Bill lightly for murdering people for her. On top of her bizarre reactions to living a life with vampires, she can be inconsistently obtuse. She picks up on human behavior very, very quickly, due to her gift, but when she can’t read the thoughts of a character, she doesn’t for a minute ponder if they are a supernatural creature, like everyone else whose thoughts she can’t read–which means the audience has to wait nearly the entire book for Sookie to cotton onto a fact they’ve realized much too early on. There are very nice bright spots, especially when Sookie explores her long suppressed gift and deals with vampires other than Bill. A scene where Sookie nervously negotiates a deal using her ability with the oldest vampire in the region is wonderful, with all the tension and fear any dealing with vampires should have. But overall, Sookie is just unbelievable. And, since the entire series is from Sookie’s perspective, I think that ends my involvement with the Sookie Stackhouse Mysteries.
However, Harris’ world of vampires is wonderful–save for an annoying twee cameo in the last third of the book. Vampires have been recently recognized as citizens of the United States, sending Bill back to Louisiana to finally claim his land. People who sleep with vampires for kicks and giggles are called “fang-bangers” derisively. Vampires have a pecking system based on age, developed over thousands of years due to the fact that they’re going to be living with each other for eternity. She reveals tantalizing bits and pieces of her personal vampire lore in one of the best ways I’ve seen for a supernatural novel–vampires are quite en vogue since “coming out of the coffin”, and most of Sookie’s information comes from afternoon talk shows and such. It’s wonderful.
Harris also gets a point for being matter-of-fact about queer characters in the South. Lafayette, the cook during Sookie’s shift at her bar, is gay, and when Sookie makes an impromptu call to Bill’s house and finds a vampire party underway, she doesn’t blink (much) at one of the male vampires and his male beau. However, introducing Sino-AIDS as a blood disease with a gay character was very disconcerting to me–it’s obviously meant to mirror AIDS, but it feels a little flippant since it’s a bit of a throwaway that doesn’t appear to be addressed in any of the other books. I am told that in True Blood, vampires are susceptible to a strain of hepatitis, which makes heaps more sense to me.
The mystery itself, poor thing, has to compete with Sookie’s love life and dealings with vampires, which dominate most of the book. It’s fairly compelling, especially as it comes closer and closer to Sookie, and it is shocking–but Sookie’s lack of reaction really hurts it, especially towards the first few victims. Still, the climax is thrilling and scary, as it should be.
All in all, while I think I’ll give up on the Sookie Stackhouse Mysteries, I think I will give True Blood a shot. It sounds like my favorite kind of book adaptations–one that doesn’t treat the books as completely sacred and unchangeable, and makes changes for the better.
Bottom line: While the vampire mythos Harris has created is fascinating, the unbelievability of Sookie Stackhouse herself fatally wounds an otherwise interesting mystery in Dead Until Dark.
I rented this book from the public library.