Dead Until Dark

by Charlaine Harris

Cover image

Series: Southern Vampire #1
Publisher: Ace
Copyright: May 2001
ISBN: 0-441-00853-4
Format: Mass market
Pages: 260

Buy at Powell's Books

Charlaine Harris was an established series mystery writer before she started the Southern Vampire stories with this book and moved into the vampire romance genre, although still with a touch of mystery. Dead Until Dark (and the rest of the series) stars Sookie Stackhouse, a barmaid in the small southern town of Bon Temps, Louisiana. Sookie is a good-hearted, naive, working-class southern girl whose life revolves around her job, small-town gossip, and helping her mother around the house until a vampire shows up at the bar and someone starts murdering local girls who sleep with vampires.

This is, for the most part, light romance fare, staying quite a bit farther away from either horror or erotica than many other entries in this genre. It is, as usual, told in the first person from Sookie's perspective, and the character interactions and emotions drive the story more than the plot. Bill, the vampire, is a darkly attractive, formally polite suitor; the sexual content is low (although not non-existent) and for much of the book Sookie is trying to decide whether she even wants to date him. There are, however, two interesting twists, one supernatural and one situational.

The supernatural twist is that Sookie is psychic. She can read other people's thoughts unless she's specifically screening them out, although only the thoughts that they're thinking at the moment. Bill's greatest attraction has nothing to do with vampire sexuality; she just can't read his thoughts, which makes him blessedly silent. She considers her ability to be a handicap, not something to be exploited, and mostly tries to hide it and not use it. I didn't find that entirely believable, but it does create an unusual tone to have a heroine who doesn't revel in her abilities, who instead treats them as routine and mostly doesn't use them. The quirk makes Sookie a bit alienated from the rest of the town, which I think helps the reader identify with her, and serves as a useful plot device and weirdness detector to provide clues. Beyond that, the handling of psychic abilities was rather pedestrian.

A more interesting twist is the background Harris uses. Nearly all fantasy novels have average middle-class heroes. Even if they live in a different time or place, they still have many of the concerns and attitudes of educated, middle-class (and frequently American) people, or in the more sophisticated fantasies, are at least part of the power structure of their society. Dead Until Dark is about working-class people in a small town in the southern US, and the difference in background is remarkable. Harris's heroine and supporting cast are from a different class than the typical vampire romance characters, with different concerns and a different insight on the world. I'm poorly qualified to say how accurate Harris's portrayal is, but it rang true for me and I recognized the gossip and head-shaking acceptance of a small town. The class difference isn't played for cheap humor, either (one Elvis sighting aside); Sookie may be naive, but she's also brave, determined, and savvy in a way that fits her background and surroundings, and the small-town interrelationships show characters in a more positive light than not.

This is light reading with a a forgettable mystery ending that the characters stumble across rather than working out logically. The vampire politics are vaguely interesting, but not really anything you haven't read before. What sets Dead Until Dark apart is the different class background, characters with a refreshingly different perspective, and an enjoyably plucky viewpoint heroine who isn't a stock sarcastic private detective. I'm not sure I'll seek out the next book, but it's good airplane reading.

Followed by Living Dead in Dallas.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-08-12

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