Jack, last name withheld, lives off the grid in New York City. He has no social security number. He pays no income taxes. All his IDs are fake. As far as officialdom is concerned, he doesn’t exist. And that’s the way he likes it. “Repairman Jack,” as he is professionally known, fixes problems for a living. When people come to his website looking for someone to fix their broken appliances, he ignores them. When they need help with a trickier problem, he chooses whether to get back to them or not. He can afford to be picky. His fee is very high. But he’s a tough, resourceful guy who knows how to stay unnoticed, how to follow and not be spotted, how to move and not be followed, how to find out what’s really going on, and then how to deal with it. He’s not a bad guy. But he’s no stranger to deadly force either. If you mess with him… look out.
Here’s what you want to know about these stories in general: Their writing was spread out over most of the years Butcher has been working on the Dresden Files. They fill cracks in the canon between the Dresden novels and blanks in the background of Harry and his friends. They spotlight a rich variety of themes, tones, and secondary characters. They cover a range of moods between deep cold terror and urgent panicky thrills, between laughter and tragedy, between light detective jobs with a side of magic and crises that shake the fabric of creation. Two of them are told from the point of view of characters other than Harry, while he himself remains in the background. And yet all of them are charged with the unmistakable energy of fun that we have come to associate with a certain wisecracking, tough-as-nails wizard.
Give a Chicago private eye a magic wand, and what do you get? Well, Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, mostly. But Harry Dresden is a wizard of our time—a little rusty with high-tech gadgetry, to be sure, but also a VW Beetle-driving, pop-culture-riffing, very human wizard. One reviewer frequently quoted in jacket blurbs of the Dresden novels likens him to a mash-up of Philip Marlowe and Merlin. But actually, he’s a lot more like Richard Castle combined with Harry Potter. If you really want your wand-wielding detective hard boiled, you should try Mick Oberon. He has the period for it: the 1930s, the age of bootleggers and Chicago gangsters like Bugs Moran and Al Capone. He also has a shoulder holster in which he packs a high-caliber wand, best used for giving and taking luck and maybe spinning the occasional glamour. He talks in a clipped voice loaded with period slang, like “flivver” for “automobile” and “gink” for “man.” He could almost have stepped out of a pulp novel by James M. Cain or Raymond Chandler. Only, he isn’t human.
In Book 3 of the “Odd Thomas” series, the young fry cook who sees dead people has retreated to a monastery in the mountains for a needed break from the stress of his quiet hometown. He only wants a little time to heal from two harrowing encounters with monsters in human form. But his respite is cut short by the appearance of bodachs at the abbey—or more precisely, in the school for mentally and physically disabled children run by nuns, next door to the monastery. These silent, shadowy creatures always seem drawn to places where there will soon be violence on a big scale. For reasons Odd cannot begin to guess, the gloating bodachs have started to crowd around these defenseless and unwanted children. He has only a day or two to figure out how to protect them, and from whom. Or what.
Yes, Odd Thomas is odd. But Odd is also his first name. And yes, Odd Thomas is a little stressed out by the fact that he sees dead people and the trouble that sometimes accompanies their apparition. In fact, he’s worried about his mental health, and his experiences have aged him way beyond his 21 years, at least in his mind. So when his second volume of memoirs kicks in, we find him on a leave of absence from the fry cook job that he does so well but that he doesn’t think his nerves can take. He is starting to think about getting into the tire business (installation, not sales) since it seems even less demanding than slinging hash. He is still pulling himself together after the death of his fiancée Stormy. He is enjoying the quiet of the small Mojave Desert town of Pico Mundo, California. And he is still rooming with Elvis, the rock ‘n’ roll legend turned silent ghost.
The third book of the “Troubletwisters” series pits young Wardens-in-waiting Jaide Shield and her twin brother Jack against yet another threat to the wards that protect the town of Portland from the Evil. You know, that force of emptiness that comes from another dimension and wants to take over everything. They have thwarted the Evil twice before. But if there’s one lesson the Evil seems to learn faster than Grandma X and the other good guys, it’s that keeping secrets from the twins makes them vulnerable. And if they’re vulnerable, so is Portland… and the world.
Here is a most satisfying recent example of the classic type of private-eye novel. The detective is the whimsically named Cormoran Strike, an ex-military policeman whose career in the army ended when a roadside bomb took away half a leg. His name has nothing to do with his father, a philandering superstar rock musician with whom he has no relationship whatever, and a lot to do with his “supergroupie” mother, who was flaky and impractical and died with a heroin needle stuck in her arm. He is 35 years old, up to his ears in debt, picking up the pieces after the end of a stormy 15-year relationship with a beautiful woman called Charlotte, and struggling to keep his business afloat while sleeping on a camp-bed in his office. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, he is a very determined, methodical investigator. He has a special gift for drawing answers out of people who don’t want to be questioned. And when he looks at the evidence of a celebrity death that the police declared to be suicide, he sees a different picture emerge.
Already in the table of contents of this book, we encounter a mystery. The Kindle edition that I read includes 11 Sherlock Holmes adventures in this book, as do most American editions and some British editions of this book. The very first edition, however, contained 12 stories. Fear not; “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box” will eventually turn up, most likely in “His Last Bow,” where it has been added to most American editions. The reason for this has something to do with censorship and public morals, but I won’t go into that here. What you want to know about this book is that it is the second set of short stories featuring Holmes, collected from the monthly installments that Conan Doyle published in “The Strand Magazine” between 1892 and 1893.
Sherlock Holmes had already appeared in two novels, but his popularity did not really take off until the brief “adventures” collected in this book began to appear in monthly issues of “The Strand Magazine”, from 1891 to 1892. And though there are two novels and three volumes of short stories still to come, these 12 mysteries include some of Holmes’s most memorable and celebrated cases. Few of them are concerned with actual murder or even actionable crimes, and Holmes doesn’t always get his man (or woman). But they are Holmes all over, the Sherlock you sure love, fascinating us (even when his cases don’t) by his keen observation, quick deduction, and encyclopedic recall of the history of crime—so that he can often solve in moments a case that keeps Scotland Yard guessing for days.
The second book of the Sherlock Holmes canon was first published in 1890 under the five-word title “The Sign of the Four”. Since then, it has often been republished under the four-word title “The Sign of Four”. The confusion actually originates in the book itself, in which both phrases are used interchangeably. Although Holmes did not really become a hit until Conan Doyle followed up with a series of short stories (later collected in such books as “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes”), this book is an important step in the development of a great cultural icon. This is the one in which Dr. Watson meets his beloved wife Mary. It marks the first time Holmes enunciates his famous dictum, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” In this novel, the sleuth’s craving for a seven-percent solution of cocaine is first mentioned, as is the name of the Baker Street Irregulars, those dirty-faced junior detectives of his. Viewers of TV’s “Elementary” will be thrilled to find Holmes here saying, for the first time: “You can… never foretell what any one man will do, but you can say with precision what an average number will be up to.” And fans of the late Holmes film featuring a bare-knuckled boxing Holmes may be delighted to spot the first mention of his pugilistic talents, already in his second recorded case.