Living Dead In Dallas, by Charlaine Harris (Ace, 2002)

Telepathic barmaid Sookie Stackhouse is back, and as usual, she’s up to her neck in problems, worries, catastrophes, disasters, and relationship problems. It’s hard enough having a disability like telepathy in the small-minded small town of Bon Temps, Louisiana, without throwing in all the other random stuff: her boss is a shapeshifter, and her boyfriend is a vampire by the name of Bill, who last saw mortality sometime around the Civil War.

Last time out, Sookie, sweet and sometimes baffled thing that she is, got in a whole mess of trouble, what with beginning to date a bloodsucking undead fiend of the night (a vaguely protected, out-of-the-coffin-and-drinking-the-synthetic-stuff-developed-by-the-Japanese-if-they-know-what’s-good-for-them minority) and generally scandalizing the good folks of her hometown by taking up with the wrong element. It damn near cost her some good friendships, not to mention her life. After all that, things had to quiet down, right?

Wrong. It all starts close to home, when a flamboyantly gay coworker of Sookie’s is found dead. In a police car. And the suspicion all comes back to a supposedly nonexistent sex club operating right there in cozy Bon Temps, about the last place one would expect sexual deviancy and -that- sort of behavior. Before Sookie can really come to terms with this, however, she gets sidetracked by a mythical wild woman and her giant boar, who poison Sookie in order to send a message to the locals. Those pesky maenads.

So Sookie gets herself healed at no little risk or pain, by the vampires of Shreveport, who immediately call in a favor. Next thing our mind-reading heroine knows, she’s on her way to Dallas with Bill, loaned out to help find a missing vampire. And this being Sookie Stackhouse’s life, one thing snowballs into another. There’re the vampires of Shreveport, and the vampires of Dallas, and a very annoying human organization called The Fellowship of the Sun, which is to vampires what the KKK is to normal people.

Big Trouble.

Before Sookie’s done, she’ll have been kidnapped, attacked, chased, rescued, encountered vampires and shapeshifters, and uncovered a variety of nasty little plots involving ritual burning of vampires, both willing and unwilling, by sunlight. Even if she survives Dallas, she’ll go home just to risk her fool neck trying to uncover the mystery of her murdered coworker and the sex club of Bon Temps. Can she do all this, and still keep a relationship with Bill? Or will something break first?

Living Dead in Dallas is that rarest of mixed genres: Southern romantic vampire mystery. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, there’s no way these elements should work at all, much less as well as they do. But Charlaine Harris pulls it off with style and wit, keeping it from veering towards campy humor and slash-and-gore. Sookie’s telepathy is both blessing and curse, and she plays out both angles of this throughout the course of the book. The vampires are nothing terribly new; even the idea of ‘outed’ vampires has been done before. However, Harris still injects them with a feeling of freshness, adding details like fangbangers (mortal groupies), clubs where mortals go to ogle vampires like they might celebrities in Hollywood, and the various competing brands of synthetic blood, sold over the counter in all the best bars. Also, the supernatural elements — vampires, shapeshifters, and the occasional anomaly — contain comfortable ratios of sensuality, alienness, power and tragedy.

All of this is wrapped together with a pair of mysteries that keep it from getting dull. Harris, already an accomplished mystery author with several books to her credit, is in fine form here. The book neither dwells overmuch on the fantastic concepts that create the underlying principle, or meanders too far into the realm of straight mystery or offbeat romance. Somehow, it all comes together in the end. This is more than Laurell K. Hamilton with a small-town or bayou feel; this is an entirely new creature, and a welcome addition to the genre. (Don’t ask me -which- genre, as it straddles the fence between mystery, horror, and fantasy, daring the reader to make up their mind.) Give Living Dead In Dallas and the first book in the series, Dead Until Dark a chance.

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