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WesternSFA


Day Shift
by Charlaine Harris
Ace, $9.99, 400pp
Published: March 2016

I made the mistake of reading 'Day Shift' immediately after 'Midnight Crossroad' (click here for review), the first in its series, but then didn't put virtual pen to paper for a month. Now the two books have blurred together and I'm having to re-separate them to write this review.

Perhaps it was because, as much as I enjoyed this second story, it came in what the trade calls 'premium size', meaning an inch taller than a traditional mass market paperback but no wider, implemented for no better reason that publishers wanting a new price point in between mass market and trade paperback. This is the first such book I've ever read because the proportions mess with my OCD and I don't plan on ever reading another. I've explained to authors, as they're signing books for me, that I refuse to purchase other books that their names are on until they're available in something other than premium format and I also asked that they feed that knowledge back to their publishers. I know I'm not alone.

Format aside, which is surely nothing to do with author Charlaine Harris, this is another entry in a strong series that I hope continues on for quite some time (though it probably won't). The important things to know are that it's set in the tiny town of Midnight, TX, whose population is in the low double digits, and that it includes characters of note from all the other Charlaine Harris series: not just the Sookie Stackhouse/Southern Vampire books, but the Harper Connelly/Grave series and both the Lily Bard and Aurora Teagarden mystery series, thus creating a shared universe in which all of Harris's work unfolds.

Not all the characters from 'Midnight Crossroad' make it back to 'Day Shift', so I'll be spoiling things by merely mentioning some character names or omitting others. Do yourself a favour and read that book before finishing this review.

As before, the lead character is Manfred Bernardo, a phone psychic who nonetheless has a real talent. He moved to Midnight at the start of the first book as an escape from the real world, but chapter one of this one sees him away from it, in Dallas for some personal readings. He's at a posh hotel called Vespers and he doesn't expect the weekend to be anything but a work trip, but there at the in-house restaurant for dinner is Olivia Charity, one of the other dozen or so people who live in Midnight. The older couple she dines with turn up dead the next day in an apparent murder/suicide during the night.

What really raises eyebrows though is when a third death happens. This time it's Rachel Goldthorpe, an old and regular customer of Manfred's, who wants to talk with her dead husband, Morton, because their son, Lewis, has been driving her nuts. She's even hidden her jewellery to ensure that he doesn't sell it or pawn it or do something else she wouldn't want. She shows up for the reading with a case of pneumonia and promptly joins her husband on the other side right after Manfred makes contact with him.

Naturally, given that nobody knows where Rachel's jewellery is and nobody but Manfred even knows that she hid it, Lewis Goldthorpe cries foul and Manfred finds himself the prime suspect not only of her murder but of stealing her jewels! He's cleared of the former soon enough but it's hard to prove that you didn't do something so the latter resonates. The one thing that plays into Manfred's favour is the fact that his fellow townsfolk in Midnight really don't want anyone, least of all cops and journalists, hanging around for the season, not least because the Rev is taking care of a very strange young man, and so they, especially Olivia, help him to clear his name.

At this point in her career, with forty some books behind her and most of them mysteries even if they do sit on the urban fantasy shelves, it should be no surprise that Harris conjures up a decent story to keep her characters and us going. I mentioned in my review of 'Midnight Crossroad' that the last few Sookie Stackhouse books had fallen so far into the soap opera nature of vampire and fairy politics that any idea of mystery had been lost by the wayside. I'm happy to say that this book has its characters grow around the mystery as much as they did in its predecessor rather than vice versa. The fortuitous side effect is that that they feel more real than they would had they been forced in any particular direction and the mystery been subsidiary to that.

For all that Manfred is a psychic with real power, he's the everyday character in Midnight, so he serves as our avatar, just as Sookie did in the Southern Vampire books, even though she happened to be telepathic. Every other character in town is worthy of a book or two of their own and this one belongs to Olivia more than anyone else, perhaps because she was kept a little more in the shadows during the first one than the rest. We know little about her, just that she's a striking and powerful young lady who's in a relationship with Lemuel Bridger, the town's resident vampire. While Manfred works from home and Lemuel handles the night shift at Midnight Pawn for Bobo Winthrop, who's both his and Manfred's landlord, Olivia only works away from town.

Now, what she does when she's away from town nobody seems to know and that extends to we readers too. There are hints in the first book that she's a hitman or a thief or an escort, but they're only hints. In 'Day Shift', we learn more about her talents because they're front and centre during their investigations but I still have as many questions about what she does as I have answers. Maybe 'Night Shift' will proffer some of those. I hope so, because this no longer appears to be a series; it's being listed as a Midnight, TX trilogy.

There is a subplot here that's not fully developed yet either and will need to find its resolution in 'Night Shift'. That's the hotel in town, which has been empty for years but which suddenly bursts back into life and spikes Midnight's population overnight. We don't know why and we don't really know who's behind it but it does work to destabilise things a little, which makes a town of people trying to hide very nervous indeed, and it also gifts the investigation with some intriguing characters, some of whom are visitors we might recognise from other series and I won't spoil them.

In fact, there's a lot of material here that's very easily spoiled and I won't go there. I'll merely suggest a future for this series (sorry, this trilogy) in conversations to be had with fellow fans down the road. I'm convinced that when Harris's name comes up, fans will first chat about the Southern Vampire novels (and then a bit about the Harper Connelly books for a while, as those were bestsellers too), but then they'll look at each other conspiratorially and ask, 'But have you read the Midnight books?' because that's where the real discussion is going to be. Especially if it ends after 'Night Shift'. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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