If Raymond Chandler had written about wizards, vampires and fairies, the result might have been something like the Dresden Files series.
And "Jim Butcher Boxed Set" opens on a high note with the gritty urban fantasies "Storm Front," "Fool Moon" and "Grave Peril" -- the first three books in his wizard-PI series. These aren't quite Jim Butcher at his best, but these novels are still a great introduction to his likable wizard hero and a complex new universe full of vampires (in three flavors!), werewolves and monstrous ghosts.
Business has been slow for Harry Dresden, the wizard PI, so he's eager when two new cases come at once: a missing husband who may be involved in magic, and a couple slain in the middle of sex -- their hearts exploded from their chests. Talk about a heart attack. As he tries to investigate both cases at once, he finds himself suspended between a vampire madam and a gentlemanly Mafia don.
Unfortunately, it seems the White Council of wizards also believes that he did it, due to a terrible event in Harry's past. With his proximity to some nasty magics, Harry faces execution in just a few days if he can't prove himself innocent. And as he unravels an increasingly dark web of drugs, demons and sorcery, Harry discovers that he is the next intended victim...
"Fool Moon" gets Harry involved in a series of mystery killings -- the victims were torn apart by an animal, and a canine paw print is the only clue. Smells like werewolf spirit. Unfortunately, investigating this crime brings him into contact with Johnny Marcone's mob -- and even thrown in jail after Murphy goes postal on him.
But Harry has some unusual allies in a gang of teenage werewolves and a mysterious wild woman who wants to save her fiancee. Unfortunately, Harry's quest to stop the murders brings him between a deadly cursed werewolf and a government conspiracy. And getting rid of this problem might not be so easy, even with werewolves on his side.
"Grave Peril" is all over Chicago. Harry and Knight of the Cross Michael Carpenter (gasp!) are working hard to exorcise a sudden surge of violent ghosts. And a particularly evil spirit called the Nightmare -- summoned by an enemy of Harry's -- is targeting people near him. Oh yeah, and he's been "invited" to a vampire ball and his amoral fairy godmother (no, really) wants an old debt repaid.
But the situation becomes far more grim when Harry discovers that it's not just one enemy but many that are conspiring against him -- evil ghosts, malevolent vampires, and the Leanansidhe. Cornered on every side and with a bunch of innocent people threatened (including a newborn), Harry is faced with a terrible choice. And he might lose the person he loves best.
Jim Butcher's got the hard-boiled noir thing down, even in modern Chicago -- dark rainy streets, femme fatales (some vampires), and literally fiery climaxes to Harry's adventures. These aren't Butcher's most polished books, but his snappy writing and very expansive fantasy world (four kinds of werewolves! Three kinds of vampires!) keep it entertaining.
His writing strikes a nice balance between stripped-down Chanderlian prose, and detailed horror-fantasy (such as a mad ghost smothering babies in a hospital nursery -- cue creepy lullaby). But Butcher knows how to inject some dark humor and action, such as Harry turning up at a vampire ball dressed as a... vampire. A cheesy one, that is. Not to mention some nicely snappy dialogue ("Subtle and quick to anger?" "Not so subtle").
Harry Dresden himself is a great lead character -- he's wry, amusing and a little offbeat, but with some dark personal history that tends to haunt him at the wrong times. While the human characters seem a bit flat at first, the supporting cast is a colourful bunch -- feisty cop Murphy, the pervy skull-spirit Bob, Toot Toot the fairy, the calmly amoral Leanansidhe, and the lovable incubus Thomas Raith.
"Jim Butcher Boxed Set" collects the first three books of the Dresden Files series -- not Butcher's best, but definitely a nice triple dose of noiry urban fantasy.