Which Way to Murder Town? Midnight Crossroad by Charlaine Harris

When 22-year-old phone psychic Manfred Bernardo moved to Midnight, Texas, he was looking for a quiet place to go unnoticed. Turns out, that’s what everyone else in the dusty little crossroads town wants, too. The denizens are friendly and welcoming, but frighteningly protective of their myriad and sundry secrets. Manfred’s landlord, Bobo Winthrop, runs a pawn shop with a very pale night owl named Lemuel and Olivia, a woman as deadly as she is beautiful. Across the way is a nail salon run by a gay couple (whose secret could very easily force the sequel to jump the shark), a diner owned by apparently the town’s only married couple, the Gas N Go staffed by an overprotective father and his two bored kids, a rundown church and pet cemetery overseen by a decidedly creepy reverend, and a magic shop presided over by a witch named Fiji and her observant cat.

Quirky doesn’t even come close to describing this town, and Manfred hasn’t felt this at home since his psychic grandmother was still alive. Everything threatens to come crashing down when one of the townsfolk turns up murdered by the river. Suddenly there are cops and pissed off bikers and white supremacists crawling all over Witch Light Road, and the list of possible killers grows longer and longer. Violence outbursts from racist outsiders push the Midnighters closer together, and the hunt for the killer heats up.

[“You might pass through the town of Midnight without noticing it…”]

If Manfred sounds vaguely familiar, ya’ll might remember him from the Harper Connelly series. A few other characters and concepts from Harris’ other novels crop up here—Lily Bard gets a shout out, not to mention the rural fantasy stuff being trucked in from the Southern Vampire series neatly placing everything into the same universe. It’s also safe to say Harris can still pick the most atrocious character names ever. I mean, seriously. Bobo and Fiji? Sweet zombie Jesus.

Harris’ books are usually very entertaining, but rarely are they of quality work. For example, the first 9 pages of Midnight is a literal walkthrough of the entire town and the residents who will soon play very important roles. It’s an entire chapter of infodumping in the most banal and uncreative way possible:

Though his business is to the east of the Davy highway, the Rev’s home lies to the west, to the right of the Home Cookin Restaurant, which is past the closed hotel and the closed hardware store.

I have no idea why that sentence even exists, since it has nothing at all to do with the story, nor does it add anything to the proceedings. THE WHOLE PROLOGUE IS LIKE THAT. Several times throughout the novel Harris describes in minute detail the process of Manfred checking his email and responding to queries. Manfred takes a girl he has a crush on to get her hair done at a salon another town over…and that’s everything that happens in the entire chapter.

As valid as those complaints are, they still don’t manage to derail the book, mostly because I’ve come to expect them. We all know more or less what we’re getting with a Charlaine Harris book. When I hit a doldrum, I breeze past it and get to the fun stuff. And there’s a ton of fun stuff. No matter how many sexy vampires or shirtless werewolves Harris proliferates, she is, at heart, a mystery writer. Midnight Crossroad is what Charlaine Harris does best: a murder mystery with enough plot twists and fakeouts to make even M. Night Shyamalan dizzy. And yes, that’s actually a compliment.

The characters in Midnight have more in common with Aurora Teagarden than Sookie Stackhouse. Despite the undercurrents of magic, the murder and unfolding mystery are strictly mundane. Sex and romance take a back seat to friendship and enigma, which gives the characters room to grow in ways Sookie, Bill, and Eric never could. Unrequited crushes abound in Midnight, but the relationships on which those affections are built are based on the kind of trust and respect only a friendship can provide. The Midnighters are good people caught up in uncontrollable circumstances. They work together to resolve conflict and circle the wagons to defend from interlopers. They aren’t business partners or faction leaders competing over territory, or lovers acting jealous over each others’ exes. They’re family, plain and simple. Everyone plays their role (thankfully not one determined by gender, sexuality, or race) for the betterment of the community.

Speaking of non-discrimination, Harris is, once again, wonderfully diverse. There’s an interracial gay couple (who may or may not be supernatural beasties), full-figured women, a pierced and tattooed punk, etc., and other than characters who are intentionally racist (hint: they’re also the bad guys), no one ever gives a second thought to their differences. Not to say diversity is whitewashed; on the contrary, the Midnighters simply accept that they are all different and move on from it. They judge people based on how they treat their fellow humans, not what they look like or what sex they’re attracted to. Of course Harris isn’t exactly subtle about any of this—she’s about as subtle as a sledgehammer—but I’m grateful it’s there.

As a longtime Harris fan, I’m delighted at the return to her non-Sookie roots. That ship ran aground for me back around book 6, so it’s a welcome relief to get back to a good old fashioned small town murder mystery. I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say this is her best book, but it is certainly streets ahead of the storytelling quagmire she’s been stuck in with her Southern Vampire series. Harper Connelly will always be my favorite series (like Midnight Crossroad, her supernatural abilities are secondary to the plot, as if Harris was looking for a way to distinguish her from Lily and Aurora), but if the rest of the Midnight, Texas series is as enjoyable as the first entry, Harper’s going to have some tough competition.

 

Midnight Crossroad is out now from Ace Books


Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.

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