Death Masks, the fifth book in the Dresden Files, opens up a new chapter in Harry’s life while revisiting some old chapters just to dig the knife in. The events of the first four books are starting to come to a boil and on top of this, Harry must investigate the theft of a religious relic while surviving a new group of powerful enemies.
The novel opens with Harry appearing on the Larry Fowler talk show, a thinly veiled Jerry Springer. Harry is once again broke and needs the money from appearing on the show as an expert on the supernatural. Also appearing with him is Mortimer Lindquist, an ectomancer who can speak to the dead, Father Vincent, a Vatican priest, and Professor Paolo Ortega, who also happens to be a Duke of the Red Court of vampires. All of whom have something to say to Harry.
Mort tells Harry that he’s tracked Susan Rodriguez, Harry’s ex, now infected with vampirism, to Peru, which Harry notes is Red Court territory. Duke Ortega says he’s going to kill Harry, but offers to end the way if Harry will fight him in single combat. Harry agrees to do so on the condition that everything be spelled out very clearly in a binding document. Lastly, Father Vincent asks for Harry’s help, but not before they’re both attacked by gunmen, the hired goons of Johnny Marcone, Chicago’s top gangster (last seen in Fool Moon). Harry manages to get Father Vincent away, and he then enlists Harry’s aid in recovering the Shroud of Turin. Harry isn’t much of a believer, but he knows that the Shroud is a significant magical object.
When returning home, Harry finds Susan waiting for him. Harry’s a bit cautious, understandable since Susan is at least partly a vampire, but she is able to enter his home which tips him off that she’s not gone full fang yet. Harry is overcome with his need for her and kisses her passionately, but he gets a dose of the Red Court venom and they break apart. Susan warns Harry that Ortega is just part of one faction in the Red Court, one that wants to end the war. Others want Harry to stay alive, as an excuse to continue the war and wipe out the wizards once and for all. She’s interrupted by the arrival of Martin, perhaps the blandest man on Earth, who hints at a certain connection with Susan. They leave Harry wondering what exactly is going on. Then he gets a call from Murphy.
Harry takes a visit to the morgue where Murphy introduces him to medical examiner, Waldo Butters, a fan of bunny slippers and polka. Butters shows him a corpse who seemingly died of diseases. Like, all of the them. It’s also missing its head and hands, apparently to prevent identification. Harry seems to feel it might be connected to the theft of the Shroud since one of the thieves turned up cut to ribbons. As he’s leaving the morgue, he’s suddenly chased, by a grizzly bear with six legs, ram’s horns and two sets of eyes. Not being stupid, Harry runs.
The creature, Ursiel, gains on him, though, also threatening a nearby old man and another younger man. Harry accidentally soulgazes with the creature, realizing that it is somehow human. He gets a glimpse of a man trapped, crucified, in a mountain. Harry also seems to be outclassed, but he is saved by the old man, Shiro, and the young man, Sanya, who are soon joined by our old friend Michael Carpenter who delivers the killing blow to Ursiel. When Ursiel dies, he leaves behind a silver coin that Michael is very careful about picking up. Michael introduces the other two, also Knights of the Cross, each of them carrying one of the Swords of the Cross. They warn Harry that there are 29 more of the Fallen and they think they’re coming after Harry.
Back at Father Forthill’s, Michael asks Harry to give up the case for Father Vincent. He warns him that Ursiel was one of thirty Fallen who are part of the Order of the Blackened Denarius. (Get it? 30 pieces of silver?) Normally fallen angels can’t wield that kind of power against people, but the Denarians tempt humans and offer power in return until they basically run the show. Michael warns Harry that the same could happen to him, but Harry isn’t in the mood to listen.
Harry consults with Bob next, first about the duel with Ortega which he warns Harry to be careful about. Harry next brings up the dead Denarian and Bob truly gets scared. He tells Harry that as a spirit of intellect he can’t really touch things that hinge on faith but he puts Harry in touch with a loa who might be able to help before heading out to check on Ortega and on Marcone. The loa inhabits the body of a Cabbage Patch doll and tells Harry where the Shroud is. But she also tells him that the Knights of the Cross warned Harry off the case because they saw the first part of a prophecy that said Harry would die if he investigated the case. She also adds that Harry must learn the second part of the prophecy to restore balance. She assures Harry that if he seeks the Shroud that he will die. But if he doesn’t everyone else will die, and the city with them.
Harry doesn’t put much stock in prophecy so he barrels ahead as usual. First he makes a potion to take the punch out of Red Court vampire venom. Then he gets a call from Ebenezar who gives him an update on the vampire war. Apparently the Merlin is relying on his wards to help protect from the vampires. Ebenezar tells Harry he doesn’t have to go through with the duel, but Harry confirms his commitment to it. Ebenezar innocuously asks Harry about the whereabouts of a telescope they once used together. Bob returns saying that Marcone had wards, oddly, given that he has no traffic in magic. Then a magical alarm warns Harry that someone is approaching his place.
It turns out that the visitor is the Archive, a seven year old girl and also repository for all of human knowledge. With her is her driver/bodyguard, Kincaid, a mercenary. Not liking calling her “The Archive,” Harry names her Ivy. Ivy has been appointed the impartial emissary in charge of the terms of the duel. She seeks the name of Dresden’s second and gives him the day to choose one.
Harry next goes to get the Shroud which is currently on a ship called the Etranger. Harry actually gets his hands on the Shroud, but is then caught by the two female thieves who stole it. They handcuff Harry to a pipe when another Denarian attacks. This one has metal razor hair and she kills one of the thieves. Harry manages to fend her off with pepper spray and then tricks her into taking a lockbox that does not contain the Shroud. Anna Valmont, the remaining thief, returns for the Shroud and unlocks Harry, making off with his leather duster as well.
Harry returns home, Shroudless, and fills in Father Vincent. Then Butters calls to mention that all of the germs for the corpse have disappeared. Harry surmises that they were the result of magic and that sunrise reset them to zero. Then Susan appears. She assures Harry that she’s not with Martin, then says she’s going to South America to help all the victims of the Red Court. This is the end, then. They each say “I love you,” and then part, seemingly forever.
The next day Harry decides to choose his second for the duel. He heads to the Carpenter household which appears to be empty, and runs into Molly Carpenter, the eldest of the Carpenter kids (14), returning home, dressed very differently from how Harry would expect. They have a little discussion about Harry’s love life and Molly helps Harry out of his cuffs. Then Charity Carpenter, Michael’s wife, returns with her kids and Shiro. Michael is away dealing with Knight business. Harry mentions about the duel and Shiro agrees to be Harry’s second in Michael’s stead. Also Harry talks to Charity who doesn’t like Harry, though to be fair, Michael has been injured three times, each time when he was with Harry. She worries that one day Michael won’t come home.
Harry returns home to find Murphy waiting for him with questions about the murdered body on the ship. Only Murphy has been pulled from the case. She warns Harry to be careful. Then Susan calls with word of an art gala run by Johnny Marcone which could be where they wlll be selling the Shroud. But first Harry has to work out the terms of his duel with Ortega. They meet at McAnnally’s the local supernatural tavern and chat over bottles of Mac’s brown ale (how I would love to taste Mac's homebrew). Ortega’s second is Thomas Raith, the White Court vampire, last seen in Grave Peril. Ortega offers Harry a way out, as his blood-slave. Harry remembers what Susan told him about Ortega feeding off of his community, including the children. Harry refuses. Shiro helps negotiate the terms—they fight with their wills at Wrigley Field. Shiro afterward tries to give Harry advice, but also tells him that he’s not responsible for starting the war with the Red Court, that it was coming anyway, but that they used Bianca’s death as the excuse to start it.
Susan picks up Harry at McAnnally’s with a tux and they head off to the art gala where Harry runs into Marcone and meets Marcone’s new security specialist, a woman named Gard, the person probably responsible for Marcone's new wards. Harry’s casual mention of the attack on him seems to break Marcone’s composure for a while. When Harry feels the heat of Marcone’s goons, he has Susan request a diversion from Martin who complies by crashing a car into the building. In the confusion, Harry casts a tracking spell on a thread of the Shroud and follows it to Anna Valmont who has just sold it to Marcone. Harry confronts Valmont, who subdues him with her pistol, but they are interrupted by three Denarians.
One of said Denarians is the female killer-hair demon from before, Deirdre. Accompanying her is a snake-tailed Denarian and Nicodemus, their leader, who appears to be a normal man who wears a noose for a necktie. Anna Valmont shoots him several times in the chest, but it doesn’t seem to slow him down. Harry tries to bluff him with the explosive Valmont put in the Shroud’s holding tube, but Nicodemus seems to know Harry and calls his bluff. Harry instead uses magic on them and escapes with Valmont into the ducts. He emerges with the Denarians on his tail in time to watch Susan go all Matrixy on the Denarians, holding her own until the snakeman uses magic on her. This reveals a series of tattoos that Susan has all over her, which causes one of the Denarians to use the term “Fellowship.” Harry gets Susan out to Martin who takes off with her but Harry is captured by the Denarians with the Shroud in his possession.
Nicodemus makes Harry an offer—one of the Denarius coins. The alternative is for Nicodemus to cut Harry’s throat. Harry considers it, but ultimately refuses. Before Nicodemus can kill Harry, though, Shiro appears and presses his blade against Deirdre’s neck while Nicodemus has one at Harry’s. Shiro makes a deal, he will take Harry’s place. Harry is let go and, weak and wounded, runs, holding Fidelacchius, Shiro’s holy sword.
Harry escapes with Susan’s help (and Martin driving the car) and Susan and Harry retreat to his place. Susan helps Harry inside, but his wards against the Denarians keep her trapped in there with him and her control is waning. She tells him about the Fellowship of St. Giles, an organization that works against the Red Court and helps her to deal with her vampirism. The tattoos help to warn her when her control is low, like it is at that moment. She fears hurting Harry. Harry binds her with magic rope and then they both give in to their passion, having some hot bondage sex before they both pass out.
The next day Harry and Susan go to the Carpenter house and meet with Father Forthill who fills in some information on the Denarians, mostly that Nicodemus is their leader and is truly evil, having killed many Knights over the years. Harry talks to Anna Valmont who confirms she was selling the Shroud to Marcone. Harry phones Father Vincent and gives him a quick update and Vincent responds that they should meet in person. Valmont steals Harry’s keys and then the Blue Beetle and drives off. Harry then notices a tattoo on Father Forthill’s arm, the same as the corpse that Murphy and Butters had shown Harry. He tells Harry it’s from a group he once belonged to, one that Father Vincent was a part of as well. Michael and Sanya finally roll up to the house and Harry grabs them and they head off to save Shiro.
But first they stop in on Father Vincent for that face to face meeting and Harry hits him with a baseball bat and pulls a gun on him. Turns out Harry’s figured out that Father Vincent isn’t who he claims to be, and under Harry’s assault, the Father reveals himself as the snakeman Denarian. It was the tattoo that was the giveaway. The corpse from the morgue was the real Father Vincent. Harry brings in Michael and Sanya and they interrogate old Snakeboy. He confirms taking Vincent’s place and using the sample of the Shroud to cast the plague spell. And also that Nicodemus is going to use Shiro for a ritual using the whole Shroud. But he refuses to tell them where Nicodemus is. When Michael and Sanya threaten him, he releases the Denarius coin and reverts to his human state as Quintus Cassius. Michael recovers his coin and tells Harry they can’t do anything to him now that he’s given it up of his free will. We also learn that Sanya was once a Denarian and that Shiro helped convince him to choose another path. Harry, however, isn’t constrained in the same way so he uses the baseball bat on Cassius until he speaks, telling Harry that Nicodemus went to the airport for the ritual, that he needs to be moving to spread the plague over as large an area as possible.
Harry heads home only to be warned by Murphy that cops are coming to arrest him. He meets up with Susan who agrees to be his second in the duel with Ortega and they head to Wrigley Field where they meet Ortega, Thomas, Ivy, and Kincaid. The duel is accomplished by the use of mordite or Deathstone. Harry and Ortega must use their will on it to move it closer to their opponent. If it touches one of them, they will die.
Ortega takes an early lead until Ortega threatens the people that Harry loves. Then Harry pushes it back toward Ortega. Ortega, though, is only interested in Harry’s death and he draws a gun on Harry. Before he can fire, however, a shot knocks him back. It becomes a firefight as more Red Court vampires appears. Susan and Thomas both come to Harry’s aid, and the vampires are mopped up by Kincaid and Ivy (using the mordite). They rule that Harry was in the clear and didn’t violate the duel. Martin is revealed as the sniper, his mission to take out Ortega from the beginning. But Ortega unfortunately escaped. Leaving Susan in Martin’s hands, Harry runs off to the airport.
He meets up with Michael and Sanya and then has Murphy report a bomb threat to clear the civilians out of the airport. After fighting through some of Nicodemus’s thugs, they arrive at the chapel where Shiro has been tortured. Only he’s still alive, if barely. He tells Harry of Nicodemus’s powers—he can not be killed as long as he wears the noose (Judas’s noose) and every year he can pick one person to die, a death that can not be stopped. He picked Harry, but Shiro, as a Knight, can take Harry’s place, which he does. He gives his sword into Harry’s possession as well, telling him to pass it on to its next bearer and that Harry will know who it will be. Finally, Shiro tells them that Nicodemus is on a train to St. Louis, his backup plan. But he can be stopped if the Shroud is taken from him before he finishes. Then Shiro dies.
Harry, Michael and Sanya head for the train, transported courtesy of Johnny Marcone and a rather handy helicopter of his. He takes them all over the train and they are lowered, by winch, onto it. There they face Nicodemus and Deirdre. Sanya is quickly taken down, but Michael almost takes down Nicodemus before he is shot point blank in the chest. Harry and Marcone team up and Marcone manages to wrest the Shroud away from Nicodemus and jump into the river. Harry then takes on Nicodemus. He knows the noose will protect him from anything, but surmises that it won’t protect against itself. Harry chokes Nicodemus with it, throwing him off the train, though Deirdre manages to save him. Harry gathers up Michael and jumps into the river. They both sink, but Marcone, using the Shroud, pulls them both out.
Harry recovers back at Michael’s place, having been treated by Butters while he was out. He finds out that Michael is okay, Charity having insisted on fortifying his medieval armor with Kevlar. Sanya is recovering as well and they managed to retrieve all of the swords. They also give Harry a letter from Shiro, written two weeks earlier. In it, Shiro explains that he’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer and that helped inform his sacrifice. It gives Harry some comfort.
Harry also receives a call from Ebenezar telling him to switch on the news. Harry sees that an old Soviet satellite crashed into Casaverde, Duke Ortega’s home base, killing everyone within. Harry knows it was Ebenezar’s doing, and the need for his old telescope now becomes clear.
Marcone still has the Shroud, though, and Harry trails Marcone to a hospital where a young Jane Doe is in a persistent vegetative state. Marcone wants to try to use the Shroud to heal her. Harry gives him three days to see what happens. After that he expects Marcone to return it to Father Forthill or he’ll come for Marcone. Marcone agrees to this.
After Marcone fulfills his part of the bargain, Harry returns to the Carpenter house to say goodbye to Sanya. As he’s watching his namesake, little Harry Carpenter play, a Denarius lands in front of him, thrown from Nicodemus in a passing car. Before the kid can grab it, Harry snatches it up, touching it. He takes it home and buries it in concrete in his lab. At the end of the novel, after reflecting on Shiro’s sword, he begins taking down pictures of Susan.
As we’re now five books into the Dresden Files, Butcher has had time to develop certain plot threads while giving us still more. The Knights of the Cross, for example, are explained in much more detail here, and all three swords depicted. Fidelacchius ends up in Harry’s possession and he’s left with the responsibility of finding a new owner for it.
We’re also introduced to the Denarians who end the novel still at large. The Knights have recovered 2 of the coins, but there are 28 still out there. And Harry’s now touched one of the coins. How likely do you think that it will not appear again in the future?
Harry’s relationship with Murphy deepens even more here. She’s willing to go to bat for him, warning him when the cops are after him, even supporting his efforts to clear the airport with a phony bomb threat. The Murph of a few books ago would never be willing to do that, but she’s coming to trust Harry more and becoming more familiar with the world of the supernatural.
And we get closure, of sorts, with the Harry-Susan relationship. As you’ll recall, he started off the last book (Summer Knight) still mooning over her and overcome with guilt about not being able to save her. In this book we see that Susan is coping with her condition and has found meaning in her new life. The Fellowship of St. Giles has given her control. And while I didn’t feel like I needed a kick-ass Susan in the books, she is more than capable of taking care of herself.
Speaking of guilt, I feel like we get some attempt here to relieve Harry of some of his, mostly in the form of Shiro. Shiro helps shift the blame of the vampire-wizard war from Harry and even helps spare Harry from guilt over his sacrifice. We have seen that guilt leads Harry down a dark path and that continues to be a problem for him.
Finally, despite a seeming chance for peace, the war between the Red Court and the White Council continues in earnest with the failure of Ortega to kill Harry. However, it seems that this was always in the works. At least in the ending we see the wizards striking back in an uncharacteristic offensive blow. Future books will have to show us how this plays out.
I really liked Death Masks. I think it’s one of the best of the Dresden Files. What did you think of it? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
Rajan Khanna is a writer, narrator, and blogger who is glad that Chicago isn’t crawling with vampires because he has to go there later this year. I mean, that’s all fiction, right? Right? His website is www.rajankhanna.com.