As I’m sure I’ve mentioned, I’ve been going through a lot of the Charlaine Harris books lately (at the time I’m writing this, this year I’ve read through the Harper Connelly series, the Lily Bard series, re-read what’s available of the Sookie Stackhouse series, and have two or three books left in the Aurora Teagarden series). I don’t really have a coherent, cohesive thought to tie all the series together, just a few observations about the commonalities the protagonists share, and the evolution of Harris’s writing style. Bear with me. Spoilers, obviously, to follow (and some trigger warnings, re: rape)…
Harris’s first major series is named after and about Aurora Teagarden, from a small Georgian town just outside of Atlanta, who is a librarian and true crime enthusiast. Though the latter thread is dropped after the first book (and with good reason – Aurora’s true crime club Real Murders is disbanded after a member gets Really Murdered), and the former is dropped after the second (with less good reason – Aurora comes into a large sum of money and says ‘screw it’ to day-to-day work, though really, can you blame her?). By the beginning of the third book, she’s met a striking older man, by the end of the third, they’re engaged. Harris has some issues here with world-establishing and pacing: she tends to go overboard in character description for new and recurring characters alike, which is semi-helpful, given that it’s not uncommon for individuals to disappear entirely for entire books, before you ever get the chance to really give a damn about them. As for the pacing issue, she can have the whole thing happen in a week or so, can rush into a marriage with a character we barely know (but we know that Aurora is desperately, lustfully attracted to him), and then have the next book start up two years later for no apparent reason. Rather than demonstrate large events, they’re glossed over and neatly summed up as a sidebar to the real action. Sure, domestic life isn’t nearly as fun as amateur crime-solving (especially since the sex scenes are pared down to ‘and then we had sex’), but it doesn’t help me to feel really connected to my narrator.
There’s a serious problem with that in the Lily Bard series. Lily is my favorite of all the Harris heroines (Harr-oines?), I’ve decided. Lily is the victim of a brutal kidnapping and rape, surviving only barely after a weekend of torture, and in part only because she made the rough decision to kill one of her captors rather than herself. The ordeal makes her a largely public figure in her hometown, before she decides to move to a small Arkansas town just outside of Little Rock, to become a professional house-cleaner and martial arts enthusiast, and keep out of the public eye as much as possible. It makes perfect sense from a storytelling standpoint to hold off Lily’s backstory for awhile, but when it finally comes up, it isn’t inserted naturally or artfully. The same is true with Jack Leeds’s backstory in the second novel. Jack has never been mentioned previously, yet Lily recognizes him from his own very public ordeal, which we hear about from her recollections of newspaper stories, and not Jack’s own account. It’s rough. On the bright side, Harris’s attempt at telling the story of their romance is a little slower this time (which is good, as they are both very cautious people and it wouldn’t make sense for them to jump into anything), but the reveal of their marriage comes as both a shock to the character they tell and to the readers themselves. Surprise! All that being said, though, Lily is as interesting a character as someone who hates engaging with others can be. By the time the fifth and final volume rolls around, we get a fascinating insight into her character and the way she truly perceives the world, making the book my favorite of the series and making me sincerely regret its end, especially now that Lily is fully realized.
Sookie Stackhouse, next in Harris’s wheelhouse, is from a small Louisiana town just outside of Shreveport, and is a barmaid/telepath and a tanning enthusiast. This series, as I’m sure you’ve heard by now, is fantasy/mystery, where the periodic murders take a backseat to the more interesting plot of vampires (and shapeshifters) existing publicly in our world. While these ‘out of the coffin’ and proud vampires don’t fit in with your hoity-toity vampire enthusiast friend’s idea of ‘real’ vampires, the mythology and political structure Harris has established is quite fascinating. Sookie, to her credit, is a capable heroine. Her telepathy makes it hard for her, at least in the beginning, to take part in regular conversations, which means most of the town thinks she’s stupid and/or disabled. She’s far from it, though. She’s not book smart, but she has good instincts. The majority of bad situations she finds herself in aren’t her fault, and she saves the lives of her supernatural friends almost as much as they save hers. She’s no shrinking violet, bless her. By this point, Harris has learned about slow-building a relationship. Sookie starts off being wanted by her boss Sam and dating neighbor/vampire Bill, but throughout it, vampire sheriff Eric makes his interest in her known. It’s a good long while before they get together officially, which is comparatively refreshing. Of course, because she can, Harris has Sookie married off, albeit it in an unofficial capacity, in a ceremony only vampires recognize as legal or binding. I still hold to the theory that Charlaine’s endgame is to have Sookie and Sam skipping off into the sunset together, but after all this, it will feel well-earned.
Because you’re supposed to write what you know (you’ve heard that, right?), Aurora, Lily, and Sookie have a few things in common. All three have little to no family ties: Aurora is the only child of a slightly overbearing mother and a father who conveniently disappears with her young half-brother after the first novel; Lily tries to maintain cordial relations with her parents and younger sister, though she and they have differing ideas on how she should be emotionally healing; Sookie’s parents died in a flash flood when she was young, her grandmother is brutally murdered in the first book, and her relationship with her brother is not what one would call tight
But none of these women really have to worry about family ties, though, as another thread they share is being loved and admired by a great number of men. None of them seem to think they deserve it (Aurora has a small stature and large glasses, Lily has gruesome and lurid scars on her torso, and Sookie has the unfortunate ability to hear every single thing, good or bad or outright nasty, that anyone thinks about her), yet all find themselves in a love triangle at one point or another. Aurora in the first book tries to choose between the affections of local cop Arthur and visiting author Robin Crusoe (who is never seen again). By the second book, Arthur is married off and Aurora is dating a pastor. Then she finds herself caught between the pastor and her future husband Martin. Of course, Arthur starts having marriage troubles of his own after Aurora’s married off, and is not shy about making his affections known (stay classy, bro). Lily has a brief fling with her martial arts instructor, before moving on to private investigator (and future husband) Jack Leeds. Of course, the books toy with a mutual attraction slash one-sided flirtation between Lily and the much younger and ridiculously named Bobo Winthrop (I highly doubt the richest family in town would name their first-born and heir Bobo). And of course Sookie Stackhouse, being blond, busty, and gifted with fairy blood (don’t get me started on fairies), gets her share of supe admirers: Bill and Eric, of course, plus werewolf Alcide, weretiger Quinn, werepanther Calvin, and of course her boss, shapeshifter Sam Merlotte. Naturally, all of these men are handsome, if not gorgeous, and financially secure. I wish I had Sookie’s problems.
Charlaine ventures out of her wheelhouse for the next Harr-oine, however. Harper Connelly got struck with lightning when she was young and can now hear the dead. She travels the country with her ex-stepbrother Tolliver, using her services to locate bodies. The premise is fascinating, but I rather get the impression Harris was under contract, because usually at the ends of the novels, once the body has been found and/or the murderer uncovered, Harper goes through a list of personal events that happened at a rapid pace, as though eager to get to the end. She’s a fascinating character, not the least for her abilities, but also because of her clandestine relationship with Tolliver (they are brother and sister on paper only, when it’s convenient for them to tell disbelieving clients, but around the third book, all bets are off, and it’s interesting that this is the point in Harris’s career where she seems at ease writing sex scenes). It’s immensely frustrating when an author so obviously gets bored, particularly when you as a reader aren’t.
In addition to all of this, I really wish I could weigh in more thoughtfully on all of the characters’ Christian leanings and churchgoings (inspired, apparently, by Wikipedia’s claim that Harris is the senior warden at her Episcopal Church). But I think I’ll save that for another time. In the meantime,
I have three books left in Aurora Teagarden’s series, two (unpublished, of course) in Sookie Stackhouse’s, and apparently two non-series books written by Harris in the 80s, since I figure I’m on a roll and might as well do this right. I’ll let you know if I get bored.