Reading 'Midnight Crossroad', followed immediately by its first sequel, 'Day Shift', surprised me to no small degree. It isn't the writing, because this is just like any other Charlaine Harris you've read, building banal detail on banal detail until we're so immersed in the characters and settings that we feel like we actually live there too. No, it's the fact that it's rather more like her various other series than they're like this one.
Let me explain that. I read the first couple of Sookie Stackhouse books when they came out. I read some of the Lily Bard mysteries around the same time, along with at least one of the Aurora Teagardens. Much later, I read a few of the Harper Connelly series, which has done incredibly well for her. And so I recognise that there are people here from each of those series, even though I don't remember them ever cross-pollinating before. For some reason, Harris felt it time to merge these series into one shared universe and that is a very enticing concept.
We're in Midnight, Texas, this time out, literally a one-stop town, given that all that happens in town happens around the crossroad of the title. There's a gas station, an antique shop/nail salon and a new age store. There's a restaurant called Home Cookin and the self-explanatory Midnight Pawn, which also rents out rooms to paying tenants. There's a chapel with a pet cemetery right behind it. And... well, that's about it. The town's sign on the front cover says that the population is 261, but that must include ranches miles away from Midnight's crossroads because there are really 14 people in town, plus one more who's missing, but more about her later.
We show up in town alongside Manfred Bernardo, a psychic and seer, whom I remember from the Harper Connelly books as a double act with his grandma, Xylda, who's now deceased. He's more talented than she was, but he still makes most of his money from basic psychology. He rents a room from Bobo Winthrop, who runs Midnight Pawn and learned martial arts from Lily Bard, the protagonist of Harris's first series of cozies. Of course, she's best known today for her Southern Vampire series and, sure enough, there's a vampire here too, Lemuel Bridger, who's also renting from Bobo, though I don't remember him from the Sookie books.
What makes Midnight, TX such a fascinating place is that every one of its citizens apparently has something to hide but they don't ask questions of their fellow townsfolk and they all stick together when needed. The only reason that it's not a perfect location for a series of mysteries with a supernatural flavour is that it's so small that it's going to get rather noticed rather quickly when strange things start to add up alongside the number of sequels. After all, there are only so many times you can have a murder in a town of fourteen people. Other than that, though, it's spot-on.
There's plenty of opportunity for the characters to grow, because it's a perfect setting for them and they're an enticing bunch. Sure, it's obvious that the corpse-white Lemuel is a vampire from the moment we meet him, but we can't believe that the Rev is only a priest, Joe and Chuy are merely a gay couple and Fiji is just a fake witch. Certainly, there has to be a reason why the Lovell kids aren't allowed to be in photographs or use social media. I'm not going to spoil what we discover about all of these characters later in this book and into the next, but each discovery is a delicious one.
There's only so much space in a 300-page novel to build depth into a town full of lead characters and it's inevitable that some have to wait until future books because nobody's just background in Midnight. The tall and striking Olivia Charity is the best example of one who raises a lot of questions here that don't get answered until the next book. I was wrong about what she does to earn a living, or at least I'm pretty sure I was; there is still time for me to be right.
There's especially only so much space in a 300-page novel to build depth into a town full of lead characters when there's also a murder to solve. Bobo's girlfriend, Aubrey Hamilton, went mysteriously missing a couple of months before the novel begins and she shows up in the worst way during a town picnic: as a corpse. With Bobo immediately suspect in her murder, the townsfolk of Midnight have to team up to find the real killer, while also protecting him from the unsavoury characters who emerge from both her past and his.
I wasn't as fond of the last few Sookie Stackhouse novels, as the gothic soap opera shenanigans of such a large and diverse ensemble cast took the focus away from the mysteries which started the series off. This felt much more like the old days, when the cast was small enough that we could have feelings about everyone and keep track of what they've got up to. And the mystery works. It feels like the characters are woven around it rather than the other way around. While I was right about the identity of the killer, and even the reason why, which really doesn't happen too often, I'm fine with that here and it certainly didn't spoil the book for me. There's too much more to recommend it.
I was especially impressed with Sheriff Arthur Smith, not a Midnighter but someone who gets to visit a lot. He's a decent and capable small-town cop who rings very true in between the usual extremes of poster boy for law enforcement and comically inept moron. I liked him and I liked how well he remains grounded when the stranger things start to happen. Of course, he has to because he's the one outsider whom we expect to stay in the series and, as such, he's the one character we expect to not have a hidden past.
I vaguely remember liking Manfred in what might have been the first Harper Connelly book, but he's particularly interesting here. From one side, he's the new guy in town so has to appear a little more routine than everyone else. However, from another, he's clearly going to realise that he belongs in Midnight and settle down for a while, so he has to be strange and deep himself. He walks that line well and does even better in the sequel.
'Midnight Crossroad' turned out to be right up my alley. I liked it more than the Harper Connelly books and I felt it flowed better. It's also much better and much more focused than the last few Sookie books. It's truer to the style that Charlaine Harris has made her own, the supernatural cozy, and I'm fascinated to see how much more she'll cross-pollinate her other series into this one. I'll follow up with book two, 'Day Shift', next month. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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