Small towns are places we go when we need to go home, or places we go when we need to never go home again. The tiny populations give us the anonymity of the big city with none of the soullessness. The local culture gives us the sense of home with none of the obligations or, for some, danger. Small towns are magic because we need them to be.
Midnight, Texas is a small town in the very best way.
Harris is best known for the Sookie Stackhouse novels and True Blood, the TV series that adapted them. That’s entering the victory lap this year, with a final 7th season, and has established itself as a flat out, pedal to the medal classic piece of schlocky TV. That’s not a knock either, True Blood’s got a massive audience and does what it does supremely well, but it, and I, parted company several seasons back. The thing I responded to in the show was the idea of ‘Small Town plus occasional monsters’ and as the series rode the escalating stakes elevator all the way to the top, that fell away.
It’s a really pleasant surprise then to find that Midnight Crossroad, the start of a new series by Harris, is exactly what I was hoping for. The first in a new series, it sees writer, reader, and Manfred, the lead, move into the small Texas town all at once. A new start for the character, a new start for the author and a new start for the lead character, not one but three separate band-aids all ripped off at once. It works too, and we’re in absolute lockstep with Harris, and Manfred, as they find their way around the town, and the town finds its way around Manfred. The gradual move from friendly greeting to acceptance as a member of the town’s family takes the entire book and isn’t done by the end but it never feels slow. Harris has a deep understanding of how people interact and the gradual, often faltering steps Manfred and the other Midnighters take around another are as sweet as they are awkward, and, on occasion, embarrassing.
Manfred himself is a gentle, reticent, very likable lead character. A young man who inherited his psychic gift from his grandmother, he quite happily supports himself through a variety of psychic business fronts, most cold reading, some legitimate. He’s friendly but guarded, a young man used to hiding his gifts and his job who finds himself in the one place on the planet where he’s the most normal person in town.
After all, his neighbours include Fiji, a witch, her cat Mr Snuggly, The Rev, a near silent Priest whose tiny church is somehow always open and the Pawn Shop. Run by Bobo, a large, likable man struggling with not one but two personal tragedies, the Pawn Shop is the most unusual business in town, with the oddest staff. Bobo runs it during the day, whilst the night shift is handled by one of Bobo’s tenants, Lemuel.
Lemuel isn’t human.
That’s made apparent inside the first fifty or so pages and it’s handled with such offhand trust and openness that it takes another hundred pages for just how odd it is to sink in. Lemuel’s a very specific kind of non-human and one that’s suffered endless over exposure recently, but Harris finds something very different to do with the trope. He’s polite, kind, very private and at times utterly terrifying. One of the book’s strongest sequences sees just how terrifying he, and fellow tenant Olivia, are when they’re called upon to defend Bobo from his past.
That word, past, comes up with everyone in town as the book goes on. Manfred, Fiji, local couple Joe and Chuy, Bobo and the rest are all running from something and none of them are quite ready to talk about it. In some cases, like Bobo, the past is actively pursuing him. In others, it’s simply a place they aren’t anymore. With every character, we get just enough information to move the plot along and also make it clear we’ll be coming back to them. There’s no info dumping, just a writer setting out her stall and telling you to get comfy.
The real strength of the book lies in its scale though. This is a story about a death, just one, and what it does to people. Bobo’s more recent tragedy is central to the plot and it allows Harris to not only explore the town but unite them against both the outside world, and the casual barbarity of that death. None of these people are normal, but all of them have enough decency to react to tragedy when they see it and help their friends grieve when they need to. It’s almost a reverse mystery, Harris raising the scale and the stakes before revealing the small, hideous truth. It’s a really smart way to close a story like this, an ending that’s completely fitting for a town where everyone knows each other’s business and, more importantly, knows when not to talk about it. Life goes on, even here. Especially here.
Small towns are magic, because we need them to be and Midnight, Texas is both an archetypal small town and one unlike any other. Now Harris, Manfred and we are all moved in, it’s time to explore. After all, judging by how many secrets there are in town, we’re all going to be here a while…
Midnight Crossroad is written by Charlaine Harris, published by Gollancz and available now, priced £13.99