When last we checked in with Harry Dresden, the protagonist of Jim Butcher’s immensely popular Dresden Files series, Chicago’s only wizard private eye had overcome daunting odds to save the life of his infant daughter while putting a permanent kibosh on one of his most powerful foes, the vampiric Red Court. Not surprisingly given the tone of this modern noir genre mashup, the victory came at great cost. Loves were lost, troublesome alliances were forged and great personal sacrifices were made.

And then, in the afterglow/wrap-up phase of the story, Harry Dresden is assassinated. Wow. Rough day.

That abrupt ending ensured avid fans were paying attention from the start of Ghost Story, the thirteenth—and perhaps final—chapter in The Dresden Files. As the title suggests, Harry Dresden is now a ghost, but though an ectoplasmic remnant of his former self, no detective worth his dust can let a murder mystery—particularly his own—go unsolved.

As plot devices go, the after-death of Harry Dresden proves a savvy choice by Butcher. Good modern pulp fiction—and The Dresden Files is just that—ultimately depends on a well-balanced mixture of the familiar and the strange. Early in a series, the mixture is understandably heavy on the strange. (“John Carter is on frikkin’ Mars!!!”) But as the series ages, after the “hook” of the strange has been set, the equation shifts back toward 50/50. But if the familiar grows to be too large a part of the formula, a series can become more comfort food than culinary adventure. And while Butcher’s series is hardly Chinese takeout, it was certainly time for a little spice—an upping of the strange and unfamiliar.

With Ghost Story, the reader gets just that. Ironically, a dead Dresden is just what the doctor ordered to liven up the series. Dresden’s ghostly existence casts almost all of the series’ old standbys—the staunch allies, the fearsome foes and the usual array of personal resources and plot-twisting wild cards—in a new light.

Yet, for all the new in Dresden’s plight, there’s ample familiar for a fan to hold onto. Dresden remains an engaging first-person narrator—death hasn’t affected his snark—and he’s surrounded by a rich supporting cast developed over the course of the preceding 12 books (and one anthology). And as he struggles to help his friends and confound his enemies—and perhaps, just perhaps, figure out who offed him—the pace and feel that has made the books worthy of bestseller lists and a television series remains intact.

But there’s also something more. Throughout it all, a whispered question nags at the reader’s subconscious, propelling the pages to turn a little bit faster than they already are. Succeed or fail, could this be the end of Harry Dresden? To find out, all you have to do is read a story. A Ghost Story.

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