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Find more A Hard-Boiled Gazetteer to Other Worlds
The terms genre-bending and genre-blending (I like bending myself, but I guess the blenders have won the day, so I’ll get with the program) are relatively new arrows in the readers’-advisory quiver, but the phenomenon isn’t new at all. Nearly 50 years ago, Philip K. Dick wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and while the story was thought of mainly as science fiction when it first appeared, there’s no doubt that it throws hard-boiled detectives into the blender along with robots and other sf trappings. Chances are, too, that somewhere along the way, in the course of writing hundreds of books, Isaac Asimov probably blended a few genres. So, no, it’s not a new phenomenon, but it’s a popular one today and has been for quite a few years.
Genre-blending, at least the strain that includes crime fiction as one of its ingredients, really took off with the rise of urban fantasy, especially Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, the ongoing series starring a Chicago investigator who moves between human and magical worlds. It’s that “other worlds” idea to which this edition of our hard-boiled gazetteer (the nineteenth in the series) is devoted. Take a recognizable, hard-boiled crime-fiction world but give it a tweak or two, either by moving the action to another planet or, perhaps, inside a character’s head. Yes, it’s crime fiction; yes, we recognize certain emblems of the hard-boiled style, but—whoa!—there are vampires about, or if you cross that portal, there’s a whole different city there, and it has crime, too.
The variations on this theme are infinite, but it’s often more than a little difficult to decide what’s simply a suspenseful vampire novel and what’s a true genre blend involving vampires and crime fiction. So we’ve consciously erred on the side of brevity, offering a very few examples among worlds of rich diversity. Imagine a subway map in which the various lines detail different kinds of worlds that blend with hard-boiled fiction. We’ve only listed some of the stops on these lines—new stops keep cropping up all the time—but if you’re a hard-boiled crime fan who might like to see what happens when a Chandlerian sleuth drives a car that flies, or, conversely, if you’re an urban-fantasy fan who doesn’t mind the idea of vampires in trench coats, then you should pay the fare, get on board, and check out a few other worlds.
It’s our world except we’re not there. Animals-only in these crime novels starring critter sleuths (assuming stuffed animals count as critters, that is). No cute, cozy talking cats allowed here; that’s another planet in a different galaxy.
Amberville. By Tim Davys. 2009. Harper, $10 (9780061625138).
There’s this death list, see? Nobody knows how your name gets on it, but everybody knows what happens when it does, which is why a gangster hires our hero, an adman turned sleuth, to get the gangster’s name removed. Sounds like straightforward hard-boiled fare, and it is, except for this little wrinkle: all the characters are stuffed animals. This very strange but very compelling novel has been called The Big Sleep meets Animal Farm: now that’s genre-blending!
The Unscratchables. By Cornelius Kane. 2009. Scribner, $17.95 (9781416596417).
Max (“Crusher”) McNabb is a good cop, a bit sloppy in that Columbo way, working a tough murder case out of the San Bernardo homicide unit. One thing, though: Max is a bull terrier, and his world is an entirely animal one. Because the murder victim is a cat, Max is forced to work with a partner from the FBI (Feline Bureau of Investigation) called Cassius Lap, a Siamese who is in every way Max’s opposite: stylish, neat, drinks soy milk. As with Amberville, this novel is not cute (oh, maybe a little); it’s hard-boiled to a fault; and it uses the genre’s conventions perfectly. After a while, you mostly forget that the animal characters are, well, animals.
Home to demons of every stripe (except vampires and werewolves, who get their own subway lines, and zombies, who do their blending with Jane Austen, not Raymond Chandler). The sleuths who battle the demons in Demon Town may be wizards but may not, and they may wear their fedoras at jaunty angles or not. They do all investigate crimes, but as in the mundane world, sometimes they solve them, and sometimes they don’t.
The Automatic Detective. By A. Lee Martinez. 2008. Tor, $7.99 (9780765357946).
Where does a red, 700-pound robot PI hang his trench coat? Anywhere he wants to in the technocracy called Empire City. Mack Megaton is prone to squash furniture, walk through walls, and demolish jet cars while leaving a trail of angry mutants and aliens in his wake. Acting under the advice of his shrink, he decides to do something constructive, like save the world. Martinez crafts a private eye in the best tradition of hard-boiled futuristic detection, with plenty of beautiful babes and evil geniuses, and written in classic wisecracking first-person narrative.
Sandman Slim. By Richard Kadrey. 2009. Harper, $12.99 (9780061714351).
Raffish magician James Butler Hickok Stark returns from an 11-year stint in Hell, where he’s been slaughtering monsters to amuse jaded demons. Now he’s back, pretty much unkillable, and out to settle some scores with a gang called the Circle. This unrelentingly paced mix of thriller and straight-up horror (watch for friction burns on your page-turning finger) blends the cinematic delights of tough-guy noir with such smart-mouthed gore fests as Reanimator and Army of Darkness, seasoned by soupçons of Gaimanian romanticism and Koontzian sentiment.
Storm Front. By Jim Butcher. 2000. Roc, $8.99 (9780451457813).
This is the first in Butcher’s wildly popular Dresden Files, the story of “consulting wizard” Harry Dresden, a Chicago investigator who handles cases in both the human and wizard worlds. Bad guys come in multiple forms—human, vampire, werewolf, faerie, et al.—and Dresden, like a wizarding Philip Marlowe, walks the mean and magical streets with true hard-boiled style. The first volumes in the series lean toward the detective side of the blend, the later ones more to the magical, but this series is clearly the gold standard for urban fantasy as seen through the conventions of the private-eye genre.
Dystopian fiction comes in all forms and genres (before I finish this sentence, a dystopian musical will likely open on Broadway, and a dystopian sitcom will air on Fox). Here, however, we’re focused on dystopian novels in which crime and crime-solving are central to the action.
Chasm City. By Alastair Reynolds. 2001. Penguin, $8.99 (9780441010646).
A man desperate to avenge a woman’s death tracks a dangerous posthuman to Chasm City, a once-opulent metropolis in a galaxy far, far way, now devastated by a nanotech plague that has plunged it into chaos. There is something of Blade Runner (see below) in this stylish melding of hard-boiled convention and sf adventure. Interestingly, that nanovirus wiping out the world? It’s called the “Melding Plague.” Was Reynolds issuing an early warning about the power of genre-blending run amok?
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? By Philip K. Dick. 1968. Del Rey, $15 (9780345404473).
Well, do they? I’m not sure the titular question was ever quite answered, either in Dick’s novel or in the iconic movie adaptation Blade Runner. But we do know this: the postapocalyptic world Dick created in Androids and that Ridley Scott brought to stunning life in Blade Runner has become a kind of reference point for all succeeding crime fiction–based genre blends: a hard-boiled, melancholy Chandlerian hero, who cruises between L.A. skyscrapers in a car that flies, tracking “replicants” targeted for “retirement.” Throw in a little ambiguity (there are “good” replicants and “bad” replicants“) and a fight scene that would do Philip Marlowe proud, and you have, well, the perfect marriage of detective story and science fiction.
Shovel Ready. By Adam Sternbergh. 2014. Crown, $24 (9780385348997).
Times Square has been hit by a dirty bomb, and Manhattan’s wealthy have taken to their beds—but not just any beds: these special contraptions connect their inhabitants to the “limnosphere,” a super Internet that allows its users to construct their own virtual world and live there permanently. That world collides with the real one when a garbageman turned contract killer, Spademan, chases a bent televangelist from one world to another. Sternbergh brilliantly combines narrative sleight-of-hand with an ability to create flesh-and-blood characters who bring humor and a resilient humanity to their torn-asunder world. Dystopian sf and urban noir served with a Palahniuk swagger.
World of Trouble. By Ben H. Winters. 2014. Quirk, $14.95 (9781594746857).
Think of it this way: the talented Winters has built a genre-blending trilogy from one line in the Cole Porter song “Well, Did You Evah?”: “Have you heard it’s in the stars? Next July we collide with Mars.” Well, it’s an asteroid, not Mars, but the premise of Winters’ preapocalyptic trilogy is that Earth is doomed, thanks to an asteroid hurtling our way, and, naturally, civilization goes berserk while we await the end. World of Trouble is the third in the series and definitely the most dystopian, but readers should start at the beginning, with The Last Policeman. Yes, the world may be ending next July, but Winters’ hero, Hank Palace, a former cop, is still trying to solve mysteries. Sleuths can’t resist an undiscovered fact, especially if it could be the last fact on Earth.
First there is the ordinary world, where we muggles get and spend and die, but just next door—sometimes through a portal, sometimes in the pages of a book, sometimes in the deep recesses of a few special people’s minds, sometimes in language itself—there is another world, a sister world, and sometimes crime straddles those worlds, requiring some extraordinary sleuthing.
The Bone Clocks. By David Mitchell. 2014. Random, $30 (9781400065677).
A special kind of genre blend called translit combines complex literary fiction with all manner of genre styles—thriller, urban fantasy, sf, you name it. Mitchell’s latest novel may the quintessential example of translit. It starts as a coming-of-age tale but quickly morphs into something else when teenager Holly Grace Lancaster starts hearing voices (she calls them “radio people”) and finds herself in the middle of an epic conflict between two rival groups able to traverse time. Multiple characters jump between multiple worlds, stretching over many centuries, but Mitchell connects all these disparate elements into a remarkably propulsive narrative that hums along behind its intricate, many-cylindered engine.
The City and the City. By China Miéville. 2009. Del Rey, $16 (9780345497529).
Inspector Tyador Borlu, a lonely police detective, is assigned to the murder of a young woman found dumped in a park on the edge of a decaying, largely forgotten European city called Beszel. But Beszel shares the same physical space with another city, Ul Qoma; elaborate rules exist allowing the two to exist simultaneously in space and time, separated by the Breach, a kind of fifth dimension demilitarized zone. This simple murder case becomes something altogether different when it turns out to straddle both worlds. In a few short years since its publication in 2009, The City and the City has become a high-water mark in genre-blending.
The Demon and the City. By Liz Williams. 2006. Open Road, $17.99 (9781480438064).
This sequel to Snake Agent returns to Singapore Three, a twenty-first-century cityscape renowned for its ready access to heaven and hell: yes, we’re talking bordertown, and you know what nasty, crime-drenched places bordertowns can be (see last year’s “Hard-Boiled Gazetteer to Border Noir”). Detective Inspector Wei Chen teams with his underworld sidekick Zhu Irzh to solve the apparently demonic murder of a young woman. Fantasy and crime enthusiasts will find all they can handle in this imaginative and surreal fusion of Chinese mythology, paranormal high jinks, and suspenseful sleuthing.
The Fold. By Peter Clines. 2015. Crown, $25 (9780553418293).
There’s this device called the Albuquerque Door. Walk through it, and dimensions collapse. Take a step, and you’ve gone hundreds of feet; play with that a little, and you’re teleporting! Cool, right? Well, not exactly, if the wrong crowd jimmies the door a little to do some really uncool stuff. But there’s this high-school teacher who’s really smart and might be able to fix things—if there’s time. Thriller, sf, fantasy, political conspiracy: throw into the blender and fold.
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. By Haruki Murakami. 1991. Vintage, $15.95 (9780679743460).
Murakami, along with David Mitchell (above), teaches the master class in translit, but you better bring your A-game when you venture into one of his twisty, world-inside-your-brain worlds. There’s a whole lot of pop culture in every Murakami novel, but don’t just eat the icing: there are more layers in this and every Murakami novel than in any of the cakes on those TV baking shows. This one is thoroughly Chandleresque, except for the fact that the crimes and the sleuths and the bad guys are all within the two sides of one man’s brain. Think of one of those scenes in a Chandler novel where Marlowe gets drugged by an evil psychiatrist, and then multiply it by a factor of several thousand.
Lexicon. By Max Barry. 2013. Penguin, $26.95 (9781594205385).
“Words can never hurt me,” our mothers told us to chant to ourselves when we were taunted. Wrong, moms. Words can not only hurt us, they can also bring down civilization. Or so it appears in this intriguing blend of coming-of-age thriller and sf adventure in which two teens find themselves entrapped in a clandestine organization bent on taking over the world through the power of language. It’s war of the words, but it’s no Orson Welles hoax.
The Traveler. By John Twelve Hawks. 2005. Doubleday, o.p.
This first volume in the Fourth Realm trilogy announced the arrival of a major if mysterious talent (Twelve Hawks is a pseudonym, and the author’s real identity has remained unknown). A fast-paced combination of thriller and fantasy, The Traveler concerns two Los Angeles brothers, the remaining survivors of a secret society called the Travelers, who have been marked for assassination by another secret society, the Tabula. More secrets: a third group of young women, called Harlequins, are dedicated to protecting the Travelers. Twelve Hawks takes the complex premise and builds a thoroughly fascinating yarn from it, drawing us into the thriller plot and engaging us in the elaborate world-building needed to sustain it.
The Well of Lost Plots. By Jaspar Fforde. 2004. Penguin, $15 (9780143034353).
Of all the premises in all the genres, blended or otherwise, thank heavens this one walked into ours. Thursday Next is what we might call a literary detective—books are living things in Fforde’s world, and sometimes you need a shamus to jump into the pages and set things right. This time plots are disappearing, and without story, well, we’re in trouble. Fforde is a terrifically agile writer, and his central conceit allows him to stack his novels with seemingly endless layers. Amid the humor, wordplay, and fun with fiction’s conventions, there’s always a decent mystery and a book lover’s plea to save the world’s messiness from corporate streamlining.
Steampunk is its own form of genre-blending, combining fantasy with historical fiction (typically set in the Victorian era), but when you add a thriller or hard-boiled crime element into the mix, you definitely kick it up a notch. Here are two outstanding examples among many.
Angelmaker. By Nick Harkaway. 2012. Knopf, $26.95 (9780307595959).
Harkaway’s sublimely intricate literary bouillabaisse includes a healthy serving of espionage along with fantasy and more than a little steampunk (yes, there’s a very cool train), but there’s also an overlay of gangster adventure, a couple of tender romance plots, and some fascinating reflections on fathers and sons and the tricky matter of forging a self in the shadow of the past. And there’s this doomsday machine, too, designed to bring peace by forcing us only to speak the truth but on the way to bringing the end of the world instead. A tour de force of Dickensian bravura and genre-blending splendor.
Burton & Swinburne in the Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack. By Mark Hodder. 2010. Pyr, $17 (9781616142407).
The time is 1861; the place is London. The situation: the country is being besieged by werewolves and by a possibly mythical creature called Spring Heeled Jack, who’s been bounding about accosting women. Oh, and there might be a world-threatening conspiracy afoot. To the rescue comes a truly odd couple: real-life explorer Robert Burton and his, friend, real-life poet Algernon Swinburne (surely our first Pre-Raphaelite action hero). This wildly inventive roller-coaster of an adventure uses time travel, alternate reality, and a whole mess of steampunk (steam-driven velocipedes, anyone?) to draw in readers from all across the genre universe.
We’re going light on vampires in this gazetteer. Obviously, there is no shortage of vampire novels in the world, and those with a taste for blood will know how to find them. Thus, we’re limiting our selection to two series that really are hard-boiled crime stories in which some of the bad guys have scary teeth.
Already Dead. By Charlie Huston. 2005. Del Rey, $15 (9780345478245).
The first in Huston’s Joe Pitt series, starring a 45-year-old shamus who looks 28: that’s right, he’s a vampire (or vampyre, in Huston’s world, which is a version of Manhattan in which rival vampyre clans vie for control). Pitt, as a freelance detective, works both sides, snuffing zombies lest they give vampyres a bad name, that sort of thing. This series follows a true narrative arc through five volumes, concluding with My Dead Body (2009), as Pitt attempts with varying degrees of success to keep New York’s vampire gangs from all-out war. Huston puts the vampire premise to some flashy metaphorical uses throughout the series, but above all, this is a thoroughly involving underworld epic, The Godfather with fangs.
X-Rated Bloodsuckers. By Mario Acevedo. 2007. Harper Voyager, $13.99 (9780060833275).
Huston’s Joe Pitt series is clever, but it’s realistic, sort of, not camp. Acevedo’s Felix Gomez novels are the opposite: so camp they hurt your teeth (but in that good way). Like Pitt, Gomez, a vampire PI in Los Angeles, is often called in to quell vampire feuds (with so much more time to kill than the rest of us, vampires really know how to hold a grudge), and here it’s a band of younger (well, age is relative) renegade vampires who threaten to disturb the fragile balance between humanity and the netherworld. This is the second in the series, following the show-stopping Nymphos of Rocky Flats (2006), but readers should be encouraged to dive in anywhere, perhaps with the equally crazy and raunchy third entry, The Undead Kama Sutra (2008).
Like vampires, werewolves are likely to turn up in all varieties of novels these days. So, once again, we’re offering only a small taste, an amuse-bouche, in which the moon howling is set in the specific context of crime fiction.
The Frenzy War. By Gregory Lamberson. 2012. Medallion, $14.95 (9781605424538).
Lamberson, author of the Jack Hellman novels, about a New York cop turned PI who investigates all variety of evil-doing demons, also writes the Frenzy series, in which another NY cop, Tony Mace, specializes in werewolves. This second in the series is noteworthy because werewolves are the victims, not the villains. Turns out the werewolves of New York are a mostly peaceful lot, until they are targeted by an ancient society of assassins. Tony, thinking he was well clear of the werewolf world after The Frenzy Way (2010), finds himself back in the middle of it again. Lamberson is highly skilled genre-blender, stirring grisly horror and noirish urban fantasy into a perfectly emulsified sauce to serve over a nicely plotted, medium-rare cop story.
The Last Werewolf. By Glenn Duncan. 2011. Vintage, $15.95 (9780307742179).
Jack Marlowe is the last werewolf, and he’s thinking seriously of ending it all—his life, of course, and with it, his species. Sure, he still likes good scotch, reading late into the night, and, well, a full serving of blood-red protein now and again, but it all seems so meaningless after a couple hundred years. Others, however, don’t want him dead for reasons of their own, and so starts a beguiling inversion of a typical thriller plot: he wants to die, but the bad guys want him to live. There’s a sharp existential edge and plenty of irony to this tale, as Duncan brilliantly melds philosophical noir (think James Sallis) with werewolfery.
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