As you prepare to snuggle in your reading nook during the upcoming season, here are 7 fantasy noir books you can reach out for. We promise you will be hooked till the end!
Not much separates noir from fairy tale or fantasy. All that preoccupies the literary efforts of humanity is present: a moral code, a sense of right and wrong, and sometimes, if the need arises, dragons and other such terrible creatures to be vanquished. If the fairy tale is an escapist fantasy about the search for meaning and destiny, then the noir is about when the meaning turns out to be just another lie, a well-conceived facade designed to keep the residents from that most dreadful sin of disbelieving one’s own press.
Noirs are meditations on rough-edged sincerity and just how much some flickering fluorescent lighting can add to an atmosphere of fogged-up scarcity, repression and fear. From the wide-eyed underdog of the fairy tale, the noir protagonist has evolved to become the ultimate failed underdog as we know them: forever down on their luck, more stubborn than clever, bitter and toyed at by stronger forces. Their trademark street-smart cynicism and incessant quips prevent thought and vulnerability and protect them from further disillusionment. They are only just hanging on by the nails to the side of the angels. In the world of noir, there is no point – only a price.
Here are seven books that blur the boundaries between fairy tale, fantasy and detective fiction:
1. Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett
The eighth novel in the Discworld series, Terry Pratchett’s Guards! Guards! is the first to feature the redoubtable Sam Vimes and the Ankh Morpork City Watch. A secret society plans to take over Ankh Morpork (pearl of cities!), overthrow the patrician, and install a puppet ruler in his place. Add a dragon to this unfortunate combination of a tumultuous city and its disgruntled citizens, and you have a recipe for a city burnt to a crisp.
It’s up to Sam Vimes and Ankh Morpork’s sorry excuse for a city watch to stop the shadowy brotherhood and a fire-breathing dragon with ideas of its own and reinstate their only slightly more benevolent patrician back to his seat if they are to prevent Ankh Morpork from being destroyed forever. Really, it’s enough to drive a man to drink. Or. in Sam Vimes’ case, some more drinking.
Discworld’s beauty lies in its thoughtful commentary and some top-notch characterisations weaved in all the absurdity and silliness. The Ankh Morpork City Watch books are perhaps Pratchett’s most beloved creations and Guards! Guards! is an origin story of sorts. From hard-drinking cynical gumshoes and hapless goons, they evolve into an entirely civic-minded force over many books. It’s the perfect combination of plot, character and pacing; the humour is balanced with the weightier themes of love, duty and governance. The tendency among fantasy lovers to preach the gospel of Sir Terry is not to be belittled. His books are ridiculously good, and if you’re looking for a good noir sprinkled with some magic, there’s no better place to start.
2. The City & The City by China Miéville
China Miéville’s 2009 crime novel The City and The City starts off at an unfortunately cliché plot point: somewhere at the non-descriptive edge of eastern Europe in the rundown city of Besźel, a young woman is found dead. For the readers and the protagonist, Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad, it looks like it’s shaping up to be the usual boilerplate pulp murder mystery, one of the many that begin with a dead woman washing up at the edge of a riverbank.
But Miéville’s novel takes an odd and unique turn in its worldbuilding. The two cities of the title are, in fact, sister cities that occasionally overlap spatially. His investigation takes Borlú from his city to its flourishing rival, Ul Qoma. As he coordinates with his counterpart in Ul Qoma, the detectives find out the murder has been committed in one city while the body has been disposed of in another. They are confronted with the dilemma of violating age-old traditions while manoeuvring an underworld populated by criminals and rabid nationalists. Together, the detectives uncover secrets about the dead woman and their two cities and the terrible secret lying between them.
The City & the City is clever and, at times, a rather mind-bending detective story. It is really the wholly original conceit of two cities of equal substance but differing traditions occupying the same space, along with the underlying analysis of culture and anthropology, all thoroughly grounded in realism, that stays with the reader long after the book has been finished.
3. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon
Of the books on the list, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is, by far, the best detective story. It has an impeccably plotted murder mystery as its driving force, all wrapped up in some truly memorable characters, amazing investigative work and peculiar Judaica galore. Winning Michael Chabon the 2008 Hugo Award, the premise is an alternate history where the state of Israel was never created. The Jewish diaspora before and after World War II was instead resettled to the Alaskan city of Sitka, to the great chagrin of the indigenous tribes. This temporary settlement did have a huge impact on how history played out in this reality: only two million Jews died in the Holocaust, instead of the six million murdered in our history.
The settlement’s days are numbered, however, as Sitka undergoes changes in the face of an imminent handover to the government of the United States of America. Our hero is Meyer Landsman, a down-on-his-luck, barely functioning alcoholic detective nursing his marital wounds in a dingy hotel after his divorce. Landsman has lost most things he holds dear and is about to lose the rest–including his job and citizenship. When a mysterious death does take place in the same shabby hotel he is crashing at, it comes almost as a sign for Landsman to put his self-destructive plans on hold.
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is hilariously morbid and chock full of Jewish history and culture. The humour is uniquely and recognisably Jewish: pitch black and making fun of a bad time. Chabon constructs an intricate vocabulary mixing English and Yiddish. Sitka, with its never-ending rain, its perennial fish smell in the air, Hasidic gangsters, and dark, dingy secretive chess clubs, and the hints of a world much changed from our own is an astounding homage to the hardboiled detective genre, as well as the perseverance of the Jewish spirit. The second half departs from the Yiddish-noir settings, but Chabon ties into his ending events of cultural and religious relevance for Jews. Fans of noir will have a hard time putting this book down.
4. The Imaginary Corpse by Tyler Hayes
What’s the furthest thing from a grizzled, motor-mouth alcoholic detective you can think of? How about a yellow triceratops plushie? Meet Tippy, a stuffed dinosaur detective from the Stillreal–a realm for forgotten imaginary friends. There are times when the strength of a child’s belief in their imagined friends is enough to give them substance. But there are also times when the child moves on, and these now-real creations slip from their consciousness to percolate in its underside. Tyler Hayes’ first novel – The Imaginary Corpse – follows Tippy, who was imagined as a cynical dino detective by his 6-year-old creator. Tippy’s mission is to save his friends and solve a recent spate of murders in the Stillreal.
The premise might sound like one suited for children, but The Imaginary Corpse is rather structured as a dark fairytale aimed at adults. He creates a fun and original mystery, while the narrative allows him the freedom to travel back and forth between genres to create a dizzying, inventive, and lived world. The childish creations also let him lean into the darkness of both noir and the whimsical dark fantasies of children without entirely losing sight of kindness and empathy. If you’re fond of books that play with classic tropes while turning them on their head, this is the book for you.
5. Titanium Noir by Nick Harkaway
Cal Sounders is an expert detective in socio-medical criminal investigations. And yet he is assigned what appears to be a routine open-and-shut suicide case. Well, we all know what they say about appearances, and it turns out that the victim, Roddy Tebbit, is, in fact, a titan–a member of the uber-rich who can afford the T7 treatments to genetically alter their bodies, stretch them into godlike statures, and grant them near-immortality. Titans, as the one percent of the one percent, lead unimaginably ostentatious lives. They have become literally and figuratively unreachable. A murdered titan is well beyond the powers of everyday comprehension. As always with noir, Cal soon finds himself embroiled in a bigger conspiracy.
Set several hundred years in the future, Titanium Noir is a detective story with a sci-fi crime twist. Touted as a mash-up of Raymond Chandler and Philip K. Dick and aided with more than a generous helping from Guillermo Del Toro, it is a tightly plotted and entertaining read for noir fans hankering for another beloved quippy protagonist.
6. The Village of Eight Graves by Seishi Yokomizo
The Village of Eight Graves leans into the potential of a rural setting to exploit and lay bare the bleak and unpleasant world of noir. The Detective Kosuke Kindaichi series is a popular murder mystery series in Japan. Originally published in 1950 and translated into English by Bryan Karetnyk in 2021, the titular village is hidden deep in the mountains and seems to be plagued by a steady stream of less-than-desirable events.
The village gets its name from a gruesome legend of greed, betrayal and murder. Each new horror it faces is attributed to this original crime, which resulted in a curse that has kept generations in its stranglehold. Our protagonist and narrator, Tatsuya, arrives at Eight Graves. A spate of deadly poisonings follow, and all fingers point to him as the perpetrator. It falls to the shaggy detective Kosuke Kindaichi to solve this.
The plot of Eight Graves is a whodunnit that incorporates elements from the Gothic tradition. The events move and pile on at a shocking speed. The characters are eccentric and memorable; the atmosphere is tense, foreboding, and lacking in trust. Taking all these into consideration, the book makes for a pulpy and entertaining read.
7. Garrett P.I. series by Glenn Cook
Starting with Silver Sweet Blues, the Garrett PI books are fast, fun and easy reads for fans of fantasy and noir. Professional nuisance and problem solver, Garrett is a human detective with no superpowers whatsoever trying to make a decent living in a world of fairies, trolls, elves, vampires, and fiercely armed mages. The books have no interconnecting plot – save for the growth of the grubby city of TunFaire. The world survives wars and industrial revolutions; the nobility weakens, and the non-humans clamour for rights and recognition.
Readers fond of tough wiseguys armed only with wit and an inventive solution to murder can dive right into the dynamic, shifting world of the Garrett P.I. series. The books get more and more intense as they proceed; Old Tin Sorrows is a decent starting point for the series.