Hardboiled detective novels (popular from 1920 through the 1950s) and the film noir genre inspired by it (popular from the 1940s through the 1950s) featured mystery-solving protagonists who were as tough as they were cynical. But if you look, you can still find hardboiled detective novels…not in the mystery section of the bookstore but in science fiction and fantasy.
I love hardboiled SF/F, which both grounds fantastical elements in reality and elevates crime into something completely unexpected. If you read this subgenre long enough, you’ll see that these novels tend to have certain elements in common:
- • Our protagonist is some kind of policeman or private investigator, perhaps a bounty hunter.
- • He/she/it is cynical and unlucky in love. Our protagonists may have physical relationships, but if there’s romance, it is either unattainable, thwarted, or doomed.
- • There’s a point when the nature of the target or the mission is called into question. In SF/F, there may be a point where the nature of the protagonist him/her/itself is called into question. Sometimes both at the same time.
- • The protagonist starts off damaged and may become only less damaged after the resolution. There is high likelihood they will be more damaged, as well as a chance they will know this ahead of time and persevere anyway.
- • Knowing who committed the crime or what was really going on—and why—in no way at all leads to true satisfaction.
If all that sounds like your cup of scalding black coffee, here are 12 novels and series I’d like to recommend, plus several more at the end that deserve your attention. Instead of ranking them in terms of release date, I’ve ranked them in order of bitterness; the most lighthearted comes first and the most hard-hitting comes last. This noir can get very black indeed.
I’ve probably not read some obvious ones. Let me know which novels I’ve left off this list: I’ll take all the recommendations I can get.
The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov
Asimov’s novel The Caves of Steel, the first the second book in his Robot series, is not dark enough to be noir, and not tough enough to be hard-boiled; because Asimov’s writing ran to thought experiments and shied away from dark underbellies, I’d go as far as to call it soft-boiled. But this old-school murder mystery is the granddaddy of science fiction detective novels, and to leave it off of this list would be its own mystery.
Police officer Elijah “Lije” Baley doesn’t like robots, but he’s forced to team up with R. (for Robot) Daneel Olivaw to investigate a murder off world. Unfortunately, Lije—and most Earthers—suffer from agoraphobia from living in “caves of steel” their entire lives. As Lije and R. Daneel work the case, they learn to understand each other, as well as the politics of Earth and the Spacer worlds.
NOTE: I highly recommend the BBC 4 radio drama.
“But we can’t succeed just any old way. You’ll be partnered with one of their R’s. If he breaks the case, if he can report that we’re incompetent, we’re ruined, anyway. We, as a department. You see that, don’t you? So you’ve got a delicate job on your hands. You’ve got to work with him, but see to it that you solve the case and not he. Understand?”
The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher
The Dresden Files didn’t originate urban noir fantasy, but this New York Times best-seller list series certainly put it on the map and helped make it the subgenre it is today.
Chicago wizard-turned-P.I. Harry Dresden is broke, unlucky at love, and is constantly running afoul of the laws of man and otherworldly creatures. Plus, when he was young, he killed the man who taught him magic. With this background, Butcher could have soaked his prose in grim noir cliches. Instead, The Dresden Files has a light touch, and while Harry has cynical moments, he remains reasonably optimistic in light of some painful events.
Fifteen novels in, Dresden’s adventures include finding the Shroud of Turin, navigating intrigues of various vampire and faerie courts, and dying.
But the real reason The Dresden Files is on my must-read list: Unlike most noir detectives, who have had great loves in the past and perhaps friends-with-benefits in the present, Harry has a genuine romantic streak. I’d go as far to say that he’s my fictional boyfriend. We're doomed, of course.
“Souls,” I said. “I mean, you always wonder if they’re real. Even if you believe in them, you still have to wonder: Is my existence just this body? Is there really something more? Do I really have a soul?”
Uriel’s smile blossomed again. “You’ve got it backward, Harry,” he said. “You are a soul. You have a body.”
The Nightside Series by Simon Green
In the Nightside, a perpetually dark alternate London that lies within the real city, John Taylor isn’t just a private eye. In this reasonably lighthearted series, John has a private eye, one that he uses to find things. But every time he uses his talent, it acts as a beacon to draw his enemies to him: While P.I.s pick up enemies along the course of their work, John was born with them, thanks to his powerful mother who actually created the Nightside.
John also has telekinesis, which lets him remove bullets from a gun, pull the fillings from people’s teeth, and remove the air from someone’s lungs, frequently with a snarky comment. But the series’ real joy is its clever use of Judeo-Christian mythology. For example, in the second book, John seeks the “Unholy Grail,” the cup that Judas Iscariot drank from at the Last Supper.
“I finally found my way to the Really Restricted Section, where they keep the kind of books most scholars aren’t even supposed to know exist. I knocked on the closed door, said the proper passwords, and the door opened before me. I walked in, and the ghost of the Head Librarian, a thin, dusty presence, with dark eyes and a disapproving look, appeared before me, blocking my way. (He had been eaten by a book, then brought back by the other books, apparently because they approved of him. Because even though he didn’t have much time for people, he loved books.)”
Who Censored Roger Rabbit by Gary Wolf
No, this isn't the 1988 movie, Who Framed Roger Rabbit. This is the novel upon which the film was (very) loosely based.
Cartoon character Roger Rabbit is dead, but before he was shot, he created a duplicate of himself (a “dopple”). Now the dopple wants hard-drinking Eddie Valiant to solve his murder. The killer could have been his manipulative wife Jessica. It could have been his two managers, the DeGreasy brothers. But then one of the brothers also turns up dead. And everyone alive wants to find a missing teakettle.
If you’ve seen Who Framed Roger Rabbit, you’ll see that it has several characters in common with the book…and little else. For one thing, the toons speak in word balloons, which decay slowly. Lucky for Eddie, the word balloons—which litter the streets and are a general nuisance—provide more pieces to the puzzle of who rubbed out the rabbit. The language of the novel is so hard-boiled it verges on parody. But if you like Raymond Chandler knock-offs, you're going to love this.
“She lit her colored coffin nail, set it into an ashtray, and promptly forgot about it. It smouldered into eternity silently begging for one more touch from her gorgeous lips.”
"I'm not bad, Mr. Valiant. I'm just drawn that way."
Gun, with Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem
The world of Gun, with Occasional Music takes strange ideas to an off-kilter extreme, almost but not quite veering into Michael Marshall Smith territory. Music has replaced information. People have karma ratings. Genetically engineered animals work as an underclass. And drugs are consumed with great enthusiasm in great quantities.
Conrad Metcalf, a private investigator, has to solve the murder of a former client—one who had recently paid Conrad to rough up his unfaithful wife. Given their history, Conrad is suspected of the crime.
It’s likely that he’ll solve the murder. It’s less likely that he finds his missing testicles. (Yeah, you read that right.)
“I showered and shaved and got my gums bleeding with a toothbrush, then stumbled into the kitchen to cauterize the wounds with some scalding coffee.”
When Gravity Fails by George Alec Effinger
While Russia, the United States, and Europe have fallen into disarray, civilization in North Africa in the year 2172 is business as usual—even in the criminal underworld of the Budayeen, where When Gravity Fails lays its fedora. For a price, the characters here can swap genders or perhaps use a neural interface to change their personality (“moddies”) and insert add-ons (“daddies”).
P.I. Madrid Audran has avoided moddies. But when someone chips in a vicious serial killer mod and starts to do some very dirty deeds, Marid is forced to wire himself. Marid eventually finds the killer. But considering anyone can use a moddy, has he found the only one?
“I don’t carry a weapon, Mr. Bogatyrev. Not usually. I’ve never been in a situation where I needed one. Either the other guy has one, and I do what he says, or he doesn’t, and I make him do what I say.”
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon
A chess player is dead in his flop-house room in an alternate-reality present of The Yiddish Policemen's Union, and it’s up to detective Meyer Landsman to find the killer. It turns out the victim is the son of a crime boss who had connections to Landman’s late sister—as well as a sinister plot.
The timeline in this world diverted from ours in 1940 when the Jews were settled in Sitka, Alaska during World War II (a real-world plan floated by President Roosevelt); only 2 million Jews, rather than 6 million, died in the Holocaust. And as Landsman ultimately learns, the politics of the modern-day Jewish Alaska tie in to the murder.
“There is a cry of pain, feminine, a whiff of breath, and then the lady wishes a cancer upon Landsman’s testicles….The smell of popcorn, coming from inside the abandoned store, alters his perception of the smell of blood and brings out the sweetness of it. Landsman ducks and lets go of his Smith & Wesson.”
Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan
In the future, memories are stored in our spinal cords, and if we die, we can just upload our memories into a new body, a.k.a. “sleeves.” After one man has died, his sleeve thinks he’s been murdered. The problem? The sleeve has no memory of the victim’s last 48 hours. Former soldier Takeshi Kovacs must solve the crime…only if the consequences of former career don’t get in his way. Altered Carbon pulls no punches when it comes to Kovacs or the reader.
(A shout-out here to Kiln People by David Brin, which also involves duplicates of people and was released two months prior. It’s not nearly as dark, because it’s hard not to smile when you watch point-of-view flips between different versions of the same character.)
“You are still young and stupid. Human life has no value. Haven’t you learned that yet, Takeshi, with all you’ve seen? It has no value, intrinsic to itself. Machines cost money to build. Raw materials cost money to extract. But people?” She made a tiny spitting sound. “You can always get some more people. They reproduce like cancer cells, whether you want them or not.”
The City and the City by China Mieville
This remarkable novel is technically not science fiction or fantasy, except that its central premise revolves around a fantasy of perception.
Policeman Tyador Borlú lives in the Eastern European city of Besźel, which occupies the same space as the city of Ul Qoma. Though the two cities coexist in the same place, citizens of one city are not allowed to acknowledge the other, that is, “unsee.” The penalty for Breaching: disappearing forever.
A woman from Ul Qoma is found dead in Besźel, and Tyador’s investigation soon leads him (legally) to the city he has unseen his entire life. As you might guess, a place where the entire citizenry agree to a general consensus illusion is ripe for hidden secrets and conspiracies. Tyador has to think, unthink, and rethink carefully to solve a crime without committing one—and avoid being disappeared.
She looked up at us from below a fluttering fringe. Her face was set in a started strain: she was endlessly surprised by herself. She was young. She was heavily made up, and it was smeared across a badly battered face….
“Well, hello cause of death,” Shukman said to the wounds in her chest.
Chasm City by Alastair Reynolds
Chasm City, set in Reynold's Revelation Space universe but separate from the main sequence, overlays his trademark space opera with a film of gritty noir. In the far future, the nanotechnology on which advanced civilization was based has been devastated by the Melding Plague, turning the glorious Chasm City into a wretched hive of scum and villainy. This is where our protagonist soldier-for-hire protagonist Tanner Mirabel comes to seek payback for the death of his boss and his boss’ wife. His search for the “postmortal” killer is complicated by the implanted memories of a man who is equally worshipped and reviled.
If you think the implant is the biggest complication here, brace yourselves, ‘cuz you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Chasm City is complex…and at times convoluted. Remember how in the intro I said that SF noir makes the protagonist question everything? Chasm City delivers that point in spades. Sam Spades.
“It’s only our deeds that make us evil, Tanner; they’re what define us, nothing else, not our intentions or feelings. But what are a few bad deeds compared to a life, especially the kinds of lives we can live now?”
The Sandman Slim series by Richard Kadrey
In the first novel in the Sandman Slim series, Slim (a.k.a. James Stark) arrives in Los Angeles after a ten-year stay in Hell. That’s right. Hell. But now he’s back, armed with wicked powers, a thirst for revenge, and some of the genre’s snappiest dialog.
The entire series reads as if written from the hardboiled playbook: the cynical protagonist. The tragic, lost love. The sarcastic quips. Don’t think of the Sandman Slim series as a stereotype. It’s more like an archetype for everything wonderful about hardboiled noir, including a world-weary character who's seen it all. Only here, our protagonist has been to hell…and eventually, back again.
“If I was a normal mortal, I’d be dead by now or at least a four-way gimp after Hobnails landed on me and snapped my spine. But I’m not a normal mortal and this isn’t a normal situation. I’m hard to kill any day of the week and I’m even harder now that I have on Lucifer’s armor under my shirt.”
Stark’s tendency to think with his fists rather than plan too far ahead means he doesn’t hit the lows of self-realized angst his peers do, which is why he’s beaten to the bottom by:
The Felix Castor series by Mike Carey
Of all the books here, the Felix Castor series may be my favorite, because it’s a sublime example of fantasy noir. The stories are dark as sin and twice as terrible. Brutal things happen to innocent people. And despite the supernatural elements, some of the worst crimes seem to be inflicted by mere mortals upon each other. Read The Devil You Know, the first in the series, to see what I mean. That book brought the pain.
Our Londoner protagonist Felix “Fix” Castor exorcises ghosts and binds demons with his penny whistle. But not too long in the past, he had accidentally bound a demon to his best friend. Fix has to contend with his own guilt, plus solve the many mysteries that are thrown his way.
Note to Mike Carey: I liked your most recent novel, The Girl with All the Gifts, really. But as someone addicted to the Castor series, I need my Fix.
A cold gust of sorrow and remorse brought me the rest of the way up into full consciousness. My whistle. My sword and my shield through all the half-arsed vicissitudes of life. It was the same as a million others, and it was absolutely unique. And all that was left of it now was the jagged pain in my side where the broken end of it was digging into my third rib.
For those of you looking for more hardboiled SF/F, here are some recommendations:
Hellblazer (Vertigo Comics)
Surrogates (Top Shelf Comics)
Sandman (Vertigo Comics)
The Laundry Files by Charles Stross is not noir. But it’s a perfect blend between fantasy and spy thrillers: spy-fy.