Demons, Detectives, and Dark Places: 6 Gritty Supernatural Crime Novels

greywalkerI’m a fiend for crime fiction: the twisted plots, the dangerous characters, the desperate situations…it provides a rush few other genres can match. I especially love it when crime writers aren’t afraid to let their stories get weird—some of them border on horror or fantasy already, with enough elements of the real and the human to keep them teetering on the edge. But a good supernatural crime novel gets even weirder, blurring the boundaries of genre even further. Case in point: Adam Mansbach’s new Southwestern gothic supernatural thriller The Devil’s Bag Man. Reading it reminded me of six more of my dark, gritty, weird favorites.

The City Trilogy, by Darren Shan (Procession of the DeadHell’s Horizon, City of the Snakes)
A surrealistic trilogy of novels that bounces from Coen Brothers-style black comedy to pitch-dark noir, The City Trilogy follows the rise and fall of an unnamed city’s criminal underworld through the eyes of a hard-nosed private eye and an ambitious career criminal as they navigate a subterranean culture of blind Incan priests, a puppet-obsessed insomniac crime lord, mysterious femme fatales, and a nightly green fog that mind-wipes the general population. It’s an unusual sort of trilogy—the first two books can be read independent of each other, and the third wraps things up. I recommend Procession of the Dead if you want a slower, more David Lynch-style mystery; read Hell’s Horizon if you want a hard-boiled noir that allows the fantastical elements creep in slowly.

Expiration Date, by Tim Powers
Expiration Date is best described as a novel about drugs and addiction in which the drug of choice is ghosts. Using a series of homemade traps (sugar, anagrams, and Alice in Wonderland), the villains and side-characters attempt to trap ghosts so they can either snort them, or sell them to rich people who snort them. When a young boy named Kootie winds up inhaling the last breath (and thus ghost) of Thomas Edison, the ghost-trapping underworld gives chase to try and extract the famed inventor’s soul. Mixed up in the plot are a number of colorful characters all somehow connected to a shadowy film producer with a penchant for inhaling high-profile spirits. Powers’s exhaustive research and imaginative worldbuilding create an excellent framework for a story of hard-luck ghost junkies that ranks up there with the greats of strange crime fiction.

The Felix Castor series, by Mike Carey (The Devil You Know, Vicious Circle, Dead Men’s Boots, Thicker Than Water, The Naming of the Beasts)
Sardonic long-coat-wearing exorcist-for-hire Felix “Fix” Castor makes his living in a world where the dead have risen, and ghosts and zombies are an everyday annoyance. If that weren’t bad enough, the amoral antihero must contend with murderous succubi, ghost “possession rackets,” advocates for undead rights, and the children’s birthday party from Hell (okay, maybe not literally). Carey brings his considerable comic writing experience (Lucifer, Hellblazer) to bear in his grimly humorous series of hard-boiled adventures, creating a unique (if incredibly cynical) world of colorful characters that still feels incredibly real.

The Sandman Slim series, by Richard Kadrey 
Drawing from the tone and atmosphere of Richard Stark’s Parker novels, B-movies, John Woo, and Tom Waits, Richard Kadrey provides a fresh take on the paranormal crime novel with his twisted tales of revenge. We joins the party as James Stark, a recent escapee from Hell, tracks down the former friends who dragged him there in the first place, but that quest for revenge is just the first of many adventures that see the scarred-up, leather-clad bad boy bodyguarding for Lucifer, tangling with demonic gangs of skinheads, being tormented by an evil sorcerer with a penchant for Tom Waits, arguing with a talking severed head, and taking on a rogues’ gallery of gods and monsters. While every book stands alone, I recommend the first as a point of entry: it gets right into the action and does a good job showing you exactly what you’re in for.

The Greywalker series, by Kat Richardson
Harper Blaine is working as a private investigator in Seattle when she dies for a few minutes, and is then resuscitated. When she wakes up, she’s able to see into “the Grey,” the boundary between the normal world and the paranormal one lurking at the fringes. Her cases begin to take on a decidedly supernatural edge, as she deals with the vampire king of Seattle, necrotic artifacts, a sinister client that manages to phone her even when the phone isn’t working, and the dangers of entering the Grey itself. Richardson melds an interesting world design, fantastic character work, and one of my favorite rain-soaked settings into a dark detective series with just the right amount of weird.

Moon Called, by Patricia Briggs
Mercy Thompson is a mechanic by trade. She’s also a “walker,” able to change shape into a coyote at will. She has a decent life in the Tri-Cities in Washington, fixing cars for the local vampire lord and dealing with the supernatural community slowly going public. But soon, she finds herself pulled into politics between the various supernatural races as she takes on investigative jobs for her friends. As the series goes on, she is marked for death by vampires, has to navigate pack politics with werewolves, and must deal with a host of other supernatural problems. Briggs’s strengths are in her dialogue, setting, and terminology, filling the Tri-Cities with strange life.

What’s your favorite supernatural detective series?

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