What do you get when you cross a hard-boiled private eye story with a paranormal horror tale? Well, you certainly get me as one of your readers. Having just finished Stephen King’s latest paranormal mystery, The Outsider, I’ve found myself musing on the weird and wonderful world of occult private eye fiction.
The explosion of paranormal mysteries over the past fifteen years has created a literary boom for all readers looking for a tough-talking, hard-hitting private eye who finds him or herself battling forces far more sinister than the most wicked crime boss or earthly psychopath.
While the genre has been around for quite a long time (William Hope Hodgson’s occult detective Thomas Carnacki dates back to the early twentieth century, followed by Manly Wade Wellman’s John Thunstone and others), the formal blending of the existential hard-boiled PI and the otherworldly menace of occult fiction is a more recent trend.
Rather than scan the much larger genre of paranormal mysteries, I’ve selected a few of my favorite novels that have one foot planted in the gritty urban world of the smart but tough private eye – characters who shoot as fast from the lip as they do from the hip—and the dark and terrifying otherworld of the occult.
Falling Angel -William Hjortsberg
I was a latecomer to Hjortsberg’s 1978 novel, Falling Angel, having only tracked down a novel in a used bookstore in Missoula, Montana many years after seeing Alan Parker’s 1987 film version, Angel Heart. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I began reading, but was sucked in from the opening lines as Hjortsberg’s meticulous ear for dialogue and driving plot took me on a tour of the seedier side of New York as private eye Harry Angel found himself becoming more and more engrossed in his latest job: tracking down flash-in-the-pan singer Johnny Favorite for a mysterious client with a contract to enforce. No one in the novel, from the mysterious client Louis Cyphere to Johnny Favorite to Harry Angel himself is who he seems, and the conclusion is as devastating as it is satisfying. Tough, gritty, and utterly terrifying, Falling Angelwas a novel years ahead of its time, and remains my favorite occult mystery to this day.
Down Solo -Earl Javorsky
Serendipity brought me to Earl Javorsky’s smart and quirky hard-boiled paranormal novel, Down Solo. I ran into Javorsky, who lives in my neck of the woods, in a local coffee house. We got to talking mystery and horror novels and films and the craft of writing, and he was kind enough to lend me a copy of his first novel. I was unfamiliar with his work, but when I saw the blurbs on the back from best-selling heavies like T. Jefferson Parker and James Frey, I was more than intrigued. What I found was a tight, smart hard-boiled novel with a wicked paranormal twist: Charlie Miner, a down-on-his-luck gumshoe with a nasty heroin habit finds himself embroiled in the ultimate existential mystery… his own murder. From the opening lines in which Miner wakes in a morgue with a rather large bullet hole in his head, Down Solo grabbed my attention and turned my expectations upside down. A wonderful blend of dark humor and classic detective work, the novel has Miner digging back through his latest, unsolved case while trying to figure out the new rules for living as the undead. Fresh, funny, and full of double-crosses, red-herrings, and some wonderful banter, Down Solo is an acid-trip through the hard-boiled crime of the past and the paranormal horrors of today.
Every Dead Thing -John Connoly
The first in Connolly’s series centering on former NYPD detective turned private investigator Charlie “Bird” Parker, Every Dead Thing remains my favorite. Parker, heavily on the skids following the ritualistic murder of his wife and daughter by a hideous serial killer named the Traveling Man, wrestles with his own guilt and devastating sense of loss as he struggles to make it as a PI in the Big Apple. His latest case brings the haunted past fully into the present as he slowly becomes convinced that supernatural forces are at play and the Traveling Man is still up to his savage tricks. Connolly’s prose balances hard-boiled banter with gorgeously poetic turns of phrase as the novel takes several mind-bending turns deeper and deeper into the terrifying occult. Ranging from the brutal mean streets of New York to the Gothic, deeply-haunted South, Every Dead Thing is as thoughtful and emotional as it is gripping.
Greywalker -Kat Richardson
Kat Richardson’s tough-as-nails and witty PI Harper Blaine finds herself thrust into a world she never knew existed in Greywalker, the first in a terrific series featuring the character. Having technically died for two minutes after a beating from one of the suspects in a case, she is revived, but comes back with part of the land beyond life with her. Now able to see things she wishes she couldn’t—odd shapes and creatures enshrouded in a creepy fog—Blaine at first resists accepting that her life has inexorably changed. Now a “Greywalker,” one who inhabits the liminal space between the world of the living and what lies beyond, Blaine slowly begins to learn how to use this terrifying new ability as her new cases take her deeper into the shadowy underworld inhabited by revenants who prey upon the living. Hard-hitting and at times truly unnerving, Greywalker is a breakout novel not to be missed.
So many great books in this genre, so little time. These are only a few of my favorites, and I am well aware that I have left so many worthy others out of this blog. What are some of your favorites? What have I overlooked?