If your first thought upon seeing the trailer for Detective Pikachu (in theaters today, pika pika!) was something along the lines of “wait, Pikachu is a detective now?” you obviously need to read more speculative noir fiction (or play more video games, but this is a book blog).
Science fiction, fantasy, and noir work so well together, we can easily rattle off dozens of examples of amazing books that blend them extremely well—and not a few of them include… unexpected creatures (not to mention other forms of life) chasing down clues and two-fisting their way to the truth. As usual, SFF leads the way in representation, arguing that we should let go of our anti-dinosaur, anti-cat, and anti-monster prejudices and admit that any sentient being, from s robot to a chickens, can be a kick-butt detective. Here are 10 books that make our case.
The Nursery Crime Series, by Jasper Fforde
Detective: Jack Spratt, of Mother Goose Fame
The Big Over Easy was reportedly the first novel Fforde wrote; rumor has it that he stuck it in a drawer when he failed to sell it, then rewrote it entirely in the wake of the success of his Thursday Next novels. We’re glad he did, because the Nursery Crimes books are delightful and whimsical—naturally, as they are set in the shared world of nursery rhymes. But they’re also really good mysteries, investigated by none other than Jack Spratt—also known as the man who would eat no fat and Jack the Giant Killer—and his partner at the Nursery Crime Division, Mary Mary. This Jack is deathly allergic to fat and has a dark compulsion to murder giants, but that just makes him an ideally flawed detective, really. His first big case is the murder of Humpty Dumpty, who is found shattered to death, with all the clues pointing to his wife—who conveniently committed suicide immediate afterwards. The fact that this ideal noir scenario is being investigated by famous nursery rhyme characters gives Fforde the opportunity to unload his trademarked high-caliber punnage and unload his literary reference-fueled joke machine, all while ladling on the traditional noir flourishes.
The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse, by Robert Rankin
Detective: Teddy Bear
Humpty Dumpty gets it again—it’s hard to avoid being typecast when you’re most famous for dying, after all—in Rankin’s fever dream of a novel set in Toy City, where nursery rhymes and sentient toys live and love and brawl and commit terrible, terrible crimes. Eddie is our detective here, a ragged teddy bear on the trail of a serial killer murdering nursery rhyme characters and leaving chocolate bunnies behind as a trademark. Rankin clearly enjoys wallowing in the grimiest aspects of noir, trowing his toys and nursery rhyme creatures right down into the gutter, but that this is another book with language ripe with puns and peppered with literary references both hilarious and profane transforms it from a solid mystery into something even better.
The Imaginary Corpse, by Tyler Hayes
Detective: A Tiny, Imaginary Triceratops
Noir detectives favor a certain fatalistic hopelessness—they’re well aware of the pointlessness of chasing justice, but they do it anyway. Hayes nails that tone in the midst of what may be 2019’s weirdest premise: on an island where beloved but abandoned ideas—like imaginary friends—go to live when the people who dreamed them up move on, Trippy the triceratops investigates cases on behalf of his fellow forgotten ideas. Once the imaginary friend of a lonely girl, Trippy lives on in the Stillreal, traumatized and bitter in the best noir tradition. When Trippy stumbles onto The Man in the Coat, a nightmarish creature able to permanently delete unwanted ideas, he’ll have to push past his own tragedy and solve the case before everything in the Stillreal dies for, uh, real. Many of us once had at least one imaginary friend, and perhaps those of us who have later wondered where that friend went. Why wouldn’t they become embittered gumshoes in the strange realm between reality and oblivion?
Anonymous Rex, by Eric Garcia
Detective: A Human-Sized Velociraptor
Let’s get the heavy lifting out of the way: in the alternate reality Garcia imagines, dinosaurs didn’t go extinct millions of years ago. Instead, they evolved into smaller forms, and now live among humans in disguise. One of those dinosaurs is Vincent Rubio, a velociraptor making his living as a private investigator, and as down on his luck as any classic noir protagonist. When he lucks onto a fresh case he’s eager for a payday, but quickly finds himself swimming in murky waters as he chases down clues that suggest a vast conspiracy involving genetic experimentation and interspecies romance (yup). What’s great about Garcia’s approach is that he doesn’t skimp on the mystery or noir elements, playing it all very straight; you might find yourself occasionally forgetting that the detective you’re rooting for is actually a dinosaur.
The Caves of Steel, by Isaac Asimov
Detective: The Robot Avatar of a Murder Victim
This Isaac Asimov classic was one of the first books to brilliantly merge sci-fi and detective fiction, with the clever twist that one of the detectives working the case is a robot beholden Asimov’s famous Three Laws. R. Daneel Olivaw is a robot in a future society where tensions and prejudice—between earth-bound humans, so-called Spacers in the outer worlds, and the Spacers’ robot companions—runs rampant, making the involuntary partnership between Daneel and human detective Elijah Bailey instantly fraught. Making it yet more so? Daneel was created in the image of the murder victim whose death they’re trying to solve. While the story is a tad dated in its language and themes, Asimov was a good enough writer to make it easy to ignore the stuff that’s become a bit wonky over time. After all, since every other job will eventually be outsourced to automation, why not detective work?
The Raymond Electromatic Series, by Adam Christopher
Detective: A Robot with No Memory
Speaking of robots, what about Raymond Electromatic, the Electric Detective, and the last operational robot in 1960s Los Angeles? Here’s Ray’s wrinkle: he has a 24-hour memory limit, and though he wears the trenchcoat of a noirish private eye, he’s really an assassin, taking orders from his secretary—a supercomputer named Ada, who fills him in on what he’s forgotten every day. Ray has no choice but to trust Ada, even though he suspects she’s often working from her own agenda. It’s retro science fiction meets murder mystery meets a hardboiled crime novel, and the combo works like a perfectly ordered punchcard calculating machine. The 24-hour memory limit adds a clever twist to that hoary old mystery staple amnesia, and helps make Ray—already the last of his kind, and hated by much of flesh-and-blood society—a tragic hero in the tradition of the best noir detectives, determined to solve the case even if he won’t remember he did it in the morning.
The Obama-Biden Series, by Andrew Shaffer
Detectives: The Former President and Vice-President
Admit it, you want it to be true—you want to discover that upon leaving office, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden turned to solving crimes as if they were in a 1980s buddy-cop TV show. Proving that true noir detectives can be anything—Pokémon, imaginary dinosaurs, and, yes, former presidents—Shaffer leans hard into the banter and buddy-cop chemistry as he imagines the two plunging into the dark underbelly of modern-day America. Biden kicks off the investigation when one of his favorite train conductors (never forget: Biden is often referred to as “Amtrak Joe”) is killed, but the case quickly leads Obama and his former VP to a plot involving the opioid catastrophe strangling the country, leading to some surprising—but wholly satisfying—butt-kicking on the part of the two popular politicians.
Embry, by Michael Allen Rose
Detective: Unjustly Accused Rooster
If you want weird and unusual, you can’t go wrong wandering over the the bizarro section of the bookstore, where you’ll find this incredible tale of a rooster named Embry who finds himself framed for the murder of the most famous egg of all time. The egg and chicken puns fly fast and furious as Embry desperately investigates the seamy world of Kingswall. For a rooster, the protagonist is the perfect noir hero—cynical, bitter, darkly hilarious and not above violence, blackmail, and fisticuffs in pursuit of his goals. But, yes, he’s a chicken. Rose does a fantastic job with his off-the-wall worldbuilding, the end result being a much more compelling mystery than you might expect from a book about chickens and eggs.
Three Bags Full, by Leonie Swann
Detective: A Flock of Sheep
No one said your noir detective had to be a single character. Or human. Swann’s remarkable book kicks off when a shepherd in Ireland is murdered and his flock of sheep take it upon themselves to solve the crime. The sheep roll with a marvelous attitude—a combination sweet-natured optimism and cowardly herd mentality they battle continuously to overcome in their efforts to solve the crime. Swann works a lot of wonderful criticism of humanity in with her story of the wooly truth-seekers, especially once they start making headway and realize the murder involves a much larger swatch of the local human population than originally suspected. Potential for silliness aside, it is a surprisingly engaging mystery.
The Joe Grey Series, by Shirley Rosseau Murphy
Detective: A Talking Cat?!
The moment we started talking unusual detectives, you knew we were eventually going to mention a cat, didn’t you? Joe Grey isn’t just any cat, he’s a cat with the inexplicable ability to understand and speak to humans. Joe isn’t exactly thrilled about this fact, as he worries it will impede his ability to nap in sunbeams. But when he witnesses a murder and is forced to run for his nine lives, he must subsequently figure out how to solve the case before the killer tracks him down. The reasons for this series’ longevity are numerous: Murphy balances his mysteries with character work that turns a talking cat into a believable detective. These are books that work as hard-boiled crime stories—with all the gritty violence that defines the genre—despite (or because of) their most unusual protagonist.
What other unusual detectives in SFF have we missed?
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