Fantasy noir combines the best of two genres; these are the books that do it well

Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Her name was Silvia and as soon as she walked into my office, I knew she was trouble, I just didn’t know how much.

“You are Tidhar, the obscure novelist?” she said.

“What’s it to you, Toots?” I said.

“It’s about our column,” she said. “It needs writing, and fast.”

I was behind on my rent and I was down on my luck, and besides, I knew our editor would cut all this.

“What’s it about, anyway?” I said. “The column.”

“Noir,” she said, “Fantasy noir.”

Silvia: Let’s lay down the bread of this sandwich and talk about the origins of fantasy noir. Other people may want to correct my evolutionary tree, but I say the daddy of fantasy noir was William Hjortsberg with Falling Angel in 1978. Even if we could trace a different ancestor, it’s a great book. It combines all the old-fashioned hard-boiled tropes with a detailed description of 1950s New York, and adds murders, magic, a coven of ideologists and a voodoo priestess.

Sadly, I don’t think anyone knew what to do with this book when it came out. It was an odd product, like making a peanut butter and pickle torta. It did get adapted into a movie in 1987 – Angel Heart, starring Mickey Rourke and Robert De Niro. Hjortsberg also wrote a fantastical, historical murder mystery, Nevermore.

Lavie: It’s a great movie. One book I’d pick as a harbinger of things to come is strangely obscure. Martin Scott’s Thraxas was published in 1999, a sort of hard-boiled private eye story set in a classical secondary world fantasy – think Philip Marlowe in Middle Earth. It wasn’t like anything else at the time, improbably won the World Fantasy Award for best novel the following year – an offbeat selection even for that most offbeat of awards! – and spawned more than a few sequels. It was ahead of its time in that, 20 years later, that formula seems to be everywhere. You can’t browse a bookstore without tripping on hard-boiled detectives fighting wizards and elves.

Silvia: And of course, urban fantasy was big for a while, giving us an abundance of noir books, including Laurel K Hamilton’s Anita Blake novels. That wave seems to be over – telling an editor you write urban fantasy nowadays is like telling a music producer you play the lute – but we still get bits of noir. Daniel José Older first cut his teeth writing short stories, which were collected as Salsa Nocturna. Then he went on to write a series of novels with a character from those stories: Carlos Delacruz, a half-dead man solving supernatural cases in New York City. Older is from New York and, like Hjortsberg, he describes a city that feels real and lived in.

For books that veer toward parody, there’s Who Censored Roger Rabbit? by Gary Wolf and This Body’s Not Big Enough for Both of Us, by Edgar Cantero. In the case of Cantero, the detective’s body is inhabited by two people. Cantero’s style is comedic, so if you hate Joss Whedon or Ready Player One, stay away. But if you love that stuff, well, this is definitely zany. Also crude, foul-mouthed. … You get the picture.

Lavie: I did love Ready Player One – and Anita Blake. And you forget Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels. I read through about eight of them in one go. But if I am sticking with secondary-world fantasy for a bit, one of my favourite current writers is Robert Jackson Bennett. City of Stairs, the first in a trilogy, is great fun, a mystery set in a city where the gods all died – or did they? He just does this sort of thing so well. A great title I wish more people saw is Rupert Wong, Cannibal Chef, by Malaysian author Cassandra Khaw. It’s a pitch-perfect hard-boiled fantasy set in Kuala Lumpur that’s tremendous fun with a great sense of place. For the pure essence of noir, mixed in with Lovecraftian horror and Le Carre-like spy games, I adored Caitlín R Kiernan’s Agents of Dreamland, which is unclassifiable and wonderful. More recently, Asaf Ashery’s Simantov, translated from Hebrew by Marganit Weinberger-Rotman, is a weird detective novel set in Israel, against a cosmic battleground based on Jewish myth. This might be one to keep an eye out for.

Silvia: Khaw’s Rupert Wong novels are a breath of fresh air, but she also has Hammers on Bone, a novella that again displays a pitch-perfect understanding of noir without turning into pastiche, which I think is not an unusual impulse, as you can see by our introduction to this column. It’s hard-boiled Lovecraft and a quick read. Really, what more can you ask for?