Fantasy + Mystery/Detective Fiction

This is a post by James Davis Nichol:, which starts this way:

I recently happened across a Twitter conversation in which an author asserted, with the unwavering confidence of a person about to denounce the heliocentric model of the Solar System, that mystery/detective/police or legal procedurals are antithetical to horror/fantasy. This is a claim for which I am grateful. My quest for inspiration is endless and nothing serves me quite as well as a bar so low it requires a trench.

I laughed. A bar so low it requires a trench! I’m going to remember that one.

Of course that’s a ridiculous assertion, so ridiculous that I’m surprised anyone offered it as a hypothesis, never mind asserting it as a statement of fact. I instantly think of, eg, Lord Darcy. I will add, these are too … how shall I put this … too Sherlockian to appeal to me. They’re all about the clever plot, which is not what I like in mysteries. But they are most definitely fantasy stories that are also detective fiction.

I don’t know whether Nicholl mentions them, but he’s always recalling older SFF, so probably! Let me look … no, he doesn’t. But after all, there are zillions of examples of fantasy/detective novels. Here’s one he does mention:

Point of Hopes by Melissa Scott and Lisa A. Barnett 

The great city of Astreiant and the monarchy of Chenedolle to which it belongs recognize the rule of law…in rudimentary fashion. However, there does exist a cadre of professionals charged with enforcing such laws as exist. Pointsman Rathe is one such professional. What begins as a simple missing-persons case is revealed to be a problem of far grander scale: all across the city, children are vanishing. The straightforward folk of Astreiant default to blaming the first scapegoats who come to mind. Rathe, for his part, actually cares about the truth. It’s not at all clear that he will be able to uncover the truth in time to save the children.

This one is much heavier on the fantasy and much lighter on the detective fiction vibe. Also lots more emphasis on the characters. Nothing Sherlockian about it. I liked it a lot.

Nicholl lists off a handful of others — not many, but a wide range.

There are so many others, and a tremendously wide range if you include every kind of mytery. Let me try to think of a few that aren’t just mysteries, but are specifically detective fiction. All right, here’s one: The Eyre Affair

Which is in a class of its own for a zillion reasons. When someone begins kidnapping characters from works of literature and plucks Jane Eyre from the pages of Brontë’s novel, Thursday is faced with the challenge of her career. … Her career as a detective, of course.

And Jackaby by Ritter is another.

I liked this one quite a bit. I see there are three others in the series. Maybe I should try the next. Although I kind of have enough books to read right now, I have to say. And for me, detective fiction can be nice to read, but isn’t likely to be really emotionally engaging. Too much intellectual working out the crime, not enough sinking into the story … here’s one that might be an exception, though: Tamora Pierce’s Beka Cooper series.

A very good trilogy, and here we have a cop at the beginning of her career, in a world where cops and detectives are a pretty new idea. I’d say that really, this trilogy straddles the distance between detective fiction such as the Lord Darcy stories, and fantasy-with-detective-elements such as Point of Hopes. Lots of worldbuilding here, lots of emphasis on the characters. I liked this series a lot and I’ve read it several times.

Anyway, there’s no end. I’m sure we could think of dozens if not hundreds of books that are both fantasies and detective novels / mysteries. That really IS a bar so low you have to dig a trench.

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4 thoughts on “Fantasy + Mystery/Detective Fiction”

  1. I thought the jackaby books did some decent character work as they went along, but I don’t remember if I read the last one or not…should look into that.

    Will probably reread scholomance first

  2. I couldn’t help but snort at that blanket statement. When I started my “Agatha Christie with magic” series nine years ago, I couldn’t find anything else like it out there. Now? Good grief. There are heaps of cozy mysteries set in the real world with magical elements, from talking cats all the way up to mysteries involving dragons and unicorns stuck in an English garden, and that’s just on the “mystery with fantasy” end. On the “fantasy with mystery” end you have just as many, from the ones you mention here to Katherine Addison’s Witness for the Dead to all Terry Pratchett’s City Watch books. It’s still a small sub-genre compared to grimdark or urban fantasy, but it’s definitely there, and it’s growing in popularity all the time.

  3. Louise, right?

    And in fact, since you mention Urban Fantasy, there are just hordes of UF and Paranormals that are detective stories / mysteries. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series started that way before turning into hard-core porn. Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels series did the same before turning into magical war novels. Looks like this Goodreads list includes more than a hundred UF series with private investigators or detectives.

    Really, you have to dig a DEEP trench for that particular bar.

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