Between Mystery and Magic: Five thrillers with hints of the fantastic
The biggest fans of any genre tend also to be the most jaded. After all, once you’ve read your way through a hundred or so horror novels, you can only be so surprised when the villain turns out to be a werewolf, a vampire, or a haunted car possessed by the spirits of the underpaid workers that lost their lives assembling it.
As a result, some of the most interesting examples from any genre tend to be those with one foot already stepping into (or out of) another, otherwise unrelated genre. Neuromancer may be the consummate techno-fetishistic cyberpunk novel, but beneath that veneer you’ll find the steady pacing and tone of a noir detective novel, a near-future whodunnit. By the same token, thrillers have had fleeting flirtations with the fantasy genre, giving us some strange and wonderful books.
Arkady & Boris Strugatsky: The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn
Arkady and Boris Strugatsky are probably destined to be forever remembered (if they are remembered at all) as the authors of the strange Russian science fiction classic Roadside Picnic, which provided the inspiration for Tarkovsky’s Stalker. This is a sorry situation, not least because the Strugatsky brothers’ detective novel is in many respects a stronger book.
The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn follows the investigation of Peter Glebsky as he attempts to unravel murder in a small inn (or hotel, depending on the translation) in the snow-covered mountains. The novel is oddly self-aware, so when the inn is cut off from the outside world by unusually bad weather, Glebsky himself comments that this is all typical detective story stuff. Less typical are the elements of the supernatural that creep in over the course of the book.
The tone is light and personable throughout, despite the its occasional brutality. Where The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn is strongest is in the friendliness and total unreliability of its narrator. As Glebsky relates the story, one character is referred to only as “the kid,” their gender oscillating from one paragraph to the next according to his/her activities at the time. Moreover, Glebsky makes occasional reference to the idea that he may not be a policeman at all, mentioning that before retreating to the hotel he had been a sink salesman, before brushing all that aside to push on with his investigation.
It’s a strange book, both in its form and its content, but a strong read if you’ve been looking for something that bends the expectations of the genre.
Sara Gran: City of the Dead
Sara Gran’s City of the Dead is almost deliciously typical of the genre, right down to the private investigator making glib observations about their clientele in exactly the tone the movies have taught us to expect, delivered with just enough humour to keep things from feeling too dour.
Set in a post-hurricane-Katrina New Orleans, City of the Dead manages to communicate some of the uncomfortable closeness of the city post-disaster. More than that, the book is saturated with the discomfiting impression of people displaced, their eventual whereabouts unknown. Claire DeWitt probes into the mysterious disappearance of an upstanding older man amid the chaos that descended with the floods.
Where Gran’s novel takes the thriller off the beaten path is in DeWitt’s detective pattern, a near-religious dedication to the book of Détection and a similar fervour for her (now deceased) mentor. Along with these, she channels the shifting vagaries of her own dreams (enhanced by liberal self-medication as the case dictates) and some near fortune-teller divination techniques to aid in her investigations.
If you can imagine an American Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency without Douglas Adams’ signature sense of humour, you’re probably not a million miles off...
Agatha Christie: The Big Four
On any list like this, it’s good to make sure you have room for at least one classic. Agatha Christie may be better known for the more grounded worlds of Miss Marple and even later Poirot, but it’s in the experimentations with the usual formulae that she really excels.
Where Poirot perhaps reaches his detecting peak in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, it is in The Big Four that he has what is almost certainly his most spectacular case. Where the former plays with the fundamental expectations of the mystery novel as a format, the latter plays on questions of the extent of Poirot’s abilities and his approach.
The Big Four differentiates itself through the larger-than-life plots and specialities of the book’s four villains, which take Poirot far from the small-scale murder investigations more typical of the series. Instead, we see him travel extensively in an effort to unravel a grand conspiracy. Moreover, the conspiracy itself strays periodically into science fiction.
Originally a collection of short stories, this is as close as we ever see Poirot to being a Belgian Sherlock Holmes. Like Holmes, Poirot rises to each new challenge over the course of the book until he has all of the requisite skills to combat each of the villains involved.
The Big Four is often looked upon poorly by Christie fans, not least because it borders on absolute silliness. That said, for anyone who feels like they know what they’re in for with Poirot, it’s a welcome breath of fresh air and bombast. At the very least, it’s worth reading for it’s incredible use of that staple thriller character, the master of disguise.
Douglas Adams: Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency
Sadly eclipsed by the The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency may be forever consigned to being “the other Douglas Adams book.” This is particularly unfortunate because it is in many respects the stronger book.
Like Claire DeWitte (of Sara Gran’s City of the Dead), Dirk Gently is a haphazard and unreliable character, who may simultaneously be the best and worst detective in the world. Gently’s honest belief in the “fundamental interconnectedness of all things” often feels like an invention custom-built to allow him to investigate cases without ever needing to leave his office or even think particularly hard about them.
Where things begin to fall apart is when his quiet techniques of waiting-for-things-to-happen and hoping-for-the-best begin to yield real results. Then we are introduced to Dirk Gently as a character who often seems almost terrified by his own strange abilities. The book strikes a perfect balance between the apparently self-assured private eye and the hapless boob that Dirk manages to be at the same time.
The book is only narrowly better than its sequel, The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul. Considered together, they are very likely Adams’ best work.
Sergei Lukyanenko: Night Watch
Night Watch has already been mentioned in our series on fantasy novels with unique and interesting worlds, but we’d be remiss in not mentioning it here too.
The book follows the path of Anton Gorodetsky, an otherwise unassuming network admin for the Moscow division of the Night Watch, which amounts to a police department dedicated to enforcing a strict balance of “light” and “dark” magic among the city’s population of warlocks, witches, and werewolves.
Where Night Watch excels is in the procedural approach to detail in its weird alternate reality. The book opens with Anton investigating the case of a rogue vampire, a process that necessitates his drinking enough blood each night to see the world as a vampire sees it, and occasionally downing enough vodka to ensure that he doesn’t stray too far into their world (alcohol being poisonous to vampires). Rather than being the lawless aristocracy of the night, we are given a glimpse into the paperwork, the interminable bureaucracy of vampirism in the late-nineties.
It’s an old-fashioned noir detective novel, but here the “noir” feeling is condensed and accentuated by the characters’ ability to gaze into a twilit realm of magic sensitivity, a grey and shifting world of shadows.