Good cops, strange beats

In an urban fantasy, when the detective needs to round up the “usual suspects”, those suspects can be pretty unusual. That’s actually part of the fun, seeing how close the author can hew to the traditional line of the mystery or police procedural formula and still bite the reader with that touch of the weird.

In any urban fantasy, there is a touch of alternate reality going on. History as we know it has gone down a different leg of the trousers of time (to borrow a phrase from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld) and magic works in the here and now. In urban fantasy, it’s our world, our history, our pretty much everything, except there’s this one big change–magic and magical creatures co-habit with science.  How that happened changes from one author to the next.

A lot of authors work from the theory that magic has always existed but that magic practitioners have tried to hide themselves. Remember the Salem Witch Trials? If magic does exist, that era of real history would be enough to keep any real witch (or any other unusual being, for that matter) from revealing themselves for several generations.

In Laura Anne Gilman‘s alternate New York, her world has always contained magic. Magic is current, that is, electricity. Ben Franklin wasn’t out there with that kite because he was conducting a science experiment, oh no. He was trying to control the lightning because in Gilman’s version of history, Franklin was a mage! But Gilman’s modern-day protagonist, Wren Valere, has a slightly more profitable use for her magic–she is a retrieval agent. She finds things that are lost, or missing, or stolen–and retrieves them–even if they are protected by magic. But Wren’s life is complicated by too many things: her changing relationship with her business partner, her friendship with the demon P.B., and that fact that Wren is a Lonejack, a Talent who works alone, and now the organization that keeps tabs on Talents, the Cosa, short for Cosa Nostradamus, suddenly wants to control her. The first book in Gilman’s Retrievers series is Staying Dead. Wren’s journey is worth following.

In P.N. Elrod‘s Vampire Files series, the detective is a vampire, although he keeps it a secret from everyone except his partner. Jack Fleming’s first case is to find out who turned him. Bloodlist has all the elements of a 1930’s noir detective novel except that the detective is a vampire. The moral dilemma of a vampire dealing with, and later in the series, becoming, a Chicago mobster in the 1930’s is absolutely priceless.

But my current favorite for mind-bending urban fantasy is DD Barant‘s Bloodhound Files series. So far, it’s Dying Bites, Death Blows, and Killing Rocks. The title puns are pretty typical of the gallows humor. Jace Valchek is a FBI profiler who specializes in serial killers, the really whacked-out kind. Her job is exciting enough in the first place. Then she gets whisked away to an parallel universe by the their national security administration because in their version of reality, only humans commit serial crimes, and, humans are less than 1% of the population. So what are the rest? Vampires, werewolves, golems, and pretty much every other supernatural creature that Jace only knows of in legends. But someone is murdering them, and Jace is the one expert they located who could possibly figure this out.

So Jace is stuck. Unless she finds their serial killer, she can’t go home. She might find another magic practitioner to send her to her world, but only they know exactly when they took her from. Her best chance of going back to find her old life reasonably intact is to help. And profiling serial killers is what she does.

What I enjoy about Jace’s story is her point of view. The mystery she solves in each book is fun, but I like being in her head. Her story is a “fish out of water” tale. The world she has been taken too is “almost” like hers, like ours, but not quite. She starts to adapt, and then something brings her up short. Her partner is a golem, named Charlie of all things. Charlie is a snappy dresser, and he likes to dance! But he’s made of rock. When he gets wounded, he needs a patch kit, not a medic. Her new boss is a vampire who may look like an 18-year-old surfer dude, but is actually hundreds of years old. In every encounter with the bad guys, she is reminded that she is part of an endangered species. Humans are called O.R.–that’s short for “Original Recipe”, and the name is derived from KFC. Like Jace, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry at that revelation. See what you think.

If you just want a sample of some weird detecting? There is an urban fantasy anthology titled, you guessed it, Unusual Suspects.