Any good mystery draws the reader into a sinister puzzle (usually involving murder) while keeping us unsure about the solution until the very end. A fictional detective is a perfect guide for this journey.
Detectives use reason and logic when identifying suspects, examining evidence, and working out guilt. Traditionally, they rely upon logic and a strict appreciation for the laws of nature. Sherlock Holmes famously embodies these qualities, although Edgar Allan Poe established the prototype with C. Auguste Dupin, the brainy investigator who first appeared in the 1841 short story The Murders in the Rue Morgue.
The original emphasis on rational thinking resulted in a strong bias against the fantastic in detective literature for many years. In 1929, Father Ronald Knox, an influential British critic, declared that “All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course,” enshrining the statement as one of his 10 Commandments of Detective Fiction.
This is, of course, silly. Mixing in a detective with the supernatural illuminates the limits of brainpower to understand the unsettling–and often eerily unknowable–aspects of life that we all fear. Not everything that fascinates and terrifies yields easily to logic.
And yet who better than a gritty detective to grapple with a mystery involving supernatural forces? Regardless of the spooky complications, the detective’s job is the same: figure out the puzzle. Setting the conundrum inside a paranormal thriller boosts chills and excitement while offering the reader profound relief when a demonic, not-of-this-world danger is exposed and defeated.
Below are ten popular books featuring detectives who grapple with the uncanny.
Ben Aaronovitch, Midnight Riot (originally: Rivers of London)
This clever book features Peter Grant, a London cop just out of training and slotted for a boring desk job. Everything changes when he finds a ghost who witnessed a gruesome murder.
That encounter leads Grant to join a secret Scotland Yard unit that uses magic to contain mythical forces, including various river deities such as Father Thames and his rival, Mother Thames. More worrisome is the revenant, a vicious spirit that uses innocent people to reenact the story of Punch and Judy to murderous effect.
While young and inexperienced, Grant quickly proves himself a deft investigator equally at ease in gathering evidence from humans, ghosts, water nymphs, and other bizarre beings that defy easy description. His mentor teaches him the magic needed to track down the revenant and bring it to supernatural justice.
Lauren Beukes, Broken Monsters
This novel is extraordinary on many levels, not the least of which is its ability to horrify and amuse simultaneously. It opens with the discovery of a body. Or rather, two bodies: the head and torso of a kidnapped boy with the bottom half of a deer.
The crime is an act of malevolent inspiration kindled in part by the setting in contemporary Detroit, a place so decayed and forlorn that it draws hipster disaster tourists. Police detective Gabriella Versado doggedly hunts for the killer using shoe leather and a keen eye for the bizarre.
Along the way, she must deal with Layla, her cyber-stalking daughter; Jonno, a failed New York writer (his try at “a post-post-modern Moby-Dick” fizzled) turned parasitic “citizen journalist,” and Clayton, an artist dramatically out of step with the local art scene. Everything crashes together in a hallucinogenic finale as Detective Versado saves the world from a demonic live stream.
John Connolly, A Book of Bones: A Thriller
Connolly aggressively repudiates Father Knox’s admonition against employing the supernatural in detective fiction. A Book of Bones is the eighteenth in a series featuring ex-cop Charlie Parker, who is human but specializes in occult private investigations.
This story involves “a transcontinental hunt for an apocalyptic fanatic” named Quale, a man unable to die. Quale is preparing a special book of Grimm’s fairy tales that will end the world. Out to stop him is Parker, an old-school detective, gruff, bruised, and determined.
Our hero has lots of first-hand experience investigating bad guys and gals, including those of the aggressively non-human variety. The more we learn about Quale and his dark plot, the more we take heart in the declaration, “Parker fears no evil. But evil fears him.”
Shirley Jackson, Hangsaman
Seventeen-year-old Natalie is a wallflower with a problem. Her father, a minor writer, is a pompous bully who has pushed her into a state of repression so extreme her grasp of reality falters.
Early in the novel, Natalie hears the voice of a noir detective grilling her about a murder. Later, she imagines the detective finding her next to her father’s corpse, “her face white and distorted with screaming. She would be unable to account for the blood on her hands, on the front of her dress, on her shoes, the blood soaking through the carpet at her feet, the blood under her hand on the desk.” She has slipped into an uncanny reality where she is both the killer and the detective who ensures her punishment.
Metaphorically, this is true. Natalie in a sense does kill Dad when she leaves him for college and falls under the smarmy influence of a mediocre English teacher and his wretched wife. College life, with its poisonous cliques and isolating atmosphere, punishes Natalie terribly, pushing her so deep into madness that both she and the reader are unsure what is real.
The story ends with Natalie abruptly casting off her problems. “As she had never been before, she was now alone, and grown-up, and powerful, and not at all afraid.” But despite the words, some might draw a different conclusion.
Stephen King, Later
Two detectives, an amateur and a professional, are at odds here. The amateur is Jamie, who discovers at age eight that he can see and speak with dead people.
Various adults compel Jamie to interrogate ghosts for their own selfish ends. This results in one particularly bad spirit who won’t leave him alone. Jamie turns reluctant sleuth to solve the mystery of his haunting, and what he learns leads to a riveting confrontation with the supernatural in which he prevails. Good triumphing over evil? Almost but not quite.
The pro detective is Liz, a corrupt New York cop. Liz manipulates the boy to help prevent a terrible crime and, later as a desperate addict, to track down a drug kingpin’s stash. This goes badly wrong, forcing Jamie to rely on the unnatural wickedness he hoped to banish forever.
Caroline Kepnes, Providence: A Novel
Detective “Eggs” DeBenedictus is sure that someone is responsible for the heart attack deaths of several young people in his town. Like all good sleuths, Eggs relies on his gut even though there is no evidence of foul play.
His investigation leads to Jon, a young man who disappeared years before on his way to school. It seems a teacher/evil scientist kidnapped Jon and turned him into a muscular guy who inadvertently causes sickness and death through emotional connection. Also on the trail is Chloe, Jon’s former BFF who must choose between love and safety in her dealings with a sensitive boy who has turned into a monster.
Egg’s diligence pays off when he finds Jon and delivers what he hopes is the kind of justice appropriate for this particular unearthly circumstance.
Alex North, The Whisper Man: A Novel
Somebody is whispering to Jake, a socially isolated 6-year-old who channels spirits and has a prescient imaginary friend. Is the whisperer the same person who recently abducted and killed another child? Could it be the Whisper Man, who killed five other kids twenty years ago?
Detective Inspector Pete Wilson worked the Whisper Man case and never recovered emotionally from the experience. Through a series of improbable (magical?) circumstances, Pete becomes key to solving the mystery.
Investigative help comes from Jake’s father and an intrepid female journalist. The whodunit plot is overlaid with a mystical exploration of father-son bonds.
Terri Reid, Loose Ends
“Dying is what changed Mary O’Reilly’s life. Well, actually, coming back from the dead and having the ability to communicate with ghosts is really what did it.”
Mary is an ex-Chicago cop working as a private investigator in rural Illinois. While she can interrogate ghosts, she also must rely on her skill as a detective to get real evidence because “a ghost’s word just doesn’t hold up in court.” She needs to draw on both skills to solve the case of a young woman who drowned in a politician’s swimming pool 24 years ago.
Along the way, Mary gets pulled into the unsolved disappearance of five girls from the same time as the drowning. She mixes old-fashioned gumshoe work with ghost quizzing–along with some incidental time-travel–to ensure justice prevails.
Simone St. James, The Sun Down Motel
This supernatural thriller features two amateur detectives investigating crimes in the same place, thirty-five years apart. During the 1980s, Viv wants to go to the city but ends up working at the seedy Sun Down Motel in Fell, NY.
The joint is mostly deserted, but she senses creepy things. She soon gets drawn into investigating the town’s dark mystery: the unsolved murders of local young women. Then Viv herself disappears without a trace.
Enter niece Carly 35 years later, intent on learning what happened to her aunt. Carly gets a job at the same motel to pursue her inquiry and, like Viv, quickly realizes that vengeful ghosts haunt the place. The plot moves effectively between the two sleuths as they gather facts three decades apart while ghostly peril closes in on both.
Stuart Turton, The Devil and the Dark Water
This ingenious book mashes up the horror, suspense, and detective genres.
The story is set during the seventeenth century on a Dutch East India Company ship. Onboard is Samuel Pipp, “the world’s greatest detective,” who happens to be locked away in irons at the command of the ranking Company official. As the voyage gets underway, so do all kinds of supernatural happenings.
With Pipp out of commission, it falls to his burly protector, Arent Hayes, to investigate. Hayes gets help from a trio of unlikely amateur sleuths: Sara, the official’s abused wife; Lia, her brilliant daughter; and Creesjie, the official’s mistress.
The more facts they gather, the more it seems clear that Old Tom, a powerful malignant force, has a terrible fate in store for the ship. Yet despite the many twists, diversions, and deceptions—not to mention a boatload of peril—the amateurs put all the pieces together in the end.
About the Author
Bill LeFurgy is a professional historian and archivist who has studied the seamy underbelly of urban life, including drugs, crime, and prostitution, as well as more workaday matters such as streets, buildings, wires, and wharves. He has put his many years of research experience into writing gritty historical fiction about Baltimore, where he lived for over a decade. It remains his favorite city.
Bill has graduate degrees from the University of Maryland and has worked at the Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore City Archives, National Archives and Records Administration, and the Library of Congress. He has learned much from his children and grandchildren, including grace, patience, emotional connection, and the need to appreciate different perspectives from those on the autism spectrum and with other personality traits that are undiagnosed, misdiagnosed, or unexplained.
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