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Stroll Down these Dark Alleys: Urban Fantasy Crime-Fighter Novel Smackdown!

Science fiction, fantasy, and horror are rife with crime-fighting characters–and I’m not talking about comic book superheroes. Rather, consider more the many detectives, cops, or P.I.’s that crowd the pages. They just come so naturally to the speculative genres. What could make murder investigations, missing persons, and blackmail more interesting than a dash (or heavy dose) of magic or scifi whizbang? If a character is around violent and seedy segments of human, alien, or supernatural populations on a daily basis, it’s a good bet they’ll have some interesting stories to tell.

And boy, has many a tale been told. Let’s check out a few, shall we? Which ones would come out winners in a bare-knuckled brawl?

Awakenings – Edward Lazellari

THE RUNDOWN: Cal MacDonnell is a happily married NYC cop with a loving family. Seth Raincrest is a washed-up photographer who has alienated even his closest friends. The two have nothing in common–except that they both suffer from retrograde amnesia. Neither can remember the past thirteen years. Their lives are turned upside down when they are stalked by otherworldly beings who know plenty about the two and are intent on killing anyone who gets in their way.

THE CONTRAST: Unlike many urban fantasies that have an undercurrent of snark or at least wisecracking sidekicks, Awakenings holds to a grim tone from beginning to end. People die quickly, violently…and a lot. Magic is a destructive, scary force, and plenty of nefarious agencies are out to abuse its power. This book plays a big gamble by not actually concluding the main storyline, rather leaving readers on a major cliffhanger. The title does indicate this is a series rousing itself to greater action and higher stakes, and this opening entry holds a lot of promise.

Necropolis – Michael Dempsey

THE RUNDOWN: Paul Donner is an NYPD detective with a drinking problem and a dissolving marriage. Then he wakes up fifty years in the future to discover he and his wife were victims of a robbery gone wrong. Filled with regret and a desire for vengeance, he sets out to discover who killed them. Yet the world has changed quite a bit in the time he’s been dead. The Shift has occurred, where inanimate DNA is revived, creating a whole new class of “walking dead” who not only are reclaiming their old lives, but are also aging backwards.

THE CONTRAST: Mash-up a good noir crime story and a science fiction twist on zombies, and you’ve got one solidly unique addition to your genre bookshelf. Necropolis manages to meld holographic Girl Fridays, retrofuturism, plasma guns, and a detective who just doesn’t know when to drop a case into a cohesive whole. Adding the element of The Shift brings in more fun, as characters get to crack about Elvis or the Beatles recovering their former celebrity glory. Dempsey employs plenty of genre tropes–but does so with such a twist that they’re a joy to read, rather than a bore.

Ghost Story (The Dresden Files, Book 13) – Jim Butcher

THE RUNDOWN: When we last left the mighty wizard detective Harry Dresden, he wasn’t doing well. In fact, he had been murdered by an unknown assassin. But being dead doesn’t stop him when his friends are in danger. Except now he has nobody, and no magic to help him. And there are also several dark spirits roaming the Chicago shadows who owe Harry some payback of their own. To save his friends–and his own soul–Harry will have to pull off the ultimate trick without any magic…

THE CONTRAST: The funny thing is, Ghost Story and Necropolis both involve the main characters having to solve their own murders. However, whereas Dempsey’s Paul Donner is starting afresh in an alien new world with new allies, Butcher’s Harry Dresden is fighting to return to the life he knew and the friends he’s been cut off from. Dresden continues to boost his reputation for battling impossible odds and his ever-present snark even in the face of death and damnation. This is a well-established mythology that continues to grow, deepening relationships and drawing us further into a detailed reality.


A tough call, to be sure, and you can bet each one of these is at least worth a try. While Awakenings has quality writing and characters, it may not provide as much satisfaction for first-time readers because of its cut-short ending. So, while it holds a lot of potential, it comes in third place here.

One down. One to go.

I surprised myself because, despite my love for the Dresden Files, I’m actually going to point you towards Necropolis as the prize-winner. They’re both stellar books, don’t get me wrong. The only thing Ghost Story has going against it is the immense amount of backstory you’d need to sift through in order to fully understand and appreciate what’s going on at this time in the series (it is the 13th book, after all). If you want to dive into a highly accessible and entertaining novel, then Necropolis provides the perfect entry point, alongside its incredibly unique premise and new treads on old beats.

There. I’ve given you three perfectly good leads on the next stories you ought to track down.

Can I get that phone call to my lawyer now?

About Josh Vogt (21 Articles)
A full-time freelance writer, Josh Vogt has been published in dozens of genre markets with work ranging from flash fiction to short stories to doorstopper novels that cover fantasy, science fiction, horror, humor, pulp, and more. He also writes for a wide variety of RPG developers such Paizo, Modiphius, and Privateer Press. His debut fantasy novel, Forge of Ashes, adds to the popular Pathfinder Tales line. WordFire Press has launched his urban fantasy series, The Cleaners, with Enter the Janitor (2015) and The Maids of Wrath (2016). You can find him at He’s a member of SFWA as well as the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers. He is made out of meat.

2 Comments on Stroll Down these Dark Alleys: Urban Fantasy Crime-Fighter Novel Smackdown!

  1. I guess you didn’t ASK for more recommendations, but if you’re specifically looking for more grity police/private investigator speculative fiction, you can’t go wrong with the following (3 since your post had 3):

    1. Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan – The main character is hired to solve another character’s murder … by that other character.  Very noir.  Very violent.  Nothing incredibly original, but it touches on some heavy topics without getting weighed down by them and is quite the page turner.
    2. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon – Alternate history.  Temporary Jewish state that was founded in Alaska is about to disband and a drunk, detective becomes obsessed with solving one final murder.  This leads him deep into a world of Hasidic Maffia, chess and a crazy conspiracy.  Great stuff.
    3. Finch by Jeff Vandermeer – I read this without having read the rest of the Ambergris series and have no trouble recommending that you do the same.  Set in a totalitarian fungal state and told with hypnotic, fragmented prose, this is a tale of redemption, resistance, and pletty of other R’s.  If you like your darkness weird and damp, you’ll agree this is awesome.

    Anyone else want to offer up another 3?

  2. Thanks! I’ve added Necropolis to my to buy books

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