Steampunk is its own form of genre-blending, combining fantasy with historical fiction (typically set in the Victorian era), but
when you add a thriller or hard-boiled crime element into the
mix, you definitely kick it up a notch. Here are two outstanding
examples among many.
Angelmaker. By Nick Harkaway. 2012. Knopf, $26.95
Harkaway’s sublimely intricate literary bouillabaisse includes a
healthy serving of espionage along with fantasy and more than
a little steampunk (yes, there’s a very cool train), but there’s also
an overlay of gangster adventure, a couple of tender romance
plots, and some fascinating reflections on fathers and sons and
the tricky matter of forging a self in the shadow of the past. And
there’s this doomsday machine, too, designed to bring peace by
forcing us only to speak the truth but in the wrong hands it can
bring the end of the world instead. A tour de force of Dickensian bravura and genre-blending splendor.
Burton & Swinburne in the Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled
Jack. By Mark Hodder. 2010. Pyr, $17 (9781616142407).
The time is 1861; the place is London. The situation: the
country is being besieged by werewolves and by a possibly mythical creature called Spring Heeled Jack, who’s been bounding
about accosting women. Oh, and there might be a world-threatening conspiracy afoot. To the rescue comes a truly odd
couple: real-life explorer Robert Burton and his, friend, real-life
poet Algernon Swinburne (surely our first Pre-Raphaelite action
hero). This wildly inventive roller-coaster of an adventure uses
time travel, alternate reality, and a whole mess of steampunk to
draw in readers from all across the genre universe.
We’re going light on vampires in this gazetteer. Obviously, there
is no shortage of vampire novels in the world, and those with a
taste for blood will know how to find them. Thus, we’re limiting
our selection to two series that really are hard-boiled crime stories in which some of the bad guys have scary teeth.
Already Dead. By Charlie Huston. 2005. Del Rey, $15
The first in Huston’s Joe Pitt series, starring a 45-year-old shamus who looks 28: that’s right; he’s a vampire (or vampyre, in
Huston’s world, which is a version of Manhattan in which rival
vampyre clans vie for control). This series follows a true narrative arc through five volumes, concluding with My Dead Body
New York’s vampire gangs from all-out war. Huston puts the
vampire premise to some flashy metaphorical uses throughout
the series, but above all, this is a thoroughly involving under-
world epic, The Godfather with fangs.
X-Rated Bloodsuckers. By Mario Acevedo. 2007. Harper
Voyager, $13.99 (9780060833275).
Huston’s Joe Pitt series is clever, but it’s realistic, not camp.
Acevedo’s Felix Gomez novels are the opposite: so camp they
hurt your teeth (but in that good way). Like New Yorker Pitt,
Gomez, a vampire PI in Los Angeles, is often called in to quell
vampire feuds (with so much more time to kill than the rest of
us, vampires really know how to hold a grudge), and here it’s a
band of younger (well, age is relative) renegade vampires who
threaten to disturb the fragile balance between humanity and the
netherworld. This is the second in the series, following the show-stopping Nymphos of Rocky Flats (2006), but readers should be
encouraged to dive in anywhere.
Like vampires, werewolves are likely to turn up in all varieties
of novels these days. So, once again, we’re offering only a small
taste, an amuse-bouche, in which the moon howling is set in the
specific context of crime fiction.
The Frenzy War. By Gregory Lamberson. 2012. Medallion,
Lamberson, author of the Jack Hellman novels, about a New
York cop turned PI who investigates all variety of evil-doing
demons, also writes the Frenzy series, in which another NY cop,
Tony Mace, specializes in werewolves. This second in the series is
noteworthy because werewolves are the victims, not the villains.
Turns out the werewolves of New York are a mostly peaceful lot,
until they are targeted by an ancient society of assassins. Tony,
thinking he was well clear of the werewolf world after The Frenzy
Way (2010), finds himself back in the middle of it again. Lamberson is highly skilled genre-blender, stirring grisly horror and
noirish urban fantasy into a perfectly emulsified sauce to serve
over a nicely plotted, medium-rare cop story.
The Last Werewolf. By Glenn Duncan. 2011. Vintage, $15.95
Jack Marlowe is the last werewolf, and he’s thinking seriously
of ending it all—his life, of course, and with it, his species.
Sure, he still likes good scotch, reading late into the night, and,
well, a full serving of blood-red protein now and again, but it
all seems so meaningless after a couple hundred years. Others,
however, don’t want him dead for reasons of their own, and so
starts a beguiling inversion of a typical thriller plot: he wants to
die, but the bad guys want him to live. There’s a sharp existential
edge and plenty of irony to this tale, as Duncan brilliantly melds
philosophical noir (think James Sallis) with werewolfery.