Urban Fantasy As Noir

I didn’t set out to write Urban Fantasy.  Originally I was a writer of thriller/mysteries – a series about a cop who became an ex-cop after some unfortunate incidents.  I only got two books in the series done before I abandoned writing for a while, but that’s another story.

But to me, the transition was a natural one.  UF is usually seen as an offshoot and subgenre of fantasy in general – but I don’t see it that way.  I think it’s squarely in the tradition of P.I. noir books, and of mysteries in general.

Now of course, defining UF is an exercise in futility.  Everyone has their own particular take.  Mine is simple – it’s like the old quote about pornography from Justice Potter Stewart, where he admitted he’d be hard pressed to define pornography, but nonetheless, “I know it when I see it.” Jim Butcher is classic UF.  Neal Gaiman, who also sets his fantasies in contemporary society, is not. Rob Thurman is.  Sean Stewart is not.

And that’s because writers like Gaiman come out of the fantasy tradition, while Jim Butcher is part of a lineage stretching back to Sam Spade.

Now there’s another line of UF that owes much to Romance.  Rachel Caine, Charlaine Harris, and early Laurel Hamilton come out of that tradition – smart mouthed, kick ass heroines who owe a lot to Buffy, and are not to be trifled with.  But the romance tradition is clear – no matter how complex the world building is, no matter how convoluted and surprising the plot, an essential element always remains about whether or not it’s a good idea to do the vampire, werewolf, or both.

But I’m talking PI books here.  First, I’d guess a majority of UF books are written these days in first person, as were Hammet’s, Chandlers’s, Ross MacDonald, John D MacDonald, and even Micky Spillane.  That world weary tone, that cynical take on life, that outsider status are crucial to those books, and first person is a perfect vehicle to pull that off.  And that is also the typical UF hero.

Look at Jim Butcher, whose Harry Dresden books had a huge influence on establishing the current UF genre.  Harry is a PI of sorts,  though of the magical variety.  He’s a troubled loner, certainly a moral figure, but not conventually so.  He lives in a run down apartment in Chicago.  He has a ambivalent relation with law enforcement – most hate him, but he does have allies.  He has romantic hopes, but they’re never the focus of the books.  He can take care of himself, but gets his ass kicked from time to time.  He trusts no one, and in every book, there’s a mystery to be solved, and half the time he hasn’t a clue as to what’s really going on.  He just stirs things up and sees what will come of it.

Harry calls himself a wizard, but he bears no resemblance to Gandalf the Grey, or Harry Potter for that matter.  But take away his wizard’s staff and replace it with a .38, and voila — you’ve got Philip Marlow and Sam Spade.

UK UF writer Mike Carey’s Felix Castor would have been right at home in Chandler’s LA. Recent books by other authors have expanded on the PI character – Mark Del Franco’s Conner Grey is a Druid, for example.  But he does have a cop friend, and he does have to solve murders and unravel complicated events to find the bad guy.  Simon Green’s John Tayor is another cynical magical loner, again faced with solving mysteries and running up against the establishment. So UF books, no matter how bizarre the world their set in,  are often really mystery novels with supernatural elements more than anything else.

My own strongest influence was not a fantasy writer, but mystery writer John D MacDonald, especially his Travis McGee series.  Again, the PI trope is played – McGee operates outside the law, but is an intensely moral fellow at core, and intensely loyal to his friends.  He routinely gets himself in over his head, then gets out of trouble with a combination of skill and luck.

MacDonald wrote some 21 of these Travis McGee books, (an astonishing feat — most series run out of ideas at about book six at the latest.) and most of them are brilliant.  And like Chandler and Hammet, they are true standalones, with recurring characters, but little if any reference to the other books.  Which is exactly what I wanted to do – write a UF series where the plots of  books 2, 3, and 4 have no particular relation to book one.  But there’s the rub.

It turns out, at least for me, that writing a UF series is more difficult than a PI series. The basic difference between the PI novel and  UF books is obvious — the world building.  And that presents a problem for a standalone series that I wasn’t aware of until I started trying to write one.

In a detective series,  whether it’s LA in the forties or present day Seattle, we know the world.  A new book in the series may have to reintroduce the characters and fill in a little back story, but that’s not too difficult.  You can refer to that time your MC had that hassle with a biker gang, and let it go at that.  But you don’t have to explain what a biker gang is, or even worse, what a biker is.

In UF, you can’t refer to anything that happened in a previous volume without including a lot of explanation.  And as we all know, that does not usually make for an exciting read.  And worse, you’ve spent a great deal of time introducing the rules and inhabitants of your particular world in your first book — which is a great part of what makes the book fun.

But you can’t do it again in book two, and you can’t drop the reader in the middle of an invented fantasy world with no explanation either.  So you have to tread a fine line between too much explanation and too little.  Don’t bore the reader who enjoyed book one.  Don’t leave the first time reader of book three totally at sea.  I end up wrestling with this balance on almost every page.  And I’m never quite sure if I’ve got the balance  right.  One thing for sure — the readers will certainly let me know if I haven’t.

22 thoughts on “Urban Fantasy As Noir

  1. Marie Brennan

    I think it all depends on the lineage you’re looking at. To me, “classic” urban fantasy starts with things like Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks and goes on to Charles de Lint et al; those are pretty firmly fantasy-derived. But there’s at least two other distinct flavors of UF out there, one being the mystery-derived PI style you’re talking about, the other being the romance-derived lineage descending from folks like Hamilton. But I don’t have a good enough sense of what was published when, though, or which titles you think started the PI/UF trend, to make a real genealogy out of it. Butcher’s fairly recent, to my eyes; who came before him?

  2. John Levitt

    I think it started up pretty quickly, and not too long ago. I see Charles de Lint as contemporary fantasy in urban settings, not urban fantasy. Emma Bull is absolutely urban fantasy. I don’t see Wuthering Heights as a romance novel either, though technically it could be. Fritz Lieber’s Conjure Wife, written in the forties, is sometimes considered as a forerunner to UF. But again, I see it as a supernatural tale in an urban setting, not U as such. I realize I’m being a bit narrow here. I’m just pointing out a lineage for UF that tends to get overlooked. I don’t really insist that it’s exclusive.

  3. BearMountainBooks

    Mercedes Lackey had some Urban Fantasy out…probably quite a bit before Dresden and some of those others (Diane Tregarde series.) I think she was before Hamilton too. Ellon Guon also had a very good UF series out. Both these authors were just published as fantasy because I don’t think UF was recognized as its own genre at the time. A bit later, Holly Lisle put out a couple of stand alones that I would file in the UF category, although while the first two authors concentrate on the mystery, Lisle fall more towards the UF/romance. It seems to me it’s only lately that UF has actually been recognized as a sub-genre (of either fantasy or romance or mystery, depending on your viewpoint.) I have read and loved UF for a long time. The combo of mystery/fantasy is my favorite combo although I’ve certainly read books from the other combos. Good stuff–keep it coming!! Maria

  4. BearMountainBooks

    Mercedes Lackey had some Urban Fantasy out…probably quite a bit before Dresden and some of those others (Diane Tregarde series.) I think she was before Hamilton too. Ellon Guon also had a very good UF series out. Both these authors were just published as fantasy because I don’t think UF was recognized as its own genre at the time. A bit later, Holly Lisle put out a couple of stand alones that I would file in the UF category, although while the first two authors concentrate on the mystery, Lisle fall more towards the UF/romance. It seems to me it’s only lately that UF has actually been recognized as a sub-genre (of either fantasy or romance or mystery, depending on your viewpoint.) I have read and loved UF for a long time. The combo of mystery/fantasy is my favorite combo although I’ve certainly read books from the other combos. Good stuff–keep it coming!! Maria

  5. Marie Brennan

    Ah — yes, if you’re focusing on “urban” in its literal sense, being city-oriented, and considering contemporary fantasy to be a separate though sometimes intersecting thing, then yes. I personally like that usage, but it doesn’t have wide enough currency for me to default to it. (Though I describe my third novel as “historical urban fantasy” — it’s city-oriented, where the city in question happens to be sixteenth-century London.)

  6. Joel

    The real “classic” of urban fantasy is probably Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar series. If you think about it, the two main characters did spend at least some of their time doing P.I. style work though I doubt they’d have found much in common with Sam Spade.

  7. faw

    Marie, thanks for your comments. I really enjoyed Midnight Never Come & did consider it UF, like Gods of Manhattan or Neverwhere. Personally, I have wider scope on UF- as any fantasy that does not totally focus on another world (high fantasy) and is partially placed in an urban setting. Of course, there will still be books that don’t quite fit anywhere, but are still powerful (A Veil of Gold). It comes to a point where we are splitting hairs (or hares) based on our backgrounds… while I liked some detective and mystery novels as a child, as I have gotten older, I found that many of them (excluding authors like Pamuk, Pears and Eco)focused too much on action and little on creating believable magic… I guess that is why Dresden Files, while entertaining, did not hold me as reader of fantasy and literature, because the magic wasn’t believable, compared to say, Brandon Sanderson’s books (which technically aren’t UF). So why do readers like me tend to gravitate towards UF? Not because of elements of noir, romance & the like, but rather because we enjoy the concept of the dreamworld or the fantastic in the world of the mundane and trying to keep a balance between reality and unreality. In some ways, Dhalgren and The Master and Magarita were highly influential in paving the way for authors like Gaiman, at least from my perspective.

  8. Jess Nevins

    I think you’ve got it wrong way ’round. Hardboiled detective fiction, and urban noir, arose from 19th century urban fantasies. 19th century popular literature usually made the eastern cities into hellish locales and compared them with the clean new villages and towns on the frontier. Works like George Lippard’s The Quaker City (1844), which portrayed Philadelphia as an urban inferno, were hugely influential on the portrayal of cities in popular fiction, and these books were urban fantasies (on the dark horror side). This concept of the city-as-dangerous-frontier influenced the dime novels, esp. the dime novel detectives, and they in turn were heavily influential on the hardboiled detectives of the pulps.

  9. John Levitt

    (Jess) “I think you’ve got it wrong way ’round. Hardboiled detective fiction, and urban noir, arose from 19th century urban fantasies.” That’s a good point. My focus is a little narrower, though, in terms of time and what influenced what. (faw) “… while I liked some detective and mystery novels as a child, as I have gotten older, I found that many of them (excluding authors like Pamuk, Pears and Eco)focused too much on action and little on creating believable magic…” True, but what I find a bigger problem is when an author concentrates so much on the magical system that the characters suffer. There is a recent tradition of high body counts and mcs who shoot off wisecracks as they kill people. I find this unbelievable in every way, and for me it hurts the believability of the entire magical world as well, which is hard enough to sell anyway.

  10. faw

    John, I’m assuming that you are referring to the recent trend of fantasy novels that are influenced by penny dreadfuls? I find some of the books in this category entertaining and quick reads, but I can understand where you are coming from in that some of them have very little substance and rely too much on humor and style. However, the books I that I tend to prefer strongly focus on character development as well as world building, believable magic, etc, as I have to care about at least one character (likable or unlikable). In some ways, I find that some children’s fantasy writers have created a strong balance between these elements and can be appreciated by adults as well.

  11. John Levitt

    In general (and this is a broad generality, so no point on jumping on me) I find YA fantasy to be often better written and more interesting than its adult counterpart.

  12. RfP

    (oops… continued.) Second, because (if I may generalize right back atcha) noir and romance sometimes take opposite sides on gender roles–”she done me wrong” versus “he done me wrong”–and on whether the conflict is resolved grimly or at least moderately happily. From my reading, I think the combination is adding more variety to both fantasy and romance.

  13. K Maze

    I tend to consider the Jim Butcher-type books to be paranormal mysteries, the Kim Harrisons and Laurell K Hamiltons to be paranormal romances, and Charles De Lint and Neil Gaiman to be “

  14. K Maze

    Weird…truncated my comment… I tend to consider the Jim Butcher-type books to be paranormal mysteries, the Kim Harrisons and Laurell K Hamiltons to be paranormal romances, and Charles De Lint and Neil Gaiman to be true urban fantasy. To me, an urban fantasy really is a Fantasy Novel that is firmly grounded in high fantasy and/or faery tales, but set in a modern/contemporary urban locale. Paranormal mysteries and romances, then, are basically subgenres within the subgenre…and, yes, are clearly influenced by PI noir and classic romance respectively. But, in my humble opinion, they aren’t the core of what urban fantasy is.

  15. ROSE FOX

    Thanks for this post, John. You’ve certainly got a lot of people talking! My husband and I were discussing your thesis, and I also noted some commonalities with Westerns: the lone hero who’s inexplicably skilled with weaponry, the mysterious stranger whose purposes and origins are unknown, the skirmishes leading up to a massive showdown, the difficult relationship between the hero and the representative of the law (who admires the hero’s results but not their methods). While the Dresden Files, e.g., are undeniably (almost excruciatingly) noir, it wouldn’t take too much serial number-filing to have Harry Dresden striding through a frontier town, six-wands a-blazin’, with Sheriff Murphy turning a blind eye as Dresden faces off against the Vamp Gang who arrived on the noon train.

  16. John Levitt

    Yes, people certainly have some strong opinions on the subject. I like your connection to Westerns — quote apropos. An interesting point — I mostly agree with K Maze’s distinctions; I just use different nomenclature. So I think most people recognize there are distinctly different aspects of UF — they just disagree on what exactly it signifies and where those distinctions come from.

  17. Lisa

    I’m torn. I somewhat agree w/ your classifications & call that some of these books sprang from the romance genre, I think that by delineating it all so strictly, you might miss some things that can resonate with readers. A good book will engage as many emotions as possible, and those can include thoughts of a romantic nature. That doesn’t mean there needs to be a sex scene in every book – just that the protagonist should be well-rounded. Yes, I know that some may be prevented from having a relationship by the nature of their abilities or challenges in UF, but most people still think about them from time to time. A character that doesn’t leaves me feeling cold at times. In reading the comments, I find myself agreeing with your views on YA fiction. I think, for me, it’s because YA will allow the characters to have the emotions, but don’t necessarily make them the raison d’etre. (Exception: the Twilight books, and I think they suffer as a result). The genre, by its nature, isn’t about chapter-long sex scenes, and it’s a good thing. We get PLOT. I think some authors who hew to a genre of para-romance let plot suffer. I also have been wondering if the publishing industry itself isn’t at fault for that, at times. They shoehorn books, series, and authors into extremely specific genres these days. A more general book can defy their classifications – and I wonder if some of those books aren’t being rejected. That said, I do love your books, even though I admit to making the hubby read them first, due to appearance of the dog on the cover. I have an issue with animals in danger ;) I need books including them vetted first!

  18. Paul's Empyrean

    Urban Fantasy is not fey and fairies and dwarfs. That is Fantasy. Can fairies be in an urban landscape? I suppose anything can be created in fiction, so urban fantasy cannot say no to that. Still, I like the PI comparison, though urban fantasy is a mystery of sorts, it still can take on the qualities of an epic quest, similar to Don Quixote. Urban fantasy does and will continue to pick up on the world weariness of a cynical hero with a jaded landscape found in many PI novels. The quest, though, is to carve a niche in the world, to find a way to cope with the oppression of the world. Steampunk plays to these themes. It’s just that urban fantasy is normally contemporary.

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