3 Supernatural Noir Tales That Reflect The Inhuman Condition
Jason Heller is a senior writer at, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.
Los Angeles is the city of many great traditions — one of them being crime fiction. From the hardboiled classics of Raymond Chandler to the gritty noir of James Ellroy, numerous novels have used the tough streets and affluent hills of L.A. as a backdrop for some of literature's most thrilling tales of murder, lust, and justice.
What happens, though, when an entirely different world seeps into L.A.? Say, the realm of science fiction or the supernatural? Picture Chandler's The Big Sleep with robots. Or Ellroy's The Black Dahlia with monsters. It might sound jarring at first, but authors have been catering to this weird juxtaposition — and the crossover audience that enjoys both crime fiction and speculative fiction — for years now. Not all of these books take place in L.A.; Jim Butcher's successful Dresden Files series, for instance, deals with the unholy mingling of crime and magic in Chicago. But three recent novels by Jason Ridler, Adam Christopher, and Richard Kadrey have focused the speculative-crime genre through a distinctly Angeleno lens.
"The wind smelled of October, but the heat was pure L.A.," Ridler writes in Hex-Rated, the first installment of his new series The Brimstone Files. The book practically oozes the sleaze — both atmospheric and moral — that fictional L.A. has become infamous for. It's set in 1970, where a newly minted private eye named James Brimstone takes on his first case: a mystery involving a porn star whose last tawdry film seemed to funnel forces from beyond this plane of existence.
As you might imagine, Brimstone gets in over his head. His investigation goes south, violently, as Ridler's manic plot splinters into conspiracies, martial arts, and Lovecraftian terror. It's also terrific fun, dripping with rich period detail and nods to Ed Wood movies and Jack Kirby comics. Ridler toys with the idea that L.A. thrives on illusions, which makes it the perfect breeding ground for magic, particularly of the darker kind. Smutty, profane, and unapologetically slathered in pulp, Hex-Rated is a loving homage to all the musty, dog-eared paperbacks stuffed in the used bookstore's spinner rack.
Adam Christopher exhibits an equally ardent love of pulp. Killing Is My Business, the sequel to 2015's Made to Kill, takes place in L.A. circa 1965, and it's redolent with midcentury charm. The book's protagonist, Raymond Electromatic, is an assassin who operates out of his investigator's office, spending his free time reading lurid sci-fi novels. Raymond has a better reason than most for gravitating toward science fiction: He's a robot.
Isaac Asimov's First Law of Robotics, coined in 1942, states that "A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm." But Asimov never knew Christopher's alternate-history version of L.A. — a retro-futurist metropolis where robots are already obsolete, Raymond is the last of his kind, and danger lurks behind every gleaming yet seedy corner. His latest case is a potboiler involving Mafia dons, killer thugs, and, of course, a femme fatale, but it's Raymond's rasping, charismatic voice that carries the story. "I was good at my job. I was programmed to be," he admits with a mix of pride and sorrow. Cursed with a memory that erases itself every 24 hours, he approaches L.A. every morning as if it's a new city, ripe for discovery — and disillusionment.
James Stark, the antihero of Kadrey's The Kill Society, isn't human either — although he can more or less pass as one. He's actually a Nephilim, the bastard offspring of a human and an angel — which brings him a certain amount of power along with a whole lot of headache. Hollywood is Stark's hunting ground for paranormal creatures and those who would disturb the precarious cosmic balance, but he sharpened his skills during his tenure as a living being trapped in Hell — which, thanks to Kadrey's twisted sense of humor, is a street-for-street replica of L.A. The Kill Society is the ninth book in the Sandman Slim series; this time around, Kadrey yanks Stark out of L.A. and thrusts him into the armpit of the Underworld. There he falls in with a monstrous, motorized gang led by a man — or perhaps something more than a man — named the Magistrate.
While Sandman Slim has always ventured far beyond hardboiled L.A. fiction for inspiration, The Kill Society goes even broader. Cormac McCarthy's haunting Western novel Blood Meridian looms in the background, especially in the parallels between McCarthy's Judge Holden and Kadrey's equally insidious Magistrate. And as always, the author draws as much from cinema as he does from literature; the post-apocalypse gore and violent social commentary of the Mad Max films has clearly left fingerprints all over Kadrey's brain, and that's transferred to The Kill Society's rampaging Hell on wheels.
Kadrey's latest book doesn't actually take place in L.A., but it carries echoes of its maddening traffic and shrieking freeways — a place where so much time is spent driving, it can start to feel as though the roads are the true city. In more direct ways, Hex-Rated and Killing Is My Business comment on the ways L.A. has become a crucible for America's hopes, dreams, depravity, despair, and sometimes even redemption. Then again, that's what the best L.A. noir and hardboiled fiction, from Chandler to Ellroy, has always done: sifted the human condition through the grates and gutters of the City of Angels. For Ridler, Christopher, and Kadrey, though, that condition often isn't human at all.
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.