Hey everyone. Gedge here. In a recent podcast episode John, Dana and I recapped our adventures at Dragon Con 2015. If you haven’t listened to it yet, strap down your ears for a listen (Episode 6: Dragon Con: Fury Road).
In the podcast, I brought up my experience at a couple publisher panels, which included Titan Books and Ace/Rock. The panel description included something along the phrase of “free swag.” In honesty, I wanted new books, so I showed up to see what they had—no shame, man.
Remember that time urban fantasy became a big deal? Not me. I haven’t kept track of trends in genre fiction in years. So yeah, apparently urban fantasy is a big thing now.
Let me back up here. Bear with me on this. There’s a reason for it.
Let’s Discuss Pulp Detective Fiction
I am a sucker for pulp noir. I like my detective novels the same way I like orange juice; pulpy. The more pulp, the better. The trashier, the better. If you’re a gruff, grizzled, wise-cracking, piece-of-shit, strong-willed, play-by-his-own rules, personal-code-of-ethics anti-hero with a penchant for finding the truth at all costs… I’m in. I’m with you all the way.
I’ve always loved pulpy American detective fiction. Even before I knew what it was. As a kid, I would watch Captain Picard of the USS Enterprise play out his Dixon Hill detective stories in the holo-deck. I loved the style, the contrast, the attitude of that atypical private detective character. I didn’t know what I was seeing. I was just a dumb-ass kid. But I liked it.
Next came Raymond Chandler. In college, I wrote a short story in my Philosophy in Literature class. My professor told me I wrote like Raymond Chandler. Being the perpetual dumb-ass, I had no idea who that was. I had no idea what I was doing. I stumbled onto the style. I was just emulating what I saw on TV. Just a copy of a copy. And I got lucky. That weekend I went out and bought Chandler’s The Big Sleep, and I was hooked. Next came Farewell, My Lovely. Then Dashiell Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon. I started stacking up Bogart films. Rental stores were still a thing in those days, so I rented as much as I could find, dropping dimes for those old DVD copies, and occasionally VHS. I spent hours and hours online, reading about film noir and 30’s and 40’s pulp fiction. That was the year the indy film Brick came out, and I loved it. That year I lived and breathed pulpy hard-boiled detective fiction.
There’s something about the old pulp detective fiction that just punches me in the gut every time I read it. Raymond Chandler was a master of this new movement in detective fiction. And his pulpy prose was dark, engaging, painful and beautiful.
Chandler paints a convincing portrayal of a man named Philip Marlow. A man with his own moral code of honor. He can interact with criminals as well as cops. He’s disenfranchised from the crumbling culture around him, but persists in doing the right thing, even if it causes him pain, even if it makes him enemies with everyone around him. He is flawed. He is intensely mortal. Chandler takes our hero through the seedy criminal underworld of 1930s Los Angeles. And he’s beaten down every step of the way. And we feel that pain as readers. In Farewell, My Lovely, to quote the character Anne Riordan to Philip Marlow:
You’re… so determined and you work for so little money. Everybody bats you over the head and chokes you and smacks your jaw and fills you with morphine, but you just keep right on hitting between tackle and end until they’re all worn out. (Farewell, My Lovely, p. 288, 1992 edition).
Marlow as a character hurts. Everything about him is filled with pain. But through all that blood, sweat and broken bones is his persistence to overcome odds through his sheer willpower. And he’ll do it to the discover the truth. He’ll do it for his own personal moral code.
In a modern world of sell-outs, Phillip Marlow is my hero.
There’s a Point to This – The Point is Urban Fantasy
The book stared back at me from the shelf. I picked it up, flipped through the pages. Looked at the back cover, looked at the front cover. There it was. That dark, grizzed, gruff looking dude, wearing a long duster jacket, gripping a staff with glowing runes etched on the side. And that hat that screamed: “I’m a detective!” I put it back on the shelf and walked out the store.
I would return week after week, perusing the fantasy section of the book store. I still went to book stores back in those days.
I wanted that book. But for some reason, I’d always walk out of the store without it. And it would gnaw at me, in the back of my head, until I went back to the store the next week, where I’d stare at it again. It wasn’t the time, I didn’t have the money for it, it probably sucks. The quote on the back says it’s like Chandler. I doubt it. Nobody writes like Chandler; he’s an original.
But one week I broke down and bought it. Did I tell you I’m a sucker for noir? That’s what launched me into the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher.
The Dresden Files series tells the story of Harry Dresden, a wizard working as a private detective in Chicago. He advertises in the phone book, and he works as a consultant for the Chicago Police Department’s special crimes division, which investigates paranormal crimes.
The Dresden Files follows all the right beats of an old pulp detective novel. But what really hooked me was the pain.
The punches Dresden would take during the course of the novels is daunting, brutal and beautiful. It reminded me of the best of Chandler. Dresden has powerful magic at his disposal, but the threats he goes up against are out of his league. He does not flourish, he scrapes by.
But there were other elements that mixed well in the books. The pacing was fast and frenetic, and broken up by light-hearted moments. It pulled the best tropes of pulp detective fiction, and the best tropes from fantasy.
I love this series. I’ve stuck with it, and it’s still going. I’ll keep reading them as long as Jim Butcher keeps writing them. No matter how hectic life gets, I always put aside time to read a new Dresden novel. They’re fun books that only require that I enjoy the ride. I used to refer to it as my “trash” (in the same way I refer to my wife’s romance novels as her “trash”). But I am unashamed in my love of the Dresden Files.
The Dresden Files is surely not the first of what would qualify as “Urban Fantasy.” But it was the first one I fell in love with.
A Dish Served Best in Moderation
So there I am, sitting at a publisher panel at Dragon Con 2015. I have been away from speculative fiction for the last couple years. I am not up to speed on new authors, new trends, or new novels. But it’s clear to me after 5 minutes that Urban Fantasy has now defined itself as a definitive sub-genre of fantasy literature.
I recall six to eight years ago, commentators of fantasy literature bemoaning the saturation of what was called paranormal romance. The Anita Blake series was branded as paranormal romance (the first of its kind), because publishers didn’t know where to put it. Did it belong in Fantasy? Did it belong in Romance? Mystery? It crossed seemingly disparate genres. But it became popular. I’m reluctant to say that popularity begats “copy-cats”, because I don’t care to challenge the hard work of creators. I respect the level of effort that it takes to create something of that magnitude; regardless of whether it’s for me or not. So let’s just say, people want more of what they already like. And there’s nothing wrong with accommodating that want. But regardless, we had the critics of fantasy literature, 6-8 years ago, declaring the death of paranormal romance.
Whatever happened to paranormal romance? Did it go away? Or did it get re-branded and repackaged with urban fantasy? I don’t know the answer to that. If I care to find out, I’ll look into it further.
The editors at the Dragon Con panel were good at marketing their product. And we’re good at listening. That’s what we came for, to hear what was on the horizon—that, and the free books, don’t forget about that swag.
“This next book comes out in March, and it’s about a succubus, and she’s a private detective”, the editor says. I lean over to my wife: “Didn’t Lost Girl do that already?” For that matter, isn’t that kind of like the Anita Blake series? Doesn’t she become a succubus? But I guess technically she’s not a private detective.
“And our next book is about a half-vampire, and he’s a private detective.”
Book after book, where the plug is “X is a Y, and (s)he’s a private detective.”
There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s obviously popular, and it makes money. But does every urban fantasy novel need to feature a private detective? I understand that urban fantasy crosses the streams of two genres, so it makes sense to say: magical-thing plus detective equals urban fantasy. It’s an easy formula.
But after (what felt like) 40 urban fantasy novels with the same easy formula, I can’t help but think there’s an oversaturation. I hate the word “moderation”, but is it time yet to start talking about it?
Do I really need this many private detectives in my life? Can’t the forces of evil be fought by someone with a different career path?
This became apparent to me in another panel. This one was an author’s panel focusing on different elements in the urban fantasy genre—all the authors on the panel, by the way, were awesome; the likes of Chesea Quinn Yarbro, Jim Butcher and Delilah Dawson. Someone in the audience asked a question, which I thought was legitimate. It went something along the lines of: “What would it take to place an urban fantasy in a Tolkien-esque world, with big open fields, forests, mountains, etc.”
The answer: “Cities, cities, cities.”
I get the point. The term urban kind of gives it away, right?
“You can’t do it. You can’t have an urban fantasy without dark alleys,” says another author.
Then the crowd got in on making fun of the kid, and the conversation moved on. It would have been an interesting discussion on what elements, tropes, cliches and archetypes make up what is considered “urban fantasy.”
It’s a discussion I wish those authors on the panel would have tackled. To his credit, Jim Butcher was on the panel, and he attempted to bring up the noir elements in Peter Jackson’s version of Lord of the Rings, but I think it was lost on everyone, and the conversation went nowhere.
Sitting in the back of the room, as the the loser I am, my first thought was Raymond Chandler’s novel Lady in the Lake, where Philip Marlow is placed out of his usual stomping grounds of Los Angeles, initially dealing with a murder plot in a small mountain town. While it’s still a town, it’s still closer to the idea of “big open fields” that the audience member brought up. So here we have the master of pulp detective fiction, and he managed to move Marlow out of a dark city over 70 years ago, during the infancy of the genre.
Urban fantasy obviously pulls from the trappings of the early 20th century pulp detective fiction novels, as well as the film noir movement (also inspired by pulp detective fiction).
What is required for “urban fantasy?” To consider something “noir” or “pulpy”, I don’t think it’s necessarily the inclusion of a detective. The private detective only serves as a man on the fringes of society, that can traverse the various social strata, and tread the fine line of moral ambiguity. The actual job as “private detective” is irrelevant. We romanticize the profession because of the genre. But it is not necessary. Any character can serve that purpose, the career is irrelevant. I also don’t think the typical setting is required either. The backdrop of dark alleys serve to highlight the dark moody existentialism of the plot. But the alleys themselves are irrelevant.
There’s something deeper going on in film noir, and hard-boiled pulp detective fiction. And occasionally, there is something deeper going on in urban fantasy as they weave those elements of fatalism, folklore and magic into a thrilling story. Amazing things can happen when literature genres cross over. But I hope that there is still plenty of ground to trod in urban fantasy. I hope the genre does not keep relying on the same simple formula, with the same irrelevant elements. It would be interesting to see if and how the genre broadens its focus. Because right now, it seems too branded, too marketable, too formulaic.
So what now? There is a lot more to talk about. Breaking down the archetypes of noir and hard-boiled detective fiction even further would be fun, but certainly out of the scope of this post. Maybe that’s something I can write about later or discuss on the podcast with John. Let me know if you have any thoughts on the matter. Thanks for sticking around.