Welcome to Shelf Care, where I review three books related by a theme.  These aren’t necessarily the latest releases, but are hopefully books you can’t believe you missed.

“”I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble.”
-Sam Spade, The Maltese Falcon

This column’s theme:  Magic: P.I.

The hard-boiled private investigator has been a pop culture staple for about a hundred years now. Think film noir, and The Maltese Falcon and you’ll know what I’m talking about. However, this archetype hasn’t remained stuck in the 1930s. It has crossed in to other genres like science fiction (Blade Runner) and, this month, we’ll be looking at private investigators that inhabit worlds where death could come not only from a shot in the dark but a spell in the face.   

So if you like

Long running fantasy series
Urban Fantasy (circa 2001)
Books that became TV shows
The works of Lawrence Watt-Evans

You might like

The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher

Overview

Magician and private investigator Harry Dresden’s week is going from bad to worse when a gruesome magical murder leaves him as a possible suspect.

Sample passage

My name is Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden. Conjure by it at your own risk. I’m a wizard. I work out of an office in midtown Chicago. As far as I know, I’m the only openly practicing professional wizard in the country. You can find me in the yellow pages, under “Wizards.” Believe it or not, I’m the only one there. My ad looks like this:

HARRY DRESDEN—WIZARD

Lost Items Found. Paranormal Investigations.

Consulting. Advice. Reasonable Rates.

No Love Potions, Endless Purses, Parties, or Other Entertainment

You’d be surprised how many people call just to ask me if I’m serious. But then, if you’d seen the things I’d seen, if you knew half of what I knew, you’d wonder how anyone could not think I was serious.

Takeaway

Like the rest of the books on this list, Harry Dresden fits the stereotype of the hard-boiled P.I. – down on his luck, knowing a lot of bad people…and bad things that aren’t people… but with the twist of being a fairly competent magician, so he’s got a little something to contribute when the spells start flying. I thought that the plot was well constructed, the payoff satisfying and if maybe a little extra time was spent on world building, that’s not a bad thing since if you like this, there’s another 14 Dresden Files books out there.

Or if you liked:

John Constantine, in any of his incarnations
Joe R. Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard books
The movie Chinatown
Murphy And Sapir’s The Destroyer series

You might like

Hex Rated, by Jason Ridler

Overview

Jason Brimstone has just switched careers from dark sorcerer’s apprentice to private investigator, but a run in with an adult film actress in supernatural trouble is going to drag him back into a past he’d rather avoid.

Sample passage

The highway cloistered. I leaned heavy on the horn and rallied through spaces not meant for a Dodge Dart. A chorus of angry honks attacked me like hornets. Peeling down the off ramp, I escaped the gridlock that would make the 5 a tailgate cemetery. Two greens later and I’d made it to Lincoln Heights Library.

Creamy white walls extended in a weak and curvy V made an inviting sight in a city that worshipped images, not words. I parked outside, neck sore from craning, and shuffled as sure as my wingtips would allow up the steps to warm brown doors that were closing as a patron passed me by. The 6 p.m. sun was darkening.

I jammed my foot in and the heavy door was given a stern tug and vice-gripped my shoe hard enough that I grunted. “Damn, I thought I had at least five minutes.”

The door pushed open. Before me was a humorless face, etched with hard lifelines, similar to Ares, but the disposition was pure Boston Irish.

“Brimstone.”

Some accents are thick enough to stop a charging rhino. This one had twice the depth because it had been forged in the Depression, then the war. High canine teeth grimaced, and a clockwork buzzcut was sharp as a straight razor.

“Buzz,” I said, then gave him a weak salute. “Just need to see Moira and I’ll be out of what hair you have left.”

“We’re closed, Brimstone.”

“No,” I looked at my cuffs as if I had a watch. “I have five minutes. Please.”

“We’re closed to library cheats, Brimstone.” He jutted his chin. “You want to make this personal?”

My hands raised in surrender. “I am very sorry to have borrowed a book for—”

Buzz gripped his belt. “Two years, one month, three days, not including holidays.” He didn’t pack a sidearm. Just a black baton, the kind cops the world over use to “brain” folks into walking straight on a crooked line.

“That’s why I need to see Moira!” I said. “I’m here to pay off the fine.”

“Let’s see the cash.”

“I’m using a check.”

He unhooked the baton from his belt, and started doing small circles with his wrist. “We don’t take checks from … why the hell are you dressed like that?”

My expression dropped. “I was at a funeral.”

Takeaway

This book would be a great example of 70’s Men’s Adventure Fiction except the writing is just too good for that.  I could see it as a fantastic B movie as everything in it is just slightly larger than life, and while some things in the plot could have been pulled from a Saturday Night Live Stefon sketch,  it all somehow fits together seamlessly. The plot is tight, the characters smart, and the sex and violence are over the top enough to hit the mark Ridler was aiming for. This hits the tropes perfectly and executes a few twists but ultimately sticks the landing.
Oh, and given the subject material, this is probably not a great choice for younger readers, but if you do like it, there’s another book out with the same character. Probably too early to call this series ‘long running’ though…

Or if you like:

Long running fantasy series.
A P.I. in a fantasy world who can’t do magic.
Fantasy novels that aren’t a thousand pages long.
Ed McDonald’s Ravens Mark books,

You might like

Sweet Silver Blues (Garrett, P.I. Book 1), by Glen Cook

Overview

P.I. Garrett has to track down a missing woman who is an old girlfriend and the beneficiary of a war buddy’s will. However it turns out that a number of parties seem to have an interest in assuring that she never gets the money…

Sample passage

I yanked the door open.

For a moment I didn’t see the woman. She barely came up to my chest. I eyeballed the three guys behind her. They were lugging enough steel to outfit their own army, but I wouldn’t have been shy about wading in. Two of them were about fifteen years old and the other was about a hundred and five.

“We’re invaded by dwarfs,” I moaned. None of them was taller than the woman.

“Are you Garrett?” She looked disappointed in what she saw.

“No. Two doors down. Good-bye.” Slam! Two doors down was a night-working ratman who made a hobby of getting on my nerves. I figured it was his turn in the barrel.

I stumbled toward bed with the vague suspicion that I had seen those people before.

I wriggled around like an old dog. When you’re hung over there is no way to get comfortable, feather bed or creek bed. Just as I was getting reacquainted with being horizontal again, Bam! Bam! Bam!

I told myself I wouldn’t move. They would take the hint.

They didn’t. It sounded like the entire room was about to cave in. I was not going to get any more sleep.

Takeaway

Sweet Silver Blues is a solid execution on the tropes of the hard-boiled P.I. but has a couple of twists on the detective in a fantasy world. First off, Garrett’s only powers come from having been in the marines, so, no magic there. Second – the city of TunFaire is not remotely related to our current reality, as it is inhabited by all sorts of fantastical creatures, many of whom have beef with Garrett. As one might expect, his fairly straightforward errand of finding a woman he used to know becomes complicated as he gets involved in way more than he’d bargained for.

So, what other books should be on this list? Leave your thoughts in the comments, and stay tuned for my next column, where the theme will be: Reincarnation.

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