The best fantasy novels with a detective hero

Philip Palmer Author Of Version 43
By Philip Palmer

Who am I?

I am a science fiction and fantasy novelist and also a screenwriter and prolific writer of audio dramas for BBC Radio. I began my career many eons ago writing for the crime drama series The Bill and during that period I spent a lot of time mixing with coppers & villains and attending crime scenes. I have a great passion for detective and crime writing as well as all forms of speculative fiction, and I’m a sucker for crime/fantasy mash-ups.

I wrote...

Version 43

By Philip Palmer,

Book cover of Version 43

What is my book about?

Version 43 is a high-concept detective thriller set on an alien planet. Version 43 is a cyborg detective given the job of solving a crime on a planet run by desperados and criminals, who keeps getting murdered by his enemies. And every time this happens, a new version of the cyborg cop picks up the case—but without his most recent memories... This book was inspired by Dashiell Hammett’s classic noir thriller Red HarvestI added cyborgs, quantum teleportation,  and aliens.

The books I picked & why

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Storm Front

By Jim Butcher,

Book cover of Storm Front

Why this book?

Jim Butcher is a genius with a sense of humour. The great joy of his Harry Dresden novels is that they are magical, fantastical, violent, intricately plotted, and laugh-out-loud hilarious, all at the same time. Harry is of course a wizard for hire whose ad proclaims: ‘Harry Dresden – Wizard. Lost items found. Paranormal investigations. Consulting. Advice. Reasonable Rates. No Love Potions, Endless Purses, Parties or Other Entertainments.’ There are now 17 novels in the Dresden Files universe, and each of them is written with care and wit and zest and a huge cast of rich so-vivid-they-are-real characters. I love this genre—noir urban fantasy I guess you’d call it—but no one does it better than Butcher.  

Pandora's Star

By Peter F. Hamilton,

Book cover of Pandora's Star

Why this book?

This is arguably science fiction not fantasy but Hamilton’s great accomplishment as a writer is to weld the traditions of these two genres together, with stories that are as epic as Tolkien and Martin. In Pandora's Star we are introduced to Paula Myo, Chief Investigator for what is in effect the galactic police force. She’s a vivid and wonderful character in a complex story that ends with shocking abruptness; and is then continued in the ‘sequel,’ Judas Unchained. I was on a train journey when I finished the first book but luckily 😊 I had the second volume to hand. Treat it as one very long novel! Hamilton is one of the greats of SF, who has the knack of writing utterly compelling story sequences.

Working for the Devil

By Lilith Saintcrow,

Book cover of Working for the Devil

Why this book?

Dante Valentine is a Necromance who works as an investigator for the police—solving murders by conjuring up the spirit of the dead person then asking, ‘Hey, who did this?’ Like Jim Butcher, Lilith blends humour and action, and she locates her stories in a unique futuristic/fantasy world in which demons wear black jeans. These books are afire with narrative energy and also brim with passion and love and eroticism. Dante Valentine is a superb kick-ass heroine and if you like a walk on the dark side, I’d warmly recommend the five volumes in this series. 

The Cthulhu Casebooks - Sherlock Holmes and the Sussex Sea-Devils

By James Lovegrove,

Book cover of The Cthulhu Casebooks - Sherlock Holmes and the Sussex Sea-Devils

Why this book?

Arguably the greatest of all detectives, Sherlock Holmes died early in his career when his creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sent him hurtling down the Reichenbach Falls in ‘The Final Problem’. But Holmes soon came back to life—firstly in The Return of Sherlock Holmes and in later years as a character in numerous spinoffs/riffs/reboots. One of the best of these is James Lovegrove’s series of Lovecraftian horror stories featuring Holmes and Watson. They are all great but the third one, Sherlock Holmes and the Sussex Sea-Devils, has the best title. Lovegrove writes stylishly and wittily and his deadpan approach to the absurd monsters he conjures up makes these a delicious read.   

The Devil's Detective

By Simon Kurt Unsworth,

Book cover of The Devil's Detective

Why this book?

I bought this book in Hatchard’s bookshop because I liked the cover, and because I like stories about Hell. A great choice on my part—this wonderful crime/fantasy novel features a detective called Thomas Fool in the most lawless land there can be. Thomas has to investigate a series of grisly murders which threaten the Devil’s domain; and to make his police procedural story work Unsworth has to invent a whole new mythology of Hell in which murder is even possible. The writing is stunningly evocative and the logic of the world building is remarkable even if it is,  ultimately, bonkers. This book and its sequel, The Devil’s Evidence, are the noirest of noirs and are completely unputdownable. 

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