Occult Mystery
May 8, 2015 1:42 PM   Subscribe

I've recently picked up The Dain Curse by Dashiell Hammet. It blends a fairly standard hard boiled mystery novel plot with elements of the occult. I think this is something I'd like to read more of, although the occult aspect is most important, and the mystery can be of any sort (hardboiled or no). What are some other works that have an investigator taking on mysteries with occult elements (either real or imagined)?

Thinking about it, this is similar space to True Detective, Twin Peaks, and (sometimes) Lovecraft. I've also read the first Claire Dewitt novel where she uses some occult techniques to solve crimes. Otherwise I'm open to any suggestions across novels, TV and film.
posted by codacorolla to Writing & Language (46 answers total) 79 users marked this as a favorite
Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series has a main character wizard/detective who consults on occult matters for the Chicago police; the books also spawned a short-lived basic cable show.
posted by Iris Gambol at 1:49 PM on May 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

Edward D. Hoch's Simon Ark character is a 2000-year-old Coptic priest who solves mysteries, most of which are apparently occult in nature but invariably turn out to have perfectly reasonable explanations.
posted by theodolite at 1:54 PM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Dresden Files is a series of novels (and a short-lived TV show) that is basically hardboiled wizard detective. It's pulpy but fun.

The cartoon Gravity Falls is kid-oriented, but fun and very much a realization of Twin Peaks themes in a different medium for a very different audience.

The DC Comics/Vertigo Hellblazer series is basically the comics gold standard in occult detective stories. The TV show Constantine was based on it, although I don't know how closely or how decently. Hopefully someone more experiences with it can give you names of good Hellblazer trades to pick up.

Supernatural is a TV series about a pair of drifter brothers dealing with all sorts of creepy stuff. It often veers into straight up horror/action, but there's a good amount of amateur supernatural sleuthing type stuff in the mix. There's also Grimm which I personally don't like because the detective aspect of it sucks, but you may like it more. Kolchak: The Night Stalker was doing the X-Files monster-of-the-week thing long before there was an X-Files.
posted by griphus at 1:57 PM on May 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

While the mystery aspect may not be everything you are looking for, check out Tim Powers. To quote wikipedia: "he uses actual, documented historical events featuring famous people, but shows another view of them in which occult or supernatural factors heavily influence the motivations and actions of the characters."

I'd particularly recomend Declare, which is a cold war spy story with an occult background and Last Call which is about high stakes occult poker. Both have a sort of hard boiled feel to them, Declare especially. Great books, Powers has a really unique style. The Anubis Gates is also quite good, but less hard boiled than the other two.
posted by pseudonick at 2:03 PM on May 8, 2015 [5 favorites]

If you're up for a graphic novel Promethea by Alan Moore is very good.
posted by Requiax at 2:04 PM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh my Godddddddddddd Tana French's In the Woods and all the rest of the Dublin Murder Squad series.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 2:05 PM on May 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

They're more fantasy books with a detective element than the other way around, but Glen Cook's Garrett books are pretty fun reads.
posted by Etrigan at 2:05 PM on May 8, 2015

I recommend this book all the time in various Ask MeFi threads but it will probably never be more relevant than in this one: The List of 7 by Mark Frost (co-creator of Twin Peaks.) Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is the protagonist.
posted by usonian at 2:10 PM on May 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

You need to read Falling Angel right now.
posted by dortmunder at 2:19 PM on May 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

The Laundry Files (by mefi's own Charles Stross) combine secret agent stories with Lovecraftian horror.

Fatale, by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, is perfect if you're open to graphic novels.
posted by mbrubeck at 2:20 PM on May 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

You definitely want Michael Gruber. Start with the Jimmy Paz trilogy.
posted by cyndigo at 2:30 PM on May 8, 2015

Seconding Tim Powers. Last Call is my favorite, followed closely by Expiration Date. I recommend that you read the latter without knowing anything about it (especially not a plot summary). Don't even read the book jacket. It will be much more entertaining when you finally realize what's going on.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 2:36 PM on May 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

I recently read Midnight Riot (PC Peter Grant Book 1) by Ben Aaronovitch, about a London policeman who discovers the supernatural exists. It's a little incoherent, but also quite fun in parts.

I also read Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey, which features a very hard-boiled protagonist, in a supernaturally noir Los Angeles. Not quite so much on the mystery-solving, though.
posted by Squeak Attack at 2:44 PM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

London Falling by Paul Cornell throws jaded London cops right in the middle of the occult. I loved this book so much.

Midnight Riot (US title) by Ben Aaronovitch also fits your request. It's decent but not spectacular. It is the first of a series. The first book was published as Rivers of London in the UK, I believe.

You might also like Blood Oath by Christopher Farnsworth, the first of the Nathaniel Cade series. It deals less with the occult and more with things that go bump in the night, but it is a great read. I love this series too.
posted by rakaidan at 2:47 PM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Spinsters in Peril by Ngaio Marsh is a classic golden age detective novel with some occult trappings. Great great story, terrible title.The Laundry novels by Charles Stross, of course. Any of the psychic detectives from Victorian and Edwardian lit -- Karnacki, Philo Vance, John Silence.
posted by Malla at 2:49 PM on May 8, 2015

Two opposite ends of the British mystery spectrum:

The Bryant and May novels* by Christopher Fowler. Two elderly gents, both eccentric in different ways, investigate odd goings-on in London for the Peculiar Crimes Unit. The books usually span events decades apart and are very grounded in London's deep/deeply weird history. I liked The Water Room (the second book) more than the first book, but they've all been good so far. The weird events that they investigate are generally explainable as non-supernatural activity...though Bryant wouldn't necessarily agree. These books can be dark, but are also charming.

On the other end, London Falling (and, presumably, the rest of the Shadow Police series) by Paul Cornell. It's a multi-POV police procedural (?), written in an impressionistic way that, I think, reflects how actual humans caught up in bizarre supernatural events would react. It has out-and-out supernatural activities but is very realistic in terms of human nature. Note that the book is quite graphic and horrifying in parts.

Neither of the above feel like run-of-the-mill contemporary fantasy (e.g. Dresden Files), which I think is a strength.

*I know, I recommend these all the time--but for good reason!
posted by wintersweet at 2:50 PM on May 8, 2015 [5 favorites]

Maybe The City & The City by China Miéville.
posted by ZeroDivides at 2:54 PM on May 8, 2015

Oh, if TV and film are OK, what about audio dramas (and historical settings)? The Jago and Litefoot series from Big Finish is a Doctor Who spinoff, but you don't need to have seen "The Talons of Weng Chi'ang" (a Tom Baker-era story) to understand the characters. Henry Gordon Jago and George Litefoot are a bloviating theatre impresario and a respectable pathologist who investigate alien and paranormal mysteries in Victorian London. Being characters of their time, they interpret much of what they encounter as being of occult origin rather than the (pseudo-)scientific explanation that we'd get if these were all Doctor Who episodes--at least in the ones we've listened to so far. Seances, vampires, werewolves--you name it!
posted by wintersweet at 2:57 PM on May 8, 2015

I have two recommendations for you:

Kraken by China Mieville (exactly what you are after)
Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey (SF weirdness instead of occult, but otherwise fits the bill)

Leviathan Wakes is technically the first of a series, but it stands alone and I would skip the sequels unless you are REALLY into it (they are worse, and don't really have the mystery aspect).
posted by 256 at 2:59 PM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Millennium is exactly this - in the first season, the occult content is not assumed to be literally true, just psychologically important to the criminal, and the second season takes a hard right into believing its own conspiracies, but the first season, at least, is deeply satisfying.
posted by restless_nomad at 3:03 PM on May 8, 2015

Arturo Perez Reverte's The Club Dumas is pretty much exactly what you're looking for.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 3:17 PM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Going back a loooooong way, W. H. Hodgson's Carnacki, the Ghost Finder.

Neil Gaiman's "A Study in Emerald," one of the better Sherlock Holmes pastiches out there, is a Doyle/Lovecraft mashup.
posted by thomas j wise at 3:31 PM on May 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

There's Katherine Kurtz's (Kurtz'? Kurtz's's's's?)/Deborah Turner Harris's Adept series, which features an investigator who also has occult powers. They're unbelievably cheesy but make good relaxation reading.
posted by dorque at 3:39 PM on May 8, 2015

Libba Bray's The Diviners is set in the 1920s and features a young flapper, Evie, who is sent by her parents to live with her uncle in Manhattan. The uncle is a professor by day and occult investigator by night, and Evie becomes part of his investigations. It's part of a series and the next book is supposed to be released this year.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 3:48 PM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Pardon the self-link, but I wrote a novel about the young Raymond Chandler and friends sleuthing a real cult of angels worshippers in 1929 Los Angeles.
posted by Scram at 4:09 PM on May 8, 2015

Try the Peter Grant mysteries by Ben Aaronovitch. It's a police procedural set in modern-day London.

Quoting from Wikipedia about the first book in the series: "The novel centres around the adventures Peter Grant, a young officer in the Metropolitan Police; who, following an unexpected encounter with a ghost, is recruited into the small branch of the Met that deals with magic and the supernatural."
posted by AMyNameIs at 4:41 PM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Greywalker series by Kat Richardson is fun.
posted by BibiRose at 5:06 PM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Seconding Ben Aaronovitch PC Peter Grant series. They're about more real-world type crimes as opposed to the Laundry books by Charles Stross which are about supernatural crimes.

Thirding Tim Powers. Love, love, love the Last Call series and Declare. Declare is more like John LeCarre dry spy novel plus amazing supernatural causes for all-too-natural effects. Powers books are the absolutely most believable fiction I've ever read.

LA cigar too tragical
posted by irisclara at 5:23 PM on May 8, 2015

Came to check for Bryant & May — was not disappointed. Do it; they are so fantastic.
posted by dame at 5:43 PM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

another vote for Bryant and May.
posted by oneear at 7:23 PM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Burning Court by John Dickson Carr is a classic in this vain.

The occult elements in the Bryant and May books are slight but the series is enjoyable.

The Tim Powers books recommended above are outstanding.
posted by lockedroomguy at 8:07 PM on May 8, 2015

If you like YA literature, the Skullduggery Pleasant series fits the bill. The audiobooks are outstanding, read by Rupert Degas.
posted by Nosey Mrs. Rat at 8:18 PM on May 8, 2015

The Felix Castor series by Mike Carey. They are similar in tone and theme to the Hellblazer comics *, but Felix is less of an outrageous bastard, and also has less useful powers. They are also much more detective-y.

* Carey wrote a long run for Hellblazer and two of his minor characters appear in one of the books in slightly different forms.
posted by automatic cabinet at 8:52 PM on May 8, 2015

The novella "A Colder War" by MeFi's Own Charlie Stross blends Lovecraft with Cold War military paranoia.
posted by Rhaomi at 9:43 PM on May 8, 2015

Don Webb is an actual occultist who writes mysteries which involve the occult. The two I've read by him are The Double and Essential Saltes. In the first one, a game designer wakes up to find a dead body in his living room that looks exactly like him. The second one has this weird plot (well, so does the first) that seems to be as much an exegesis of mystical doctrine as it is an investigation. It's really fun to read the kind of story you expect to be the reduction of mystery to explanation, written by a guy who fundamentally believes that mystery is explanation.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 9:47 PM on May 8, 2015

I have recently gotten into Phil Rickman's Merrily Watkins series based on a recommendation elsewhere in MetaFilter. They are incredibly atmospheric and absorbing. The occult elements are in many ways stronger than the mystery elements, but they are complicated and awesome. Haven't read his others but I believe they are good also.
posted by Athanassiel at 10:49 PM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

I came in to recommend Phil Rickman too, also Deborah Crombie's A Finer End. This is part of her series about police detectives Kincaid and James - the other books don't have occult elements.
posted by paduasoy at 12:32 AM on May 9, 2015

I thought Night Film was super fun.
posted by Rinku at 12:48 AM on May 9, 2015

Came in to recommend Carnacki, the Ghost Finder, and am very happy to see it's already been covered.
posted by daisyk at 7:11 AM on May 9, 2015

You definitely want all of the Agent Pendergast novels by Preston & Child. Exactly what you describe, and total page-turners to boot.
posted by jbickers at 7:59 AM on May 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Dennis Wheatley. I've no idea if they're even readable these days.
posted by Leon at 8:03 AM on May 9, 2015

You might try M.R. James:

"James perfected a method of story-telling which has since become known as Jamesian. The classic Jamesian tale usually includes the following elements:

* a characterful setting in an English village, seaside town or country estate; an ancient town in France, Denmark or Sweden; or a venerable abbey or university
* a nondescript and rather naive gentleman-scholar as protagonist (often of a reserved nature)
* the discovery of an old book or other antiquarian object that somehow unlocks, calls down the wrath, or at least attracts the unwelcome attention of a supernatural menace, usually from beyond the grave."
posted by Bourbonesque at 9:14 AM on May 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

There are some elements of the occult in Fritz Lang's 1944 Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene.
posted by Rash at 10:17 AM on May 9, 2015

"The Conjure-Man Dies" by Rudolph Fisher. It's available in the Library of America's Harlem Renaissance Novels of the 1930s and other editions.
posted by maurice at 3:37 PM on May 9, 2015

The White Crow by Cynthia Peale has seances and good descriptions of Boston pre1900.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:59 PM on May 9, 2015

The Dr Siri series by Colin Cotterill - the detective is a coroner but also a shaman. Set in Laos.
posted by ontheradio at 7:11 AM on May 10, 2015

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