15 Best Science Fiction Noir Books

Even in the future, hardboiled detectives will put everything on the line to solve baffling cases of murdered little nobodies that everyone else wants to forget. And despite being filled to the brim with cynicism so thick you could spread it on toast, they’re still driven by a small kernel of integrity that they can’t shake loose, no matter how hard they try.

 

15
Killing Is My Business
by Adam Christopher – 2017

Robot noir in 1960s Los Angeles.

There’s not a lot more you need to know—that either sounds great to you (like it does to me), or you’re already reading the next item on the list.

“Effortlessly swift and clever.”
—NPR

14
Shovel Ready
by Adam Sternbergh – 2014

Spademan used to be a garbage man. That was before the dirty bomb hit Times Square, before his wife was killed, and before the city became a blown-out shell of its former self.

Now he’s a hitman.

In a near-future New York City split between those who are wealthy enough to “tap in” to a sophisticated virtual reality, and those who are left to fend for themselves in the ravaged streets, Spademan chose the streets. When his latest client hires him to kill the daughter of a powerful evangelist, he must navigate between these two worlds—the wasteland reality and the slick fantasy—to finish his job, clear his conscience, and make sure he’s not the one who winds up in the ground.

“Bogart-cool… Razor-sharp… The page-turning mood of Shovel Ready is addictive, by turns death-metal brutal and darkly hilarious.”
—Entertainment Weekly

13
KOP
by Warren Hammond – 2007

When Juno’s family and thousands of others emigrated to the colony world of Lagarto, they were promised a bright future on a planet with a booming economy. But before the colonists arrived, everything changed. An opportunistic Earth-based company developed a way to produce a cheaper version of Lagarto’s main export, thus effectively paupering the planet and all its inhabitants.

Growing up on post-boom Lagarto, Juno is but one of the many who live in despair. Once he was a young cop in the police department of the capital city of Koba. That was before he started taking bribes from Koba’s powerful organized crime syndicate. Yet despite his past sins, some small part of him has not given up hope. So he risks his life, his marriage, and his job to expose a cabal that would enslave the planet for its own profit.

But he’s got more pressing problems, when he’s confronted with a dead man, a short-list of leads, and the obligatory question: who done it? Set up for a fall, partnered with a beautiful young woman whose main job is to betray him, and caught in a squeeze between the police chief and the crooked mayor, Juno is a compelling, sympathetic hero on a world that has no heroes.

12
Pashazade
by Jon Courtenay Grimwood – 2001

It’s a twenty-first century hauntingly familiar, and yet startlingly different from our own. Here, the United States brokered a deal that ended World War I, and the Ottoman Empire never collapsed. And lording it over all sits the complex, seductive, and bloodthirsty North African metropolis of El Iskandryia. Almost nothing is what it seems to be in El Isk, and Raf is no exception.

Neither is the rich Ottoman aristocrat everyone thinks he is, nor the minor street criminal once shipped off to prison when he fell foul of his Chinese Triad employers—Raf has as little idea who he is as anyone else.

With few clues and no money, Raf has only a surname hinting at noble heritage and an arranged marriage to a woman who hates him. But nothing he learns about himself is as unexpected—or as terrifying—as the brutal murder he’s accused of committing. Now, as a hunted man with the welfare of a precocious young girl in his irresponsible hands, Raf must race after a killer through an unforgiving city as foreign to him as the truth he’ll uncover about himself.

“All brilliant light and scorching heat… Grimwood has successfully mingled fantasy with reality to make an unusual, believable, and absorbing mystery.”
—Sunday Telegraph

11
Red Planet Blues
by Robert J. Sawyer – 2013

The name’s Lomax, Alex Lomax. I’m the one and only private eye working the mean streets of New Klondike, the Martian frontier town that sprang up forty years ago after Simon Weingarten and Denny O’Reilly discovered fossils on the Red Planet. Back on Earth, where anything can be synthesized, the remains of alien life are the most valuable of all collectibles, so shiploads of desperate treasure hunters stampeded here in the Great Martian Fossil Rush.

I’m trying to make an honest buck in a dishonest world, tracking down killers and kidnappers among the failed prospectors, the corrupt cops, and a growing population of transfers—lucky stiffs who, after striking paleontological gold, upload their minds into immortal android bodies. But when I uncover clues to solving the decades-old murders of Weingarten and O’Reilly, along with a journal that may lead to their legendary mother lode of Martian fossils, God only knows what I’ll dig up…

“[A] highly original and fun way to pay homage to the great hard-boiled detectives of the past.”
—seattlepi.com

10
The Demolished Man
by Alfred Bester – 1952

Winner of the first Hugo Award

In a world policed by telepaths, Ben Reich plans to commit a crime that hasn’t been heard of in 70 years: murder. That’s the only option left for Reich, whose company is losing a 10-year death struggle with rival D’Courtney Enterprises. Terrorized in his dreams by The Man With No Face and driven to the edge after D’Courtney refuses a merger offer, Reich murders his rival and bribes a high-ranking telepath to help him cover his tracks. But while police prefect Lincoln Powell knows Reich is guilty, his telepath’s knowledge is a far cry from admissible evidence.

“One of the all-time classics of science fiction.”
—Isaac Asimov

9
The Automatic Detective
by A. Lee Martinez – 2008

Even in Empire City, a town where weird science is the hope for tomorrow, it’s hard for a robot to make his way. It’s even harder for a robot named Mack Megaton, a hulking machine designed to bring mankind to its knees. But Mack’s not interested in world domination. He’s just a bot trying to get by, trying to demonstrate that he isn’t just an automated smashing machine, and to earn his citizenship in the process. It should be as easy as crushing a tank for Mack, but some bots just can’t catch a break.

When Mack’s neighbors are kidnapped, Mack sets off on a journey through the dark alleys and gleaming skyscrapers of Empire City. Along the way, he runs afoul of a talking gorilla, a brainy dame, a mutant lowlife, a little green mob boss, and the secret conspiracy at the heart of Empire’s founders—not to mention more trouble than he bargained for. What started out as one missing family becomes a battle for the future of Empire and every citizen that calls her home.

“Martinez tickles the funny bone in this delightful, fast-paced mishmash of SF and hard-boiled detective story… A smart, rocket-fast read with a clever, twisty plot that comes to a satisfying conclusion.”
―Publishers Weekly (starred review)

8
Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
by Haruki Murakami – 1985

Across two parallel narratives, Murakami draws readers into a mind-bending universe in which Lauren Bacall, Bob Dylan, a split-brained data processor, a deranged scientist, his shockingly undemure granddaughter, and various thugs, librarians, and subterranean monsters collide to dazzling effect. What emerges is a novel that is at once hilariously funny and a deeply serious meditation on the nature and uses of the mind.

“He has become the foremost representative of a new style of Japanese writing: hip, cynical, highly stylized, set at the juncture of cyberpunk, postmodernism, and hard-boiled detective fiction… Murakami [is] adept at deadpan wit, outrageous style.”
—Los Angeles Times Magazine

7
Aurora Rising
by Alastair Reynolds – 2007

Tom Dreyfus is a Prefect, a law enforcement officer with the Panoply. His beat is the Glitter Band, that vast swirl of space habitats orbiting the planet Yellowstone, the teeming hub of a human interstellar empire spanning many worlds.

His current case: investigating a murderous attack against one of the habitats that leaves nine hundred people dead. But his investigation uncovers something far more serious than mass slaughter: a covert plot by an enigmatic entity who seeks nothing less than total control of the Glitter Band.

“[A] fascinating hybrid of space opera, police procedural and character study.”
—Publishers Weekly

6
When Gravity Fails
by George Alec Effinger – 1987

In a decadent world of cheap pleasures and easy death, Marid Audrian has kept his independence the hard way. Still, like everything else in the Budayeen, he’s available for a price.

For a new kind of killer roams the streets of the Arab ghetto, a madman whose bootlegged personality cartridges range from a sinister James Bond to a sadistic disemboweler named Khan. And Marid Audrian has been made an offer he can’t refuse. The 200-year-old godfather of the Budayeen’s underworld has enlisted Marid as his instrument of vengeance. But first Marid must undergo the most sophisticated of surgical implants before he dares to confront a killer who carries the power of every psychopath since the beginning of time.

“[T]erse, direct, vivid and often laced with an enchanting sense of humor… gives you a real sense of what it’s like to be an old-fashioned gumshoe in the seedy backreaches of a futuristic Arab nation.”
―The Providence Sunday Journal

5
Leviathan Wakes
by James S.A. Corey – 2011

Space opera combined with noir. I love this book and the whole Expanse series.

Jim Holden is XO of an ice miner making runs from the rings of Saturn to the mining stations of the Belt. When he and his crew stumble upon a derelict ship, the Scopuli, they find themselves in possession of a secret they never wanted. A secret that someone is willing to kill for—and kill on a scale unfathomable to Jim and his crew. War is brewing in the system unless he can find out who left the ship and why.

Detective Miller is looking for a girl. One girl in a system of billions, but her parents have money and money talks. When the trail leads him to the Scopuli and rebel sympathizer Holden, he realizes that this girl may be the key to everything.

Holden and Miller must thread the needle between the Earth government, the Outer Planet revolutionaries, and secretive corporations—and the odds are against them. But out in the Belt, the rules are different, and one small ship can change the fate of the universe.

“This is the future the way it was supposed to be.”
—The Wall Street Journal

4
Yiddish Policemen's Union
by Michael Chabon – 2007

For sixty years, Jewish refugees and their descendants have prospered in the Federal District of Sitka, a “temporary” safe haven created in the wake of the Holocaust and the shocking 1948 collapse of the fledgling state of Israel. The Jews of the Sitka District have created their own little world in the Alaskan panhandle, a vibrant and complex frontier city that moves to the music of spoken Yiddish. But now the District is set to revert to Alaskan control, and their dream is coming to an end.

“Should any other snobs mistake Chabon for anything less than a real writer, this book offers new evidence of his peerless storytelling and style.”
—Publishers Weekly

3
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
by Philip K. Dick – 1968

The inspiration for Blade Runner.

By 2021, the World War has killed millions, driving entire species into extinction and sending mankind off-planet. Those who remain covet any living creature, and for people who can’t afford one, companies build incredibly realistic simulacra: horses, birds, cats, sheep. They’ve even built humans. Immigrants to Mars receive androids so sophisticated they are indistinguishable from true men or women. Fearful of the havoc these artificial humans can wreak, the government bans them from Earth. Driven into hiding, unauthorized androids live among human beings, undetected. Rick Deckard, an officially sanctioned bounty hunter, is commissioned to find rogue androids and “retire” them. But when cornered, androids fight back—with lethal force.

“A kind of pulp-fiction Kafka, a prophet.”
—The New York Times

2
Gun, with Occasional Music
by Jonathan Lethem – 1994

It’s easy to be a hero when you’re saving the entire world or galaxy or species. Which is why the hard-boiled detectives are the most heroic characters out there. They’re not out to ram the bad guy’s spaceship. More likely, they’re trying to find justice for a murdered little nobody, or get an intensely offensive (but innocent) man out of jail.

This dogged deathgrip on principle directs the actions of private detective Conrad Metcalfe in a bizarre future world populated by talking animals, drugs for all, and the most authoritative state I’ve ever come across. It’s dark, funny, fast-paced, clever, and chilling.

“Marvelous… Stylish, intelligent, darkly humorous and highly readable entertainment.”
—San Francisco Examiner

1
Altered Carbon
by Richard K. Morgan – 2002

In the twenty-fifth century, humankind has spread throughout the galaxy, monitored by the watchful eye of the U.N. While divisions in race, religion, and class still exist, advances in technology have redefined life itself. Now, assuming one can afford the expensive procedure, a person’s consciousness can be stored in a cortical stack at the base of the brain and easily downloaded into a new body (or “sleeve”), making death nothing more than a minor blip on a screen.

Ex-U.N. envoy Takeshi Kovacs has been killed before, but his last death was particularly painful. Dispatched one hundred eighty light-years from home, re-sleeved into a body in Bay City (formerly San Francisco, now with a rusted, dilapidated Golden Gate Bridge), Kovacs is thrown into the dark heart of a shady, far-reaching conspiracy that is vicious even by the standards of a society that treats “existence” as something that can be bought and sold.

“A fascinating trip… Pure high-octane science fiction mixes with the classic noir private-eye tale.”
—Orlando Sentinel

9 thoughts on “15 Best Science Fiction Noir Books

  1. It’s a good list. I’d add The Last Policeman, by Ben Winters. The end of the world is imminent but Detective Hank Palace is doing his job, investigating a death in a city that sees a dozen suicides every week. It may be murder, and Palace is the only cop who cares. It’s the first book in a trilogy and each book in the series is excellent in its own way.

  2. Great list. And I love the Last Policeman trilogy. Can I add the Finder series? Chimera Catalyst and Singularity Syndrome.

    In near-future California, pandemics and climate change keep most people isolated. When the CEO of a technology company begins going outside and dancing with strangers, his wife hires a misanthropic detective to save him and the company. He uncovers a plot to subjugate humanity to the rule of an AI. When he becomes contaminated, the case gets personal. A classic detective novel meets a speculative future.

  3. I am looking for the title of a dark sci-fi novel I read about 6 years ago. It was about a policeman whose family is murdered and he is a suspect. I can’t remember much but somehow his ancestors are immortal and they try to recruit him. Ring any bells?

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