Urban Fantasy is a genre full of crime. Not every urban fantasy contains a mystery component, but many, MANY do. When you set your fantasy on regular city streets and remove the epic worldbuilding and plots of large-scale political intrigue and clashing armies (think Tolkien, Martin, etc.) you need something to fill that plot hole. A mystery plot, with its reliable structure of crime, investigation, and resolution is amazingly suited to a blend with fantasy. It is also a plot that lends itself to episodic series, with gradually accumulated world-building allowed to be used over and over again with the same characters, only changing the particular mystery plot du jour.
But the typical fantasy/mystery blend involves either a) amateurs drawn into a criminal investigation or b) a private investigator of some kind. Sometimes the sleuth has a partnership with a more official investigator in the police, but their status as an independent operator is usually a key characteristic of the urban fantasy sleuth. They operate outside the rules and regulations that official law enforcement are bound by. I have many favorite urban fantasy crime solvers of the independent variety: Harry Dresden, October Daye, Rachel Caine, Mercy Thompson, and Kate Daniels among others.
As fun as those series are, there is something appealing about the proper police procedural, with proper cops doing a proper job that pays OK and has a pension and involves filling out forms and following rules. There is an added level of difficulty to their jobs in many ways. Cops have people that they answer to. They must work as a member of a team. They have to adhere to policy and procedure (or at least face consequences when they don’t). As popular as police procedurals have always been in mysteries, the bias in urban fantasy toward independent operators mean that a good cop-led UF is a rare thing. Here are a few that I’ve read and enjoyed and some others I am determined to try soon. Have I missed some good ones? Let me know!
Midnight Riot (Peter Grant, Book 1) by Ben Aaronovitch
This is probably the first police procedural urban fantasy I ever read, and I very much enjoy this series, especially the first three books. It begins with Peter Grant as a probationary Constable with the Metropolitan Police of London. In the course of a routine case he is exposed to the supernatural side of London that very few know about. He is taken under the wing of Detective Chief Inspector Nightingale, a wizard with the police who investigates any crime suspected of having a whiff of the arcane. If you love British mysteries with all those bobbies and inspectors and cups of tea, you should give the Peter Grant series a try.
Dirty Magic (Prospero’s War, Book 1) by Jaye Wells
In the city of Babylon (think eastern blue-collar like Buffalo or Pittsburgh), the cops are fighting a losing battle against the potion peddlers who work the city streets. Kate Prospero was once a scion of one of the most powerful potion-dealing covens, until she stopped stirring potions and joined the Babylon Police Department. A new potion has hit the streets, and Kate’s work on the case lands her a place on a federal task force within the MEA (Magical Enforcement Agency). It’s a dream come true for Kate, but her past is always close behind. The clever way that Wells swaps in potions for drugs and covens for gangs made this series an instant favorite, but it is grumpy, haunted Kate that keeps me coming back.
London Falling by Paul Cornell
London police officers Quill, Costain, Sefton, and Ross are investigating the murder of a local crime boss when they encounter a magical artifact that gives them all the Sight. They use all the police tools and procedures they know to learn about this new supernatural London that has opened up to them, discovering that crimes that seemed mundane before they had the sight were really caused by monsters no one else can see. I thought this was interesting, if a little uneven in tone, but if you like your UF dark with a lot of policework thrown in, this series might just suit.
Cast in Shadow (The Chronicles of Elantra, Book 1) by Michelle Sagara
Leaving the streets of the real world, this series is set in a more epic-y world of human and non-human creatures living together on the streets of the city of Elantra. Kaylin group up in the crime-ridden slum of Nightshade, but pulled herself out and is now a member of the Hawks who police the city. A case involving murdered children from Nightshade pulls Kaylin back to the past, working with a Dragon lord to find the killer before more children die. I loved Kaylin and her efforts to adhere to the discipline required as a Hawk. This is a really good example of official law enforcement in a more traditional fantasy world. There are echoes of our ideas of policing, but it is still richly imaginative and exotic.
The Buried Life by Carrie Patel
Many centuries after the Catastrophe drove humanity underground, those living in the city of Recoletta have grown accustomed to subterranean living and travel. The knowledge of earlier ages is strictly controlled, with books heavily censored and the reading or teaching of history forbidden. When several prominent citizens associated with the directorate of preservation are killed, police inspector Liesl Malone and her rookie partner Rafe Sundar take the case, only to be thrown off it when the politics grow too hot. This debut features high-concept worldbuilding, in a kind of pseudo-regency alternate history. I liked the character of Malone, but the bad guys in this mystery were especially well-done. First in a new series.
Daughter of the Sword (Fated Blades, Book 1) by Steve Bein
Mariko Oshiro is the only woman in an elite unit of the Tokyo Police who is pretty pissed off when she is assigned to a case that seems far from the action she craves: tracking down the culprits who tried to steal an ancient samurai sword. Mariko soon finds that the case is anything but boring as she learns the history of the supposedly magical sword and the curse attached to it. I’ve been wanting to read this for ages, as it looks to combine not only mystery and fantasy but a hefty dose of historical fiction as well.
Mark of the Demon (Kara Gillian, Book 1) by Diana Rowland
As a cop in small Beaulac, Louisiana, detective Kara Gillian has never handled a real homicide case. Her talents as a summoner mean she is the only one who can stop a demonic serial killer but things get complicated when she summons a sexy possibly demonic/possibly angelic creature named Rhyzkahl and tangles with a sexy FBI agent named Ryan Kristoff. I haven’t read this series but I love Rowland’s White Trash Zombie series, so I’ll probably give it a go some day.