Blending Mystery and Speculative Fiction

Thieftaker, which I am publishing under the name D.B. Jackson, comes out one week from tomorrow. Finally. Those of you who know me, or who have been following my posts here at the SFNovelists blog, know that I’ve been writing and talking about this book forever. It certainly seems that way to me. It goes without saying that I want the novel to do well, that I’m pleased it’s gotten some good reviews, and I’m hoping those will translate into brisk sales. Every author wants his or her newest book to be a success; nothing new there. But still, I hope that you’ll check the book out, and of course, I hope you enjoy it. We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog post…

The historical elements of Thieftaker get a lot of attention from reviewers, from Tor marketing, from me. But I have to admit that I am every bit as excited at having written a mystery as I am about having written a historical. For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to write in the mystery genre — one of the very first short stories I wrote as a kid was a murder mystery in which a man stages his own murder in order to get his wife the insurance money. Of course, the plot was about as solid as a house of cards, and his life insurance policy was for $75,000, which seemed like a lot of money when I was ten years old. I still remember my teacher telling me that I needed to add another zero or two. I should have known then that selling insurance would be more lucrative than writing books. But I digress.

Mystery readers tend to like their mysteries undiluted by other genres. Fantasy/SF readers, on the other hand, seem to thoroughly enjoy having mystery mixed in with their speculative fiction. I’m no different. In fact, it seems to me that our genre lends itself to mystery by the very inclusion of fantastic or scientific elements.

Returning to the Thieftaker books for a moment, I have not only used magic to allow my hero to solve crimes that might baffle other thieftakers. I have also used magic as a weapon that is as deadly and precise as that candlestick in the hands of Colonel Mustard (in the conservatory, of course). I didn’t merely wish to add a mystery element to a fantasy story. Rather, I wanted to blend the two genres as fully as possible, so that they would work together and create a novel that would be satisfying to fans of both.

At the risk of stating the obvious, let me say that magic or fictional science should never be used as a deus ex machina to explain away inexplicable mysteries. And of course, we never want to bend the rules of our magic or tech systems in order to make a mystery more difficult to solve. The key to fantasy and science fiction worldbuilding lies in making the speculative aspect of the world — the magic or tech system — as consistent as possible. Like the natural laws of our own world, the laws of such a system must be ironclad. Those of us who read and write fantasy understand that its reputation as a fuzzy genre where “anything goes” is thoroughly undeserved. The magic system in a good fantasy has set rules that do not vary according to narrative exigency. The same is true of tech systems in science fiction.

And so, when we combine these speculative elements with a good old-fashioned mystery, we wind up with something that must still be solved with Holmsian logic, with Spade-esque dedication, with Hammer-like toughness. Because rather than just making the solving part easier, we have in fact made the mystery itself infinitely more complicated, by introducing elements that will further challenge our protagonists. They’re no longer just looking for the woman with the gun, or the guy with the garrote. Now they’re looking for the conjurer who can cast a certain type of killing spell, or the time-traveler with access to a new and deadly form of technology. Oh, yeah — this is the fun stuff.

One of the things I love about speculative fiction in how open our readers are to different types of stories. Yes, most fans of SF and fantasy will gravitate to the spec fic section of the bookstore, or the fantasy/sf listings of an online vendor. But once there, they will be happy to read blends of mystery and fantasy, romance and science fiction, gerbil-erotica and horror — whatever. Because they understand that in the end, it all comes down not to genre, but to story; to narrative and character and setting, the elements that make or break a novel. So those mystery readers who like their mysteries pure can have them. As for me, I’ll be at my computer finding new ways to use magic as a murder weapon.

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There are 5 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. Jessica Meats

    I’ve recently got into the Dresden Files books, which are a brilliant blend of urban fantasy and mystery. They are very much murder mystery novels – it just so happens that the guy solving them is a wizard not a detective.

    In many ways, the City Watch books in Pratchett’s Discworld series are mystery novels more than fantasy.

    The sci-fi & fantasy section of a bookshop will contain mystery, romance, adventure, comedy, thriller and pretty much all the other genres as well, just mixed in with some speculative elements.

  2. 2. David B. Coe

    Jessica, I’ve enjoyed the Dresden books, too, and in fact when we pitched THIEFTAKER to my publisher, our pitch line was “It’s Harry Dresden meets Samuel Adams.” And yes, I agree with you — the SF/Fantasy shelves are filled with all sorts of cross-overs. It’s one of the things I love about our genre. Thanks for the comment.

  3. 3. charleshudgen

    This is a great article of yours. I am enjoying every part of your article. Sci-fi book is my lists of collection when it comes to reading. Keep us updated on your post.

    ________________________
    Books about Science Fiction

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Author Information

David B. Coe

David B. Coe (http://www.DavidBCoe.com) is the Crawford award-winning author of the LonTobyn Chronicle, the Winds of the Forelands quintet, the Blood of the Southlands trilogy, and a number of short stories. Writing as D.B. Jackson (http://www.dbjackson-author.com), he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a blend of urban fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. David is also part of the Magical Words group blog (http://magicalwords.net), and co-author of How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. In 2010 he wrote the novelization of director Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Visit site.

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