June 25th 2012
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.
David B. Coe
David B. Coe is the author of eleven fantasy novels, including the books of the LonTobyn Chronicle, Winds of the Forelands, and Blood of the Southlands. He has also written the novelization for the Ridley Scott production of ROBIN HOOD, starring Russell Crowe, that is due out in May 2010. In 1999 he received the Crawford Fantasy Award, given annually by the IAFA to the best new author in fantasy. He has a Ph.D. in United States environmental history and lives on the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee with his wife and daughters. Visit site.
- featured posts
- For Novelists
- Hard SF
- learning to write
- Mindy Klasky
- Not Remotely Writing Related
- our authors
- our books
- publicity and promotion
- publishing trends
- the business of writing
- women in SF
- writing humor
- writing life
- writing process
Browse our archives: