Monday, September 13, 2010
Detectives in Speculative Fiction
As part of Speculative Fiction Blogging week, I’m presented with a delightful opportunity to reflect on the close links between by twin writing passions: mystery and speculative genres. Obviously, there are far more examples of non-speculative mysteries and indeed speculative fiction that does not have a crime or detective at the heart of the tale, but the intersection of the two genres is one I find fascinating. The origins of the mystery story seem to be firmly rooted in the wonder and language of myth and wonder. The word ‘detective’ is derived from the Latin ‘detegere’, meaning to ‘reveal’, and it was this power to uncover people’s secrets that made both fictional and real detectives figures of a conflicted fascination in the Victorian era. A detective could be a hero with a genius for discovering the truth, but they could also be viewed by those around them as a terrible monster who possessed the power to intrude into private lives and worse yet, send an innocent to the gallows. The character of the detective was even likened by some writers with the Asmodeus, a demon who had the power to reveal people’s secrets and who took Don Cleofas for a night flight, taking the roofs off houses to spy on the private lives inside. According to the novelist Jules Janin ‘the Devil Asmodeus is the Devil of Observation’. Detectives were characters as mysterious as the cases they solved. Their incredible skills and powers of seeing the unseen could appear almost supernatural at times, making them both greatly admired and feared at the same time. In Bleak House, Inspector Bucket comments that detectives are viewed as ‘Angel and devil by turns’. The word ‘clue’ likewise has mythological associations. It derived from the word ‘clew’, a ball of thread or yarn, but took its modern meaning from the myth of Theseus solving the Minotaur’s labyrinth by following the trail of thread. Early detective novels such as Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White used the imagery of Theseus in their mysteries. “I thought I had my hand on the clue. How little I knew, then, of the windings of the labyrinth which were still to mislead me!” For me, one of the strongest links between mystery and speculative fiction is the fascination with the unknown. At the heart of both types of story lies the exploration of human nature, often the darker sides of people as well as their potential for heroic qualities such as determination, intelligence and their desire to seek out truth. Both often feature the mythic archetypes: the hero and the monster. Detectives, like Theseus, must unravel the ‘dark and doubtful way’ through the mystery and discover the murderous monster at its centre. Indeed many of the greats of the first generation of mystery writers also wrote speculative fiction. Edgar Allen Poe wrote possibly the first detective story The Murders of the Rue Morgue, a tale which conjures up all the dark atmosphere and lurking suspense of his horror stories. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the famous Sherlock Holmes, also wrote SF such as The Lost World and The Poison Belt, featuring Professor Challenger. The suggestion of the supernatural also appears in some of his mysteries, most notably my favourite of his novels, The Hound of the Baskervilles. The crossover between the genres is often seen in Science Fiction detective stories. Certainly a lot of cyberpunk stories I’ve read have a strong noir feel and feature detective characters that are reminiscent of Chandler’s world-weary gumshoes. I recently discovered Isaac Asimov’s Black Widower’s club stories which are excellent examples that the SF master is also a brilliant writer of mysteries. I suppose another reason why I have personally associated the two genres with each other is that many of the books I read as a child employed elements of the both. Several of the Young Adult books by two of my favourite New Zealand authors, Maurice Gee and Margaret Mahy, feature intriguing human mysteries as well as supernatural elements, and their protagonists are frequently intrepid youngsters who search out the truth. I’ve been excited by recent speculative mysteries in New Zealand fiction. Two stories in the excellent anthology ‘A Foreign Country – New Zealand Speculative Fiction’ are detective tales. Dale Elvy’s Night Shift is a compelling blend of noir and fantasy and Lee Murray’s Consumed is a chilling story of murder set in near-future New Zealand. I’m looking forward to reading Karen Healey’s upcoming YA book, Summerton, which sounds like a great combination of mystery and speculative elements in a fictional New Zealand town. As a devotee of both mystery and speculative fiction, it’s great to see fellow New Zealand writers embracing both genres in their work. Arguably all stories are just part of wonderful melting pot of fiction and genre is becoming an elastic concept, with emerging terms such as ‘slip-stream’ and ‘magic realism’ blurring the division between ‘literature’ and ‘fantasy’. Now we also have authors like Kate Atkinson proving with her Jackson Brodie novels that her mysteries are every bit as ‘literary’ as her Whitbread-winning ‘Literature’ and authors like Audrey Niffenegger getting people who claim they don’t like SF to read The Time-traveller’s Wife. Hopefully this is all an indication that we’re moving out of the ‘genre versus literature’ mindset. Personally, I find the cross-over between mystery and speculative stories an inspiring and exciting one. Whilst I will continue to read and write the two genres separately as well, there is a fascinating and dynamic potential in the fusion of the two. Perhaps all speculative fiction and mysteries can have their origins traced back to the earliest stories of myth and legend, but I like that there is an apparent confluence of the two in the great novels, emerging out of the nineteenth century. Many authors from the era were influential on both the speculative and detective genres, and our modern ideas about what makes a book a mystery novel or a SF/fantasy/horror novel comes back to the traditions they established.