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Murder in a Strange Land: Books that Blend Science Fiction and Crime Fiction

Jan 07, 2014 in Fiction, Guest Posts

Our favorite books are the ones that surprise us, either by deviating from the clichés of crime fiction, reclaiming those motifs in fresh new ways, or blurring the boundary between genres. Thomas Sweterlisch—whose terrific debut scifi-noir novel, Tomorrow and Tomorrow, will be published in July—shares with us a list of a dozen books that bridge the gap between science fiction and crime fiction.

Crime writers have perfected the art of fusing the mechanics of plot to explorations of the human condition, so it comes as no surprise that crime and mystery novels often serve as the primary influence for some of the greatest science fiction writing.  Narrowing down a list of novels that blend science fiction with mystery writing is difficult—so, please, if I’ve left out a great book, let me know!—but here is a list of twelve of my favorites:

The City and The City by China Miéville

The City and The City by China Miéville

A young woman’s corpse is found in a rubbish-strewn skate park near the docks of a city called Besźel.  he senior detective on scene is Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad, but what begins as an investigation into this woman’s death escalates into an international conspiracy involving Besźel’s neighboring city, Ul Qoma—two cities separated by fierce political and cultural differences. Or are they, in fact, the same city? Miéville’s brilliant procedural is set in this labyrinthine world of overlapping cities, lending a Borgesian complexity to a story of crime and conspiracy.

Gun, with Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem

Gun, with Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem

Early in his career, Jonathan Lethem wrote genre-bending science fiction that was as equally bleak as it was comic. “Gun, with Occasional Music” torques Chandleresque P.I. fiction into a future California where Conrad Metcalf tracks the wife of a doctor who soon turns up dead—a classic set up for a private eye. Metcalf is forced to negotiate government-sponsored mind control, tracking his own “karma points” and dealing with highly evolved animals that can walk and talk, including a kangaroo hit man—problems Marlowe never had to deal with.

I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl: Poems by Karyna McGlynn

I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl: Poems by Karyna McGlynn

One of the most compelling collections of poetry I’ve ever read, this book has haunted my imagination for quite some time. These poems distill the essence of noir and the mind-bending sense of fragmented identity of the best time travel narratives. Highly recommended.   

The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq

The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq

Houellebecq is among the most challenging and brilliant writers of our time—many of his works use science fiction tropes to explore sexuality, religion, science and death. The Map and the Territory is Houellebecq’s most accessible book, an examination of visual art told through the story of Jed Martin, a world-famous painter preparing for a show of new works. Although this book is neither science fiction nor a mystery novel per se, it uses elements of both—a near future setting that speculates on art’s role in our current and future society, and the investigation of a startling and gruesome murder that drives the book to its conclusion.

The Nova Trilogy by William Burroughs

The Nova Trilogy (The Soft Machine, The Ticket that Exploded, Nova Express) by William Burroughs

Radical in his use of experimental technique and graphic sexual content, Burroughs remains one of the most influential literary figures of the past century—playing an important role in Beat poetics, “postmodern” fiction, New Wave science fiction and Cyberpunk.  Following his most famous novel, The Naked Lunch, The Nova Trilogy is Burroughs’ masterpiece of the “cut up” method of writing, in which he cut apart and randomly rearranged passages of his own writing to recombine language into startling effects. The plot of the Nova Trilogy follows the Nova Police as they track the Nova Mob, a cops and robbers parable set in a media-nightmare dystopia that serves as an exploration into addiction and recovery, while at the same time interrogating the mechanisms of societal control.

El Borbah by Charles Burns

El Borbah by Charles Burns

Widely known for his darkly surreal take on teenage angst and sexuality in the graphic novel Black Hole, Charles Burns’s earlier work includes a comic strip about El Borbah, a private detective drawn like a mashup of King Kong Bundy and a Luchador, solving crimes in a Mike Hammer punch-first-ask-questions-later style that takes him through a science fiction crimescape of criminal androids, perverts and mutants.

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

Gaining popular success and critical acclaim with her noir-infused science fiction novels Moxyland and Zoo City, Beukes’s most recent book, The Shining Girls, refracts the serial-killer thriller through the lens of time-travel science fiction. The novel is polyphonic as we meet the horrific Harper Curtis and his various “shining girls,” young women of different historical eras that form the insane constellation of Curtis’s lust for blood—including Kirby, the one shining girl who managed to survive Curtis’s attack, now tracking her would-be killer through time.

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

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

Famous as the inspiration for Blade Runner, Dick’s novel is a somber and philosophically reflective story about a bounty hunter charged with retiring escaped Nexus-6 androids by testing their levels of empathy, the only characteristic that still sets humans and androids apart.  Less hard-boiled in tone than Blade Runner, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? utilizes the detective narrative to not only ignite the plot, but to ask questions about desire and what it means to be human. Essential reading.

The Last Policeman by Ben Winters

The Last Policeman by Ben Winters

The Last Policeman is a procedural following a thoughtful detective, Henry Palace, as he investigates the ostensible suicide of a depressed man, Peter Zell—only in this story, the procedural plays out against the background of an asteroid on a collision course with Earth, set to strike in a matter of months and almost certain to wipe out all life on the planet.  Winters refrains from playing up sordid violence or the mayhem of a disaster movie, but wisely focuses on the detective as he puzzles out what exactly a man’s life is worth.

Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan

Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan

Fans of Spillane, Chandler and Hammett will recognize the setup: a hard-as-nails private investigator is coerced by a wealthy old man to track down a killer—but Morgan sets this hardboiled mystery in the far future, where “resleeving” (the ability to download consciousness into a new body) is commonplace. The first in the popular Takeshi Kovacs series of mysteries, Altered Carbon keeps the narrative raw-knuckled and brutal.

Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami

Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami

Told in alternating chapters, the driving plot of this dreamlike novel concerns a Calcutec, one of the agents of The System, involved in an infowar against the Semiotecs of The Factory; it is also the story of a man who finds himself in a strange walled city, tasked to read the dreams from the skulls of unicorns. Indebted to Chandler, Hammett and The Maltese Falcon as well as Cyberpunk, this novel is quintessential Murakami, full of hallucinogenic imagery, pop-culture intelligence and middle-aged ennui.    

Neuromancer by William Gibson

Neuromancer by William Gibson

One of the most startlingly original and influential novels written in the twentieth-century, Gibson’s Neuromancer is the essential Cyberpunk text, credited with coining the term “cyberspace” and glimpsing into the future of the internet, here called the “Matrix.” Amidst visionary descriptions of networked computer systems and the rise of a self-aware Artificial-Intelligence, Neuromancer is, at its core, a heist novel—the main character, a “console cowboy” computer hacker named Case, is hired by an ex-military man named Armitage to carry off a seemingly impossible theft.      

What’s missing from this list? Let us know in the comments!

5 Responses »

  1. You should add ‘Necropolis’ by Michael Dempsey. It is excellent and deserves more attention. It begins in the year 2012 with NYPD detective Paul Donner and his wife Elise being killed in a quick-mart. It then jumps 50 years in the future, where the ‘Shift’ has occurred that has caused DNA in some corpses to reverse and begin aging backwards. These newly reborn people (derogatively called ‘Reebs’) are the new underclass in New York City, which has been quarantined in a bubble referred to as “the Blister”. When Paul’s body starts to regenerate his body is removed from his grave and rushed to a hospital. Upon release Paul finds a purpose in this new and confusing world by researching his death and trying to track down his killer.

  2. That’s a great list, but there’s a lot of great genre-crossing fiction out there. What’s missing? Just some examples:

    Halting State, by Charles Stross.
    More than one of Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels.
    The End of Eternity, by Isaac Asimov (a mystery).
    Richard Paul Russo’s Carlucci novels (a cop in a dystopian future San Francisco).

  3. The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester – very hardboiled SF

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