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
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
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
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
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. Continue reading ›
Experience V.M. Straka’s Ship of Theseus in a way the author could never have imagined: as a downloadable audiobook. Award-winning actor Grame Malcolm reads the forgotten classic from 1949, in which a mysterious figure, known only as S., struggles to discover, remember, or invent his identity.
Sample the audiobook below—and who knows? Perhaps by listening, you’ll be able to contribute to the conversation about Straka that unfolds in the margins of S., created by J.J. Abrams and written by Doug Dorst.
Rob W. Hart—associate publisher of MysteriousPress.com, class director of LitReactor, and all-around friend of Mulholland—knows his crime fiction. We’d wager he’s read a fair bit of it. And when you read a lot within a genre, you begin to notice some familiar signposts… Today on our blog, Rob lists his crime fiction bugbears.
Any cliché can be twisted and reinvented so that it’s fresh and exciting. Clichés can serve as enduring and comfortable tropes that remind us why we love the crime fiction genre.
But that’s not always the case—sometimes they can be tired rehashes of scenarios and traits that have been done to death, resurrected, and then killed again.
Here are, from my vantage point, the top ten clichés that continually pop up in crime fiction.
1. The deep and intense relationship with alcohol.
Has there ever been a private investigator or a hard-boiled protagonist who didn’t drown his or her feelings in a bottle? Bonus points if that alcohol is amber and smoky. Vices are fun, but too often, they’re overused as a defining characteristic.
2. The deep and intense relationship with music.
A lot of authors name-check musicians. In crime fiction it’s almost always jazz or the blues. Again, amber and smoky. Where’s the polka? The Norwegian death metal? It would be great to see some characters with a little range.
3. The uptight female character as potential sex toy.
If a prudish but pretty woman meets the male protagonist in the first 50 pages of a story, you know they’ll end up having sex. It’ll be liberating for her, a moment of vulnerability for him—and the author will get to work out some deep-seated sexual fantasy. Everyone wins!
4. The Sherlock-type figure.
A protagonist who is brilliant, quirky, and seemingly infallible… save his or her inability to relate to people. Usually accompanied by a level-headed but easily-flustered accomplice, who serves the dual purpose of sounding board and conduit to the human race. Sound familiar?
5. All (broken) families are alike…
Cops, private detectives, spies—they’re all haunted. They’ve faced the worst of humanity, and sometimes their own mortality, and it leaves them broken. You’d think they would seek comfort for that breakage in their families—instead they push them away, for dramatic effect.
6. Everyone has daddy issues.
Daddy issues are an easy way to explain away prickish behavior. Got a protagonist with a fresh mouth, or who is quick to throw a punch? Just factor in some abuse by a father figure, and it’s like a free pass—you can’t really blame them right? And thusly, a dark character attribute turns into a storytelling crutch.
7. The snitch as cannon fodder.
You know that joke about how it was always the crewmembers in red shirts who were killed on Star Trek? In crime fiction it’s the snitch. They’re a safe kill—not so virtuous that we really feel bad, not so integral to the main cast that we’re terribly shocked. But they’ve usually got a strong enough relationship with the protagonist that you know some bloody vengeance is coming down the pike.
8. The narrator goes native.
How often do you see this? The protagonist needs intel or supplies, so they go someplace that’s clearly not on their turf. Say, a black or Latino neighborhood. There’s an elder-type figure or gang leader who gives the protagonist a pass, because they have some sort of shared history or mutual respect. And we all learn a valuable lesson about equality.
9. The bad guy gets captured on purpose.
This is especially useful if you want to give the villain a little more time to monologue, on their twisted philosophy or dastardly plan. And when the tables turn—oh, the drama!
10. The brilliant serial killer.
Maybe we should call this one Hannibal Lecter-type figure. It certainly goes hand-in-hand with the Sherlock-type figure. Done well once, hammered into the ground after that. Bonus points if the brilliant serial killer is quick to irrational anger, or has some kind of personal history with the protagonist.
Those are mine. What do you think are the biggest clichés in crime fiction? Share in the comments or tweet @robwhart.
Today the newest adventure in Don Mann and Ralph Pezzullo’s SEAL Team Six series featuring Captain Thomas Crocker lands in bookstores, and reviewers are saying it “delivers exactly what fans want” (Publishers Weekly) and “puts the reader in the center of the action—the smells, sounds, savagery of war” (Kirkus Reviews). Below is an excerpt from Hunt the Falcon—enjoy, and don’t blame us if your heart starts racing!
Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers, but to be fearless in facing them. —Rabindranath Tagore
John and Lenora Rinehart had just watched their thirteen-year-old son Alex dress himself for the first time. It was a special morning. Usually days at the Rinehart house started with a delicate dance, determined by their son’s moods.
Just because his son Alex was autistic didn’t mean he wasn’t smart, John Rinehart reminded himself as his shoes met the uneven surface of the slate walk and he punched the electronic button that opened the door to his dark blue Saab 900. His son was exceptional in the IQ department. But his brain’s ability to control the warp-speed flow of information, and his emotional impulses, was out of whack. When it didn’t work the way Alex wanted it to, the boy got frustrated. And when he got frustrated, he got mad as hell. Screaming, beat-the-shit-out-of-whatever-he-could-get-his-hands-on angry sometimes.
Ask him to find the positive difference of the fourth power of two consecutive positive integers that must be divisible by one more than twice the larger integer? No problem. But little things like buttoning a shirt or fastening a zipper often tripped him up.
“Little things…little victories,” forty-two-year-old John Rinehart said as he reached across the console between the front seats and squeezed his wife Lena’s hand.
She smiled past the straight black bangs that almost brushed her eyes and said, “I credit Alex’s new school. It’s been a major positive.”
“Yes,” John whispered back. His heart felt like it might leap out of his chest with delight.
John felt things strongly. Like his son. Sometimes so strongly that it scared him and he, too, had to fight hard to control himself.
His half-Asian wife was the more emotionally balanced of the two. She understood that tomorrow morning might be completely different; that life with a child like Alex was unpredictable at best.
John found it much harder to let go of the hope that his son would one day lead a normal life. He kept looking for a path, or an unopened doorway in his son’s psyche, that would lead to that result. Which made sense, because part of what he did for a living as the economic counselor at the U.S. embassy was to look for patterns of activity and use them to try to predict future events—Chinese-Thai trade, baht volatility, Thai-U.S. trading algorithms.
He was a brilliant man who studied the world and saw tendencies, vectors, roads traveled, like the one he steered the highly polished car onto now, into the knot of cars, trucks, motorcycles, and bicycles on what the Thais called Thanon Phetchaburi.
He’d learned to expect the eight-mile ride to the embassy to take forty minutes because of the traffic, but he didn’t mind. It gave him and his wife a chance to listen to music and spend some quiet time together.
This morning he didn’t want to think about the embassy where she also worked, as an administrative assistant in the CIA station. Nor did he want to consider the problems he’d deal with when he got there.
Instead he listened as Stan Getz played a smooth, moving “Body and Soul” over the stereo, and he hummed along, feeling unusually optimistic and calm. He even entertained the possibility that when his tour in Thailand ended in a year, he would return to teaching. Maybe even accept the position on the faculty of University of California, Berkeley that had been offered him a little while back. Lena would like that.
The sky above was a murky, almost iridescent yellow. Bangkok was a surreal blend of staggeringly beautiful and disgusting, rich and poor, spiritual and depraved, all living pressed together. He found the yin-yang dynamic of the city fascinating.
Adjusting the air-conditioning, he turned to his wife. “I’m proud of you, darling,” he said.
“I’m proud of you. And Alex, too.”
“Our Alex,” he added.
Through the windshield John noticed a battered blue truck squeezing into the little space between his front bumper and the Nissan taxi four feet to the right. He applied the brake, hit the horn, then turned to his wife.
He noticed the way the light accentuated her cheekbones, then out of the corner of his right eye glimpsed a motorcycle near the back bumper. Two helmets, both black with mirrored visors. The driver and rider looked like aliens.
Past the soaring saxophone solo and through the soundproof door panels, he heard a metal click. Seconds later the motorcycle roared past, narrowly avoiding a bus.
He was thinking about the first time he had seen Lena, standing near the entrance to the Georgetown University library. She was a sophomore; he was pursuing a master’s degree in economics.
He remembered how he had stopped to ask her for directions to White-Gravenor Hall even though he knew where it was. And how when she turned, he was struck by her beauty, and the strength and intelligence in her eyes.
John Rinehart opened his mouth to tell Lena how he had felt at that moment, how certain he had been that something important was happening. But before he could get the words out, the small but powerful explosive device that had been magnetically attached to the car’s rear fender exploded, tearing through the chassis, igniting the high-octane fuel in the gas tank and causing the car to burst into flames.
John and Lenora Rinehart were dead within seconds. Another eight poor souls riding bicycles and motorbikes in the vicinity also died. Twenty-three were seriously injured.
This wonderful list of top noir novels comes to Mulholland Books courtesy of Reed Farrel Coleman. Tell us in the comments how many of these books you’ve read…and let us know of any omissions!
Red Cat by Peter Spiegelman
From one of the great underappreciated writers in the crime fiction genre. Red Cat has it all, including the sexiest cover image ever. But the real magic is in the writing. The best dovetailing of plot and subplot I have been fortunate to come across. A masterful PI story of blackmail, performance art, sex, and dysfunctional families.
The Shanghai Moon by SJ Rozan
Sometimes the best books about the Holocaust are not set in Europe. That is surely the case in The Shanghai Moon, a novel set in today’s New York Chinatown and in Shanghai’s Jewish Ghetto circa WWII. It is a heartbreaking tale of murder, robbery, romance, and myth drawn with Rozan’s deft and evocative hand. Why this book didn’t garner more attention is a mystery worthy of Lydia Chin and Bill Smith. Continue reading ›