Crossing Genres
Science Fiction Mysteries
By: Jennifer Mauck
April 17, 2000
for English 412 at Purdue University

One of the most often overlooked types of mystery fiction is that which is written by science fiction authors, whether actual science fiction or not.  The fact that science fiction mysteries are overlooked in anthologies like Hard-Boiled: An Anthology of American Crime Stories and Crime Fiction: From Poe to the Present suggests that they are not considered to be equal to mystery fiction in other more traditional settings.  The primary separation between science fiction mysteries and contemporary mystery stories is the setting.  Whether the setting is the far distant future, deep space, or heavily steeped in conjectural science, a mystery is a mystery and killer is a killer.  Science fiction is as valid a mode for crime fiction as fiction set in today's world.

Crime fiction written by science fiction authors, though they are not within the spectrum of science fiction, is often overlooked.  Donald Shindler, in an article for The Armchair Detective, states that he finds the hardboiled fiction of Harlan Ellison "an under appreciated commodity" in this genre (209).  Shindler goes on to mention an anthology entitled: Hard-Boiled: An Anthology of American Crime Stories which only mentions Ellison in the introduction and did not include any of his stories (209).  Though most of Ellison's early writing was written for the crime fiction genre, he often sold stories to science fiction and fantasy magazines.  Shindler notes that this is not the only aspect of Ellison's work to be overlooked (210).  Shindler concludes by suggesting that Ellison's writing defies categorization (211).

In an article in The Christian Science Monitor, Michele Ross spoke with Mark Stevens, a mystery bookstore owner, who said he sees a trend in the high-tech thriller (3).  Stevens states that the Internet thriller is slowly becoming more popular "along with science-fiction mysteries" (Ross 3).  Franklet believes that the trend toward the popularity of higher technology in crime fiction is "the reality of the day" but assures the reader that "crime fiction still requires the same things it always has – well-drawn character, interesting settings, clever sleuths" (59).

While discussing a quote from Raymond Chandler’s "The Simple Art of Murder," Malmgren states that a big problem with some murder fiction is a failure to accurately represent murder, what he calls a "lack of verisimilitude" (2).  Malmgren separates "murder fiction" into three subdivisions: mystery, detective, and crime fiction.  Isaac Asimov, in reference to his own work, said he preferred to write "puzzle stories" where the reader is required to think (Shindler, "Mind" 152).  Malmgren's definition of "detective fiction," then does not apply here, however, his definitions of both mystery and crime fiction do.

For Malmgren, the primary feature of a mystery story is that it presupposes a centered world (3).  In Malmgren's meaning, the world is static in terms of social order and human nature.  If the meaning is extended into science, where specific laws of science apply and do not change, a centered world is critical to science fiction.  Malmgren also suggests that the reader's main interest in mystery fiction is not in the characters, but rather in the mystery and its solution (4).  If Asimov's statement about puzzles to be solved is how the reader of his work should look at it, then this aspect of Malmgren's concept of a "mystery story" holds true.  "The conventions of mystery dictate that its world be pre-eminently rational" (Malmgren 4).

"Crime fiction" is based on the criminal's point of view and can be based in either a centered or decentered world (Malmgren 8).  Crime fiction established in the realm of science fiction must be in a centered world.  And as such, the reader is assured that someone will discover the crime and point a finger at the guilty, so that "some sort of justice prevails" (Malmgren 8).  Malmgren also believes that in the crime story, reader interest is not based on the "who," but rather on the why (9).

To investigate Malmgren's definitions and some so-called "rules" of whodunits by Herbert Resnicow in the light of science fiction, three Asimov mysteries will be examined: "The Dust of Death," "The Billiard Ball," and "What's in a Name?" 

In "The Dust of Death," the first part of the story is from the criminal's point of view, while the second part is centered on the discovery of how the murder was committed and by whom.  The victim's name is Llewes, a scientist whose greatest talent is to take credit for other's work.  This angers those who work under him, but quitting is not an option for them because Llewes can make or break their careers (Asimov 117).  At lunch, several people discuss ways they might kill Llewes, but one of the scientists, Edmund Farley, decides he is going to follow through (Asimov 119).  One of Resnicow's cardinal rules is that the crime must be pre-meditated murder by an intelligent and competent amateur (Resnicow 1).  Farley is such a man.  He is intelligent, responsible for a breakthrough for which he desires credit.  He is capable of coming up with what is almost the perfect murder.  He also does not intend to kill again (Resnicow 2).  The police figure, H. Seaton Davenport, is certainly not treated like an idiot, which Resnicow also believes is an important aspect of a good mystery story (2).  Realism is also one of Resnicow's primary rules (2).  This is especially important in science fiction.  Partially, realism is established through the actions and motives of the characters, with whom it is easy to identify.  Additionally, realism is incorporated through the use of hard science: the knowledge of chemical reactions, the precision of the set up for the murder, and use of evidence in the destroyed lab to discover the murderer.  Like Malmgren, Resnicow agrees that there must be a certain ethic involved: good should win and bad should be punished (3).  In this case, Farley's crime is figured out by Davenport and another scientist named Jim Gorham and Farley is apprehended (Asimov 128).  The only "rule" of Resnicow's that this story does not follow is that the murder should not be solved because the murderer makes a mistake (2).  In this case, Farley uses powdered platinum as a catalyst for the reaction which kills Llewes.  However, because of the time he spent on Titan, he placed the dust on the wrong cylinder of gas the first time, forgetting that the reaction would go the other way in Earth's atmosphere (Asimov 120).  This is the only clue that Davenport and Gorham have to go on, and it is because of this that they are able to finger Farley.

In "The Billiard Ball," the main theory concerns anti-gravity.  Though we can never be sure that the murder in this story is pre-meditated, the narrator is almost certain that it is by the end.  The killer, Professor James Priss, also fits Resnicow's idea of the murderer (1).  He is intelligent and his method proves he is more than competent.  James Priss and Edward Bloom are rivals, Priss concerning himself with the theoretical while Bloom put theory into use (Asimov 237).  Priss claimed that there was no way anti-gravity was feasible (Asimov 238).  Bloom decided that he would make it happen, and he did in a demonstration centered on a billiards table (Asimov 247).  The narrator here is a journalist who has talked with both men.  In this story, Resnicow's rule concerning howdunits becomes important (3).  The means by which Priss kills Bloom is intricate, seemingly an accident.  Bloom asks Priss to shoot a billiard ball into the area of anti-gravity he created (Asimov 250).  The ball ends up passing through Bloom, the wall, and out, Priss supposes, into space.  The means by which the ball ended up killing Bloom is based purely in theoretical science, Priss' strong suit.  Priss explains it to the narrator at the end, but he is never apprehended, it is not considered a crime to anyone except the narrator (Asimov 251).  This violates the rule both Malmgren and Resnicow have concerning ethics: no "bad guy" is ever caught.

"What's in a Name?" is not science fiction in the traditional sense.  It heavily involves actual science and is an example of Asimov's non-science fiction mysteries.  In this story, one of the two girls who work in the library is killed with potassium cyanide.  These two girls appear very much alike which results in the confusion of witnesses (Asimov 68).  Again, the killer, Susan Morey, commits pre-meditated murder.  While the police investigate, they are not made out to be idiots (Resnicow 2).  Resnicow also believes that "a killer won't collapse or confess when faces with a minor discrepancy" (2).  This story demonstrates this rule very well.  Morey denies her involvement in the murder of Busch to the very end (Asimov 70).  The ethics referred to by both Malmgren and Resnicow are addressed as well, Morey is arrested for the murder, bad is punished.

None of these stories follow every rule that Resnicow has laid out.  Not every story could stand up to such a rigorous test.    This does not mean that they are not still valid mystery stories.  All three of these stories do have the basics in common: murder, an amateur killer, and a resolution to the mystery.

There are other authors who are writing mystery stories in science fiction settings that are also as valid.  S. V. Date wrote Final Orbit in 1998.  Don D'Ammassa reveals, in a review of the novel, that the murder of an astronaut has occurred in space, and another astronaut must discover who the killer was before he becomes the next victim (41).  This book crosses the near future science fiction setting with traditional mystery.

By looking at the way other people have defined the genre of crime fiction, we can openly compare the basic elements of the genre with examples of science fiction.  These three Asimov stories fulfill many of the rules Herbert Resnicow believes are important.  These stories also fit fairly well into the definitions Carl Malmgren has set forth for "murder fiction."  By bringing the level of criticism down to these elements, it is obvious that at least some science fiction mysteries fit the mold of traditional mysteries, demonstrating that science fiction is a valid mode for crime fiction.

Works Cited

1. Asimov, Isaac.  Asimov's Mysteries.  Greenwich, Connecticut: Fawcett Crest, 1968.

2. D'Ammassa, Don.  "Final Orbit."  Rev. of Final Orbit by S.V. Date.  Science Fiction Chronicle.  19.7-8 1998: 41.

3. Franklet, Duane.  "Cybersleuths: Computers Enter Crime."  The Armchair Detective.  30.1 (1997): 56-59.

4. Malmgren, Carl D.  "Anatomy of murder: Mystery, detective, and crime fiction."  Journal of Popular Culture.  30.4 (1997): 115-136. 

5. Resnicow, Herbert.  "'Rules' for the Classic Whodunit."  Writer.  107.8 (1994): 18-21. 

6. Ross, Michele.  "Mystery Book Trends."  The Christian Science Monitor. 30 Sep. 1996: 10. 

7. Shindler, Dorman T.  "Hardboiled Ellison: The Crime Fiction of Harlan Ellison."  The Armchair Detective.  20.2 (1996): 208-211. 

8. Shindler, Dorman T.  "Mind over Matter: The Mystery Fiction of Isaac Asimov."  The Armchair Detective.  30.2 (1997): 150-152.