“The One-Month Retirement” (by Nick Mamatas)

Nick Mamatas is the author of several novels, including Move Under Ground, I Am Providence, and The Second Shooter. His short fiction has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories, Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, and dozens of other venues. He has also edited or co-edited several anthologies, including Haunted Legends, The Future is Japanese, Mixed Up, and Wonder and Glory Forever. Nick’s fiction and editorial work has been variously nominated for the Hugo, World Fantasy, Bram Stoker, Locus, and Shirley Jackson awards. His tale “Pink Squirrel” appears in our current issue. Here, he offers some reflections on the intersections between speculative fiction and crime fiction—both the genres and the general community.—Janet Hutchings

As it says in the little author’s note atop my story “Pink Squirrel” in the Jan/Feb 2021 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, I am a “widely published author of science fiction and horror”—note that widely published is not the same as widely read!—who occasionally ventures into crime fiction. In fact, in January of 2013, fed up with the many issues that plague the field of speculative fiction, I declared my retirement from the lectern at KGB Bar in Manhattan’s East Village. No more SF/F/H, just crime fiction and experimental fiction from Nick from now on! Take that, science fiction.

Three weeks later, in February 2013, my wife had an announcement of her own: we were having a baby. So I quietly unretired, but still work on crime fiction and publish whenever I can, usually in anthologies.

I can pretty consistently publish 5-10 fantasy or horror stories a year, and while nobody can make a living writing short fiction in any genre, a half dozen stories can certainly buy some vaccinations, a breast pump, or a crib from IKEA. There are still a dozen “good” science fiction or horror magazines, mostly online, that pay a nickel or dime a word, and a similar number of anthologies published every year than often pay a little more than that, and even someone as unwidely read as I can, with some effort, get in to some of them. The state of short crime fiction publishing is sadly more dire. This isn’t because the fiction itself isn’t vital, but because crime fiction lacks the very large penumbra of organized fandom that surrounds the speculative genres. Most of the magazines in that field are started by fans who want their writer heroes to love them, and a great way to get love from a writer is to give them money. Try it sometime, you’ll see. (And of course, there is nothing worse than an embittered romantic, which is what causes so many of the perennial problems in fandom that sent me running back in 2013.)

I remain interested in crime fiction because it offers a particular aesthetic challenge that goes beyond those of fantasy or science fiction. Fantasy/horror is almost easy to write—set up a situation, have something happen in the middle that complicates the matter for your protagonist, and then for a climax just [INSERT NUMINOUS EVENT HERE]. It’s not a cheap trick; the numinous is remarkably difficult to describe in a compelling manner, and even if you do it right you can still fail very easily. Use a fantastical image that’s well-known, and you devolve into cliché. Use one that’s too personal, and your story is incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t dreamt your exact dreams. The poetics of the ἀποκάλυψις—meaning revelation, not world-goes-blooey, but there’s often some of that too—make or break the story, and if that numinous moment doesn’t nag at the reader for hours, days, or in the best fictions years after the reader first encounters it, the story is a failure. But once you’re good at communicating the ineffable, you’re golden. 

Science fiction requires some level of scientific rigor. Rigor isn’t the same as scientific accuracy, however. You can have galactic empires of humanlike aliens and faster-than-light travel and towheaded slaveboys building robots out of scrap and there still being a slave economy even after a thousand obedient robots start running around and doing the chores—but all the implications of the scientific innovations have to be reflected in the in the emotional journey of the characters; they must be tied together like two strands of a double helix. This makes even the most absurd feats of engineering and basic errors of math palatable to readers; it doesn’t matter if FTL is impossible if the crew of the ship experience the breaking of the laws of physics as something special or interesting. The everyday becomes the wondrous.

The aesthetic challenge of crime fiction, at least for me, is different. Like science fiction, crime fiction involves a kind of rigor, if not exactly accuracy. There can be pseudoscience, like bite-mark analysis or dubious psychological motivations for some murderer’s choice of target, and extremely far-fetched situations or baroque death traps, but so long as the writer treats these set-pieces with consistency and follows a certain internal logic from beginning to end, the story can work. Good ol’ “fair play.” 

But fair play is a necessary but not sufficient condition for crime fiction. Crime is necessarily about some kind of social trespass; we’re always in new territory outside of our quotidian existence. Most crime in the real world is fairly easy to solve, and most criminal acts are transparently motivated. We like our sleuths eccentric, our crimes puzzles, our villains almost superhuman, because we need fiction to be more than prettied up police reports. We need a poetics of transgression, just as we do in fantasy. And the logics of fair play and the poetics of transgression have to be bashed together, the famous thesis and infamous antithesis leading to the superlative synthesis. 

Crime fiction requires the mind of science fiction, and the spirit of fantasy/horror. When I put my fingers to the keyboard to write my first crime story, it was like I’d never retired from speculative fiction at all.

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