Mike Adamson made his EQMM debut in our January/February 2021 issue with the story “The Shadow of the New.” Previously, most of his stories were in the field of speculative fiction, where he’s received nominations for the Hugo and Aurealis awards. He’s a big Sherlock Holmes fan, so it’s not surprising that his first EQMM story was a Holmes pastiche. In this post he takes a look at how mystery is incorporated into many other genres.—Janet Hutchings
When Janet invited me to contribute a guest post to the EQMM blog, I was both flattered and challenged—flattered because I’ve rarely had the chance to pen the proverbial op-ed, and challenged because mystery is the field to which I have come most recently. I’ve been a writer of one sort or other most of my life, but have engaged with mystery late, and found it rather fun.
All genres have their formula, but the uncovering of facts deliberately obscured, in a duel of wits, is endemic to all of human endeavour. Thus mystery is one of the most flexible of all genres, pairing, as it does with pretty much any other. One might have a mystery element in almost any context—a Western, for instance, a historical by definition, yet interpreted loosely and according to long-established internal criteria, with a range of hues from adventure to romance, yet the solving of a crime is endemic to many of those stories. What would a Western be without a law man after a wrong-doer? While this model skewed naturally to adventure at the hands of early Hollywood, it might also by assigned to mystery at a purely theoretical level. Deleting the daring-do aspect that has so characterised the Western genre, it would be interesting to set a pure mystery against the background of late nineteenth-century America. In essence this is what Conan Doyle was doing with his American motivational origins for the crimes in both A Study in Scarlet and The Valley of Fear, though pursued somewhat unconventionally by the narrative providing the solution before revealing the backstory in each case.
Mystery suits any era or approach, and the historical context has offered great possibilities. As an emerging Holmesian writer I have found the Victorian era a most fascinating context in which to pursue the vagaries of human nature. It also offers a world bereft of the technology which cuts corners in the modern world, making the storyteller think, flex the muscles of both plotting and research. The same would be true of any pretechnological context, of course, and mystery in ancient times can be every bit as riveting as modern—think Robert van Gulik’s adventures of the historical Judge Dee in the golden age of Tang Dynasty China. Futuristic detective stories occupy the other end of the spectrum, dealing as they can with wider issues than the contravention of the law per se—think Philip K. Dick’s seminal Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and its modern realisation as Blade Runner. Ridley Scott’s take was a thorough-going tribute to the classic detective movies of the forties and fifties, pure film noir, complete with smokey rooms, hard-bitten, embittered characters, high stakes, and violent confrontation. It notably included such visual metaphors of the genre as light through Venetian blinds, a staple seen in almost every detective movie of the old school.
The mystery formula can raise its head in unusual places—Isaac Asimov’s classic Space Ranger novels, for instance. Written between 1952 and 1958, they are six compact outings following a strict sixteen-chapter layout, set in various places throughout the solar system, and each features a mystery of some sort.
One may not consider oneself expressly a mystery fan to be well-acquainted with the genre, though today that is more likely to mean visual entertainment than literary. I can look back on at least four productions of The Hound of the Baskervilles over the decades, which may be viewed quite independently of the rest of the Holmesian canon. I have fond memories of Agatha Christie dramatisations, such as the four classic Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple outings from the early 1960s, or Peter Ustinov’s delightful Poirot collection. When it comes to the “police procedural” subgenre, could there be greater opposites than, say, the contemporary British Midsomer Murders, which follows a classic formula of last-scene reveal, or the unique Columbo formula from the 1970s, in which, in the first act, the viewer observed the commission of the crime in every detail, including the identity of the killer, then delighted in the logic-train by which the culprit was undone?
For the mystery purist, solving the crime is surely the heart and soul of the genre, all else is window-dressing, yet dressing contributes intimately to mood. Crime, through the aspect of engendered fear, blends so nicely with horror! Much body-horror derives from the terror of entirely mortal crime, the slashers and serial killers, cannibals and head-hunters, and assorted other ghoulish and deranged perpetrators, yet there is a fine line between the insane and the supernatural. Beyond this point, the “occult detective” subgenre comes into its own, where the investigation of crime blurs into that of the paranormal when such has left tangible evidence. From there it departs into vampire hunting, keeping the dead in their graves—Kolchak, the Night Stalker is perhaps the purest definition of this, the investigator who alone believes in the bizarre and can thus bring the murders to an end. But even this tangential interpretation of mystery can also embrace the traditional graduations, from cosy to hardboiled.
The future offers wide scope to the mystery writer, whether blending with romance or thriller, for though one might be forgiven for thinking that every permutation of every crime has been done (Conan Doyle, via Holmes, remarked on the limited variations possible in any scenario, well over a hundred years ago) new technology offers its own corruption into an instrument of murder or other crime. The first time someone rigs a matter-transmitter to disintegrate the traveler rather than transport him or her to another destination, the technology will have been perverted to the basest of human callings, demanding some smart deductive reasoning to sort out. This is the danger of new tech: it can always be perverted. As the saying goes, “nothing we create is good or evil, merely the ends to which it is put.” I wrote a story once about nanotech being used to cure cancer, but ever after the patient felt marginally unwell. His doctor was programming the nano in his body to keep him that way—nothing serious, just enough to ensure he came back for endless prescriptions of over-the-counter medicines, paid for by government subsidy, while the manufacturers paid a kick-back to the doctors involved for keeping demand high. That’s pure future crime in a context not very far removed from the present day.
I look forward to further exploring the genre in both past and future contexts, and to developing the muscles of plotting to one day deliver a case at novel length. But that’s a long way off, and for the moment, Victorian England calls—in short-story format!