C.H. Hung writes primarily science fiction and fantasy, and her work has appeared in our sister publication Analog Science Fiction and Fact and other magazines. Her EQMM debut, the holiday story “The Debtor,” is featured in our current issue (November/December 2021). In this post she gives readers some insight into how she made the crossover from science fiction to mystery. —Janet Hutchings
I confess: I’m new to mystery.
That’s not to say I’ve never read stories in the genre—I grew up with Encyclopedia Brown, Nancy Drew, and the Hardy Boys, the same as everyone else in my generation (although I arrived late to them, just as I’m often late to parties such as these)—but other than a rather clumsy attempt at hacking a Brown-like mystery in the third grade, I’d never tried my hand at writing in the genre. And not to come across as a bandwagoner by any means, but it was Frank Herbert’s Dune that inspired me to become a writer. So I buried myself in Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics and, later, Butcher’s Dresden Files and Corey’s The Expanse. So you can see where my reading interests lay, and it was not with the mystery fiction genre.
Until one dark and stormy night, I met in my inbox an assignment to write a mystery short story, centered around the Thanksgiving-to-New-Year holiday season. (There were other assignments, too, due that same week, and much wailing and gnashing of teeth over the ubiquitous predicament of a writer forced out of her comfort zone. But that’s another story, for another genre.)
I’d read a few Sherlock Holmes stories since grade school (because my high school English classes required it), enjoyed an Agatha Christie or two, and dabbled in Kinsey Millhone and Kay Scarpetta (because a college literature class required it). But to actually sit down and deliberately, methodically, plot, and write a mystery story? That was much beyond my small capabilities, especially for someone who doesn’t specialize in red herrings (I prefer, in fact, no herrings at all, as they are a tad overwhelming for my taste), whodunnits (to me, I didn’t care about the butler or the lead pipe, I was that annoying kid who always asked why), or brooding private detectives with checkered pasts (as if checkered pasts were limited to only that particular character trope).
So I did what any writer facing a dreaded block does—that is, if one doesn’t take up drinking or smoking or recreational drug use—I went to a bookstore. I found several anthologies and collections of mystery stories of various flavors (including a big book of Christmas mysteries, edited and compiled by Otto Penzler—score one for a research motherlode!), and I sat down and browsed through them for hours. (Not all at once, mind you. Once you start approaching a certain age, losing yourself in a story is less about sitting still in one place for hours as it is about being able to mark your place in a book without damaging it before rushing for the nearest bathroom.)
And I discovered, much to my surprise and delight, that mystery wasn’t just about the hardboiled detective trying not to fall for the distressed femme or the closed room full of clues or the stuffy butler who may or may not have done it, but is definitely in on it. In one anthology of modern mystery stories, “Mika Model” by Paolo Bacigalupi was so riveting that when I ran across it later in another, unrelated anthology, I immediately recognized the story within the first couple of sentences. It opens, as one so often does in the genre, with a woman in distress walking into a police station asking for help. There has been a crime committed, with the inevitable discovery of a body as the result. And yet, because it is also science fiction, the woman is a robot, and the crime and its implications is not as easily resolved as in a traditional whodunnit. I loved this mash-up as dearly as I once loved R. Daneel Olivaw.
And once I’d made that connection, I made another—that, unbeknownst to me, I had been consuming mystery all along, in many of its various tropes and forms. Robots of Dawn, the third in its series, is a whodunnit clothed in far-future science fiction. The Dresden Files is firmly entrenched in urban fantasy’s hardboiled detective roots, right down to the brooding private detective with a checkered past literally cloaked in magic. And the first book in The Expanse series, Leviathan Wakes, is a detective mystery that features, as one of the two main protagonists, a jaded police detective whose beat just happens to be a space station on an asteroid in the Asteroid Belt, as he tries to solve the mystery of a missing woman. Classic mystery tropes, repurposed by other genres for their own (and often nefarious) purposes.
But when you think about it, why the hell not? Mystery is one of those threads of story that winds its way through every nook and genre in storytelling, if one were only to look hard enough. So many of its common, cherished tropes have found new twists in other genres. Readers who might’ve groaned at yet another Holmesian pastiche greedily gobbled up Enola Holmes with their kids when the Netflix movie adaptation brought to light that there were already six books in the delightful YA series. Romance adapted readily to the mystery genre ages ago, with Mary Stewart pioneering the romantic mystery subgenre and inspiring the birth of Nora Roberts’ J.D. Robb pseudonym in the ’90s, and with Robb’s success playing no small part in the prolific rise of the romantic suspense genre at the turn of the century. It is that sort of paving of the way that sets the stage for other authors, like paranormal romance author Nalini Singh, to successfully cross over into mystery with contemporary psychological thrillers like Quiet in Her Bones and A Madness of Sunshine.
Because we read, and read widely, and have decided that labels—helpful or not—will not dictate what we love to consume, we lovers of good stories have all, knowingly or not, interred the bones of what makes a good mystery in our understanding of what makes for good storytelling. And when needed, like ill luck nipping at the heels of a guilty perpetrator, those bones may surface, to be ground up and sprinkled across the fertile fields of our imaginations, where we can give new life to old tropes and bring the familiar eerily close to the unfamiliar.
So while I confess I’m new to mystery, the only crime that I plead guilty to is the crime of not giving mystery its due when it comes to how much it has influenced my own reading and writing. The punishment, obviously, is to read more—a sentence I am more than happy to continue serving, no matter how much time I owe.