Making a Murder Mystery Matter

A lot of science fiction and fantasy uses elements from the crime genre, especially the classic murder mystery. From Douglas Adams’s Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency to James S. A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes, it can provide a solid central plot. A mystery keeps up the tension. It’s very familiar, making the story accessible whatever its more unusual parts. And as a writer, it’s a handy formula to spin something new out of.

Some recent sf+f murder mysteries have shown a change in how this is used, a change that’s arguably for the good.

The traditional murder mystery has an implicitly conservative ideology at its heart. Good order is disrupted by a death. The villain is a disrupter, the hero a restorer. Victory comes through a return to normality, without what passes as “normal” being questioned. In an Agatha Christie book or an episode of Law and Order, good moral conduct lies in keeping the world safe, not making it better.

There have always been exceptions. Christie’s own And Then There Were None (or whichever of its titles you prefer) can be read as a critique of this approach, a story in which murder brings justice. But it wasn’t common for a crime story to become popular while challenging social structures. That is until The Wire, David Simon’s extended crime drama and critique of a broken America. The Wire argued strongly for social and political change, showing that the world the detectives defended, the order they were tasked to restore, was inherently broken. To do good was to change the world, and protecting the existing order could do as much harm as good. Its heroes had to balance the interests of security and transformation.

To call The Wire influential would be an understatement. Its spectacular critical success has had a huge impact on television and the telling of crime stories. Traditional stories are still common, but the interest in less conservative crime dramas has grown.

The problem for anyone writing such a drama is that the real world won’t be changed by their fictional criminals and detectives. If they start changing the story world, it won’t look like our reality any more, and that won’t work for readers expecting mysteries grounded in the real world.

Enter sf+f.

Science fiction and fantasy worlds are already different from ours and their fates can be shaped by the writer. It’s an expected part of the genre. So criminal cases can have huge social and political repercussions that ripple through future books. The forces of order can also be the forces of change.

You can see this in two recent stories.

Anthon Johnston and Justin Greenwood’s comic The Fuse is set on an orbiting space station in the near future. The first case of this ongoing series propels a pair of detectives into a situation with far-reaching political consequences. It promises more disruption to come.

R J Barker’s novel Age of Assassins has an assassin as its protagonist, and one of the book’s many beautiful ironies is that a killer is the one to investigate a death. In doing so, Girton Club-foot becomes caught up in palace intrigues, unleashing a series of events that may make his world a very different place.

It’s fun to see genres renowned for their conservatism combining to put forward a radical proposition – that crime isn’t just an isolated aberration, but that it can reflect the deeper troubles of a society. That its unravelling both can and should lead to transformation, not just the restoration of the status quo. But that’s the argument many post-Wire murder mysteries put forward. It’s an argument implicit in both The Fuse and Age of Assassins. It’s an argument that holds out hope for change, and shows that we can protect society while critiquing it.

In a world already bucking against broken norms, maybe it’s an argument we all need.

Age of Assassins by R J Barker and the Complexity of Parenthood

A fantasy novel about assassins is the last place I’d expect to find a meditation on parenthood. After all, there’s a great gap between raising a kid and knifing people in the dark. But if R. J. Barker’s novel Age of Assassins has taught me anything, it’s to expect the unexpected.

Won’t Someone Think of the Kids?

From the start, the emotional heart of Age of Assassins lies with two characters – Girton Club-foot, teenage apprentice assassin, and his master, Merela Karn. Merela is a brutal killer, a skilled athlete, and the closest thing Girton has to a mum. Though she struggles to express it, she clearly loves Girton, and he loves her. Their affection, where it comes from and how it’s developed, shines through in their interactions and the flashbacks to their past. It creates a beautiful balance to the brutality and cold politics that are the book’s other main emotional tones.

But this isn’t the only parental relationship in the book.  Its plot is driven by the desire of a mother, the queen, to protect her son. There are illegitimate heirs, distant parents, and other family members standing in for parents, all common features of feudal society. There’s a squire master who, like many a teacher, winds up in loco parentis, filling certain parental duties as befits his post. And, as the story unfolds, we see other adults with the power over children that a parent has, but with far less of their affection or care.

Parenting – It’s Complicated

In the modern world, it’s no big revelation to say that parenting isn’t one size fits all. Every family is different. There might be foster parents, adoptive parents, grandparents filling a parental role. A parent’s partner might take on some of the features of a parent, then move on when the relationship ends. Meanwhile, teachers, care workers, nannies, babysitters, play supervisors, and other adults take on responsibility and care for kids as appropriate to their role.

The way people parent varies hugely. No two sets of parents I know approach the role in the same way. Hell, even within couples there are always differences, because what suits one parent won’t always suit the other.

Despite what certain reactionaries might tell you, this diverse, fractured view of parenting isn’t part of the moral breakdown of society. It isn’t even new. Parenting varies with nation, culture, and point in history. It’s never just one thing. And the complicated ways it worked in Europe’s feudal past are there on the page in Barker’s world, from the heirs raised in different families to the relationship of master and apprentice.

Feudality and Parenthood

Medieval Europe was a famously hierarchical place. The hierarchies it handed down to us, and which shaped European society until very recently, tried to pin everyone in their place, strictly differentiated by class.

Yet the reality, especially in the post-Roman era on which Age of Assassins is modelled, was far more mercurial. “Great” men, noble houses, and entire kingdoms rose and fell. Neither monarchical power nor the inheritance of kingship was as fixed as we imagine it to be. As the conflict for control of England in 1066 showed, the “rules” of aristocratic and monarchical power, along with its supposedly rigid patriarchal structure, have always been open to change.

This is the sort of politics seen in Age of Assassins, one where a variable political hierarchy reflects a variable family one.

Parenting Over Time

Another way in which Age of Assassins complicates parenthood is its portrayal of Girton growing up. We see flashbacks to his evolving relationship with Merela. We also see their relationship changing in the present, as his growth into adulthood and revelations about his identity transform him. If one person in a relationship changes, the relationship cannot stay the same.

We see how, for any parent, the meaning of parenthood changes over time. This extends beyond Girton and Merela to the changing dynamics of other parental relationships in the book.

Parenthood as a Public Thing

Inevitably, in a book centred around hereditary power, Age of Assassins touches on parenting not just as a varying institution but as a public one.

Family relationships can be among the most intimate and secretive in our lives. But they also have a public face, and that matters. The way we define parenthood defines our society. It can expand or limit people’s options, as seen in characters in the book seeking to inherit power through their parental lines. It can shape our moral values and sense of community. Its interactions with other institutions, from government to economics to culture, affect how they all work.

Age of Assassins is a fantastic mystery thriller. But, as an accidentally wise man once said, stuff can do two things. In among the murder and betrayal, you can find a story that shows the complexity, the importance, and above all the saving beauty of family.


Salting the Soil – a flash fantasy story

To Ellis’s relief, the rain had cleared as the sun came up. Dark banks of cloud still rolled over the windswept moors, but they were thinning as they headed toward the sea.

Grumbling to himself every step of the way, Ellis pushed a rickety wooden barrow full of salt up the ridge line. He would have rather spent time at the plow or milking his cows, but both law and tradition were clear. After the rains, locals must re-lay the ward.

Ellis hated the ward. Not just for the work of maintaining it and the poor recompense sent by the crown. It was the way it poisoned the soil, salt soaking in with every rainfall, creating a stretch of land where nothing could live and no man could farm.
Such a waste.

At the top of the ridge he stopped, took out his shovel, and started filling gaps in the thick line of salt that was the ward.

A spirit approached from the other side. It didn’t even try to hide its nature. Though it was shaped like a woman, its body was the stuff of a fetid pond, all algae, thick weed, and dirty water. Its only clothing was wooden sandals.

“Neighbour, will you leave a gap that I might get through?” the spirit asked. “I have business on the other side.”

“I’m sure you do,” Ellis said, hurrying to fill nearby gaps. “Business stealing souls, no doubt.”

“You don’t really believe that, do you?” the spirit asked, its voice dancing like a spring brook. “I’m no more a soul stealer than you are. I just want to get across to trade my wares.”

It held up a sack and opened the mouth to reveal wild herbs, things that could heal injuries and preserve meat, plants that seldom grew on Ellis’s land. Things he needed.

For a moment, he hesitated.

“I know your game,” he said, reluctantly returning to laying salt. “You’re trying to tempt me. But letting you through will only lead to hurt.”

“As opposed to this?” the spirit asked, pointing at the ward. “Poisoning your own land on the orders of people you’ve never met?”

“Why would they have me do it if there weren’t danger?” Ellis asked.

“Danger to them, not you. The conflict between our rulers goes back centuries. I could tell you about it if you like, though not until I’ve traded my herbs.”

Ellis moved on to the next gap. None of the breaches in the ward were large enough for the spirit to cross, but if they grew it would be another matter.

Assuming he wanted to stop her. Which he was almost sure he did.

“Please,” the spirit said, lips trembling. “My name is Onina. I have a daughter. She is sick and needs medicine that does not grow on this side. I must get through to trade.”

Ellis paused. He thought of his own Kara, playing with her straw dolls in the farmhouse kitchen.

There was no-one else to see what he was doing. Still, instinct made him step close to the barrier and to Onina, speaking in a secretive tone.

“How old is your daughter?” he asked.

Onina took a step closer, almost touching the barrier. Her rippling green flesh shrivelled a little at the closeness of the salt and she winced.

“Six years old,” she said. “Our children grow slower than yours, making them vulnerable for longer. It is as if she were a three-year-old human, burning with a terrible fever.”

Ellis remembered the winter Kara had fallen sick, her little face screwed up in misery as she shivered and coughed. If not for the berries her grandmother had found she would have died.

“If I let you through, you’ve got to promise to be back within a day,” he said. “I can disguise you in some of my wife’s clothes.”

“Thank you,” Onina said, leaning her face closer through a small hole in the ward. “Just leave a gap, and I will be gone as soon as I am done.”

“Someone might see that.” Ellis shook his head. “I’ll close it, then when you’re done I can make a gap again.”

“In that case…”

Onina shot out her hand, grabbing Ellis’s wrist. He fell in the salt, startled and bewildered, and she shoved him back and forth on the cold ground.

“Now!” she shouted.

A dozen more spirits appeared from hiding places across the countryside behind her.

Horror grabbed Ellis. She was using him to break the barrier, his body scattering salt as he was shoved back and forth. The spirits would pour through. Who knew what they would do.

He struggled, but Onina was twice as strong as him and he could not break free. He could not reach his shovel or the salt in the barrow. He did not dare grab any from the already weakened ward.

The spirits rushed towards them.

Onina shoved his face in the mud. Even that tasted of salt. The bitter flavour of his poisoned farmland.

Poisoned to her as well as him.

Grabbing a handful of mud, Ellis flung it in Onina’s face. Green flesh shrivelled at the salt’s touch. She flung her hands up, letting him go.

He leapt to his feet, grabbed his shovel from the barrow and swung it wildly. Salt sprayed through the air and the spirits jerked back mere feet from the gap. Another shovelful and the gap was too small to pass through. Two more and it was gone.

The spirits glared and screeched at Ellis. Onina’s placid face became an ugly mess of teeth and hatred. But no more ugly than Ellis’s thoughts about her trickery and betrayal.

Pushing his wheelbarrow ahead of him, he went eagerly to repair the rest of the ward.

* * *


This story was inspired by R J Barker’s workshop on landscape and writing at Sledge Lit 2016. I left the workshop with a photo of a landscape crossed by a white barrier (snow, but it looked like it could be salt) and this is what it inspired. R J Barker’s first novel is coming out later this year, and if it has half the energy and inspiration of his workshop then it’ll be well worth a read.

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