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.

The bad words

Swearing remains an awkward subject. Even within the limited confines of my house it’s divisive – I love to hear it entertainingly deployed, while Mrs K. can’t stand to be in the room while Deadwood‘s on because of the language. But it’s a linguistic tool, one that’s frequently used, one that can be a powerful cultural signifier, and one that we should consider when writing.

My view on swearing is that it works as an emotional carrier, words emptied of their literal meaning so that they can express emotions that we are not encouraged to describe. Many of us aren’t good at describing our love or hatred for something, and even when we do the effort of assembling the words may get in the way of unleashing our emotions. A good swear lets that out, and this may be why it’s more prevalent among people who are frustrated and ill-equipped to express their own needs.

But there are still taboos around swearing. If there weren’t it would lose that emotional power. The act of defiance, the chance to see a shocked response, is part of the catharsis swearing can achieve. These words aren’t neutral and universally accepted, and deploying them can be a form of conflict.

This is part of the power of swearing in telling a story. A character who swears may shock others, may escalate or enact conflicts through those words. The fact that a character swears and the sort of swearing they use can tell you a lot about them. And swearing can create humour, even poetry, through the way it is used, particularly the brutal deployment of bad language in incongruous situations. Just watch Bunk and McNulty’s kitchen crime scene from the first series of The Wire, or any number of scenes of Malcolm Tucker from The Thick of It, to see these uses skillfully combined.

This isn’t to say that writers should always use swearing. But it should be an option in our arsenal of writers’ tools, one whose absence or presence can help give a story form.