Crime and punishment. Both words are synonymous with genre fiction. Whether it is the flashy superhero racing to stop the next crisis or the “I’m too old for this shit” beat cop who stumbles upon a global conspiracy, we enjoy seeing criminals being taken down. For the next few weeks, however, I am going to be concerning myself with the detective character and how he (or she) uses observation and deduction to solve crime. Let us begin with the archetypal detective himself: Sherlock Holmes.
My first introduction to the “consulting detective” came from a children’s edition of The Hound of the Baskervilles read to me by my dad before I went to sleep. As I grew up I encountered Sherlock in school during Reading when the class would read along with several of Doyle’s short stories. As I became an adult I read the adult version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, the collection of twelve short stories in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and finally I took the plunge and got the complete collection. Now I have read every Sherlock Holmes story, so what can I say about them?
Well there is no denying the stories contain the bad parts of the Victorian era, such as colonialism, imperialism, sexism and racism. Yet there are progressive moments in the stories, such as in “The Adventure of the Yellow Face” where a man openly accepts his wife’s mixed race child from another marriage. And who wouldn’t want to be a member of the Diogenes Club where you can sit in a comfortable chair and read in complete silence, knowing there are important matters of state being conducted nearby? More importantly, to be in the presence of such a powerful mind dedicated to good, must be exhilarating ..or annoying depending what version of Dr. Watson you subscribe too.
The character of Sherlock Holmes is timeless. Recently we have seen his depiction in film and television (but Peter Cushing is still my favorite actor to take the role). The character has appeared in comics (even given the caped crusader a run for his money), traveled through time in Stephanie Osborne’s series The Displaced Detective and may even have been a woman. He has been challenged for the title of greatest detective such as when in 1971 the UK TV series The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes adapted 26 tales by Victorian / Edwardian British detectives, which included a book series by the same name involving a host of detectives from Britain, Europe, America and elsewhere. The ghost hunter Carnacki is my favorite and you can listen to some audio versions of his stories at Tales to Terrify.
Yet those detectives remain obscure and Sherlock continues to remain a household name (although the phrase “No shit, Sherlock” probably is as great of way to be remembered as what a “Prince Albert” is named after). Doyle’s beloved character’s influence on fiction is obvious and SF is no exception. Detectives modeled after Holmes appears again and again in genre fiction. In fact the first novel to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel is The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester, which has been described by Amazing Stories blogger Johne Cook as being “simply brilliant”.
So what other literary detectives should you check out? Let’s start with the detectives who track down criminals in the multiverse. Seriously, did anyone actually think I wouldn’t talk about alternate history? It is kind of my thing.
The top entry on my list has to be Mayer Landsman from Michael Chabon’s Hugo and Sidewise award-winning The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. It is set in an alternate history where the scheme to settle Jewish refugees of the Holocaust in Alaska is successful. The alcoholic, divorced, homicide cop Landsman is a great example of a “meddling detective”, the type who find a dead body, are told to ignore it by powerful/scary individuals and eventually stumble upon a massive conspiracy which changes their understanding of reality itself. Other notable examples of this include Xavier March from Robert Harris’ Fatherland and Joe of Lavie Tidhar’s Osama. These types of detectives appear in fiction for several reasons, but primarily I feel they are popular because they embody our fear of the powerful and what they could be hiding from us. We need these heroes (no matter how broken they may be) to save us…even if they die doing so. It is a form of escapism which is not going away anytime soon.
Yet not every detective is an outsider working to undermine the evil government. Some work hand-in-hand with authority and blur the line between detective and secret agent. A good example is Basil Argyros, Harry Turtledove’s Byzantine secret agent collected in the Agent of Byzantium anthology (the first three stories originally published in Amazing Stories from 1985 to 1986). Set in a world where the Prophet Muhammad converted to Christianity, Basil works for as a magistrianos for the Master of Offices in an alternate 14th century where the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire is thriving. Although more spy than detective, it is not unusual for Basil to use his mind to solve mysteries while serving his country, which helps when he figures out how to use the enemy’s advanced (relatively speaking) technology (i.e. gunpowder, the printing press or a telescope). Other good examples include Verkan Vall of H Beam Piper’s Paratime Police series (an excellent pulp, parallel universe adventure series) and, just so people do not accuse me of being obsessed with AH, Tom Dreyfus from Alastair Reynolds’ The Prefect, set in his amazing hard-SF Revelation Space universe.
So let’s recap. We have talked about the Victorian gentlemen detective who does it for the thrill, the tenacious street cop and the secret agent face with a mysterious threat. These are just a few of the types of detectives you will find in literature. The great thing is anybody can be a detective, even real historical persons, such as an out-of-work actor or an American president. For some good recommendations of SF detective stories check out Amazing Stories blogger Mike Brotherton‘s list of the best SF mysteries, Charlie Jane Anders of i09’s list of the Top 10 Greatest Science Fiction Detective Novels Of All Time and the Goodreads community’s list of popular SF detectives.
In the meantime I am going to be reading and reviewing three classic SF detective novels: When Gravity Fails by George Alec Effinger, The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick. If you haven’t read these novels already, I hope you pick up a copy so we can discuss these tales in depth when I post the reviews.
The game is afoot!