Yesterday, I presented a flowchart that would allow a reader to navigate a plethora of SF Mystery blends depending on what kind of plot they were looking for. But plot is by no means the only way that readers determine what they want to read next. For a lot of readers (especially mystery readers, I think), they are looking more for a certain tone in their mysteries. Some like things dark and gritty, other prefer a lighter cozy with a minimum of violence. These shades of tone are present in blends that include mysteries too.
I think that it’s interesting that so many blends that include a mystery go self-consciously for the trappings of a particular subgenre: noir. Although non-readers think noir is all about film, but the dark, cynical and fatalistic tone that directors brought to the many, many film noir movies from the 40s and 50s is equally present in books from the same era. But I think we can thank film for locking in the imagery of a lone investigator in a trench coat, beset by femme fatales and double-crossed by those he trusts most. The reason we continue to see mysteries with these elements is because 1) They WORK. Dark brooding protagonists working slightly outside the law and with the rich and powerful arrayed against them are crazy appealing. 2) You can use small cues like a fedora to conjure up a whole mood. Shortcuts are awesome.
But even if a detective is in a fedora, that doesn’t necessarily make the book noir. And here I mean specifically books that are dark. Super dark. On my graphic, some of the darkest are novels that start from the SF premise of the end of the world, and add a mystery. Ben H. Winter’s truly marvelous series that starts with The Last Policemanis an example of one of those. Just as there are mysteries that look at the darkest impulses and actions of man, so does some SF. Although there are many SF writers that look to the future and see possibility and progress, there are just as many (maybe more) that see the shadowy paths that technology can take us on. They look to the future and see that humanity will probably take all their bad habits forward with them, including killing each other. The dark side of technology plus murder? These can be some pretty grim books.
But it’s not all gloom and doom! Looking at the right side of the chart, there are mysteries that are low-violence puzzle plots with an SF twist (You’ve Got Murder), whimsical time travel stories with romance and a cozy mystery (To Say Nothing of the Dog), and undercover dinosaur private investigators (Anonymous Rex). In between there’s a nice variety of social SF, space operas, and near future thrillers. So pick your place on the spectrum below, from the darkest and bleakest to the funny and lightest. There’s an Science Fiction Mystery for everyone.