Anything You Can Imagine*

The crime fiction story can take a number of different forms, and that’s possibly one reason that crime fiction is so popular. One of the more interesting forms of the genre is speculative crime fiction. Speculative fiction is a broad category, of course, including science fiction and alternate-reality fiction. Some people include fantasy fiction in this category, too. Whether you agree with that or not, speculative fiction offers some really interesting possibilities for crime plots.

Isaac Asimov’s Elijah ‘Lije’ Baley novels are one example of the way crime plots find their way into speculative fiction. In the world Asimov imagines for these stories, many people live in huge, domed city complexes. The world is overpopulated, so people are granted housing, travel privileges, and so on based on the results of genetic testing and the perceived value of their jobs. There’s a deep division between Spacers (people who’ve been to space and their descendants) and Earthmen (people who haven’t been to space and their descendants). The two groups dislike and distrust one another, especially when it comes to the question of robots. Spacers rely on robot labor; Earthmen see robots as threats to their jobs and more. Against this backdrop, Baley is a New York police detective who works with a robot partner, R. Daneel Olivaw. In The Caves of Steel, the first outing for Baley and Olivaw, a Spacer scientist has been murdered, and it’s believed that an Earthman was responsible. In order to demonstrate transparency and a fair investigation, Baley (who is an Earthman) is asked to work with Olivaw to solve the murder. The novel does depict a completely different world from the one we know, but the main focus of the plot is the murder investigation.

Anti Tuomainen’s The Healer takes place in the relatively near future. The world has fallen into chaos, mostly because of climate change and its impact. Many places have become unlivable, so there are millions of climate refugees. A fair number of them have sought sanctuary in the Nordic Region, which has put untenable pressure on the cities in that area. Helsinki, where most of the novel takes place, is overcrowded and dangerous. Food and other supplies are becoming scarce, and the police are so overworked and spread thin that they don’t generally investigate crimes other than murder (and sometimes not even then). There’s very little security, unless one’s wealthy enough to hire a private security company. In this environment, Tapani Lehtinen has become worried about his wife, Johanna, who’s a journalist. She’s been pursuing a story, and she hasn’t been in contact with her husband. When he goes to her office to follow up, Lehtinen finds that Johanna hasn’t been in contact with her colleagues, either. Fearing the worst, Lehtinen decides to search for her. He starts by looking up the story she was working on to see if there are any clues to her whereabouts. As the search goes on, he finds out about a series of murders committed by a killer called the Healer. The victims have all been highly placed employees of companies the Healer blames for the current environmental catastrophe. The context and the speculative aspects of the novel are clear, but the real focus is Lehtinen’s search for his wife.

Charles Stross’ Rule 34 takes place in an altered present-day Edinburgh. Police detective Liz Cavanaugh and her team are called to the scene when the body of former prisoner and Internet spammer Michael Blair is discovered. Cavanaugh is head of the Innovative Crimes Investigation Team, which is charged with investigating potential crime on the web. The investigation isn’t long underway when other, related, murders are discovered. And it turns out that these deaths are a part of something bigger and more dangerous than Cavanaugh had imagined. This novel includes some speculative technology and some other aspects of life that we don’t currently have. But it takes place in an Edinburgh that’s not too different to the city people know now. And in that way, it makes the story even more plausible.

Frankie Y. Bailey’s The Red Queen Dies takes place in Albany, New York, in the near future. Detectives Hannah McCabe and her partner Mike Baxter investigate when two young women, Sharon Giovanni and Bethany Clark, are murdered by injections of phenol. The victims are similar enough, and so are the murders themselves, that McCabe and Baxter wonder whether a serial killer may be at work. They try to find as much information as they can to discover what links the victims, but before they get their answer, there’s a third murder. Broadway star Vivian Jessup, who’s in Albany testing out a new play, is murdered. This could be a ‘copycat’ murder, or it could be unrelated to the other two. There are other possibilities as well, and McCabe and Baxter have to sift through the evidence and find out who would want to kill these three women. There are some differences between the Albany of this story, and the Albany we know – a sort of ‘parallel reality’ – and some of the technology is different. So in that sense, this is a speculative novel. Still, many aspects of the story reflect real life.

There’s also Matthew FitzSimmons’ Constance. This novel features rock musician Constance ‘Con’ D’arcy. In the Washington, D.C. she knows, cloning has become a reality. It’s a luxury strictly for the wealthy, who have their consciousnesses uploaded periodically, so that they can be downloaded into clones when the time comes. Con has a clone because her aunt, who co-founded the cloning company, gifted her one. One day, she goes for an upload as usual, but something goes very, very wrong. When she wakes up, it’s eighteen months later, and she finds that she – her consciousness – has been downloaded into her clone. Now, Con wants to find out how and why the original Con died, and what happened during those eighteen months. That proves to be a lot more dangerous than it seems, and it’s soon clear that someone wants the ‘new’ Con dead, too. Along with the speculative cloning technology, there are some real questions here about whether clones are actually human, and what it is to be a person.

And that’s the thing about speculative fiction. It can lead to all sorts of interesting questions and lots of ‘what ifs.’ And those ‘what ifs’ can certainly include crime…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Charles Strouse & Martin Charnin’s Let’s Go To the Movies.



8 thoughts on “Anything You Can Imagine*

    1. Thanks, Rick. I think it’s really interesting how we put books in one or another category, and don’t always think of them as ‘belonging’ to another. I’ve done the same thing.


  1. I maybe lack the imagination to read – regularly at least – this kind of fiction. That said I think I have the Antti Tuomainen book somewhere in the stacks. I much prefer the here and now, or the past!


    1. You’re not alone, Col. I think a lot of people prefer fiction that’s not speculative. And some fiction is close enough to what we experience that it doesn’t feel like too far a stretch! If you do get to the Tuomanien, I hope you’ll enjoy it.


  2. This is always quite a tricky one to pull off, since sometimes the author gets a bit carried away with the world-building aspects at the expense of plot. Both Ian Rankin (Westwind) and Stuart MacBride (Halfhead) have had a go at it, neither turning out as well as their usual non-speculative stuff, in my opinion. However, I recently read Future Crimes, a new anthology in the British Library’s Science Fiction Classics series, with this as a theme, and it includes both SF writers trying their hand at crime and crime writers trying their hand at SF. It has a Bailey/Olivaw story, as well as a very good crossover story from PD James.


    1. You have a good point, FictionFan, about that tricky balance. Too much world-building and you lose the story. Too much story and you use the speculative part. I give authors credit for trying it even if it doesn’t quite work out as planned. And thanks for reminding me of Future Crimes. I remember your fine review of that collection, and it sounds as though there’s lots to like in it. That balance of crime writing/SF might be tricky, but it is intriguing, and when it works, it works well. I love it that the BL is putting together great anthologies like that one.

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  3. Enjoyed your examples. Not my favourite type of book but last year I read a brilliant example where Michael Christie in Greenwood started the book in 2038, works his way back to 1908 and then works ahead all the way back to 2038. He never lost my interest. Combining past, present and future is a great challenge.


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