Mysteries, whether cozy English, police procedural, or noir detective, fill a psychological itch for us. The police, the detective, and the justice system represent the societal order we all need to feel safe, and the moral order that allows good to triumph over evil. The protagonist outwits the criminal, and brings him or her to justice. The act cannot be undone; the murder victim cannot be restored to his or her unfinished life, and so the detective’s victory is always tempered by the reality that there is more evil out there, always.
Most readers of SF I know read the occasional mystery. I heard someone say that every SF story is at heart a mystery. That may be too sweeping a generalization for me, but the affinity between the two groups is undeniable, given that many writers of SF have also worked in the mystery genres. More than a few writers have written both in the same book.
One of the favorite combos is the mystery combined with alternate history. The alternate history usually deals with different historical political outcomes and shifts of power. Three examples come to mind: Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Jo Walton’s Farthing, and China Mieville’s The City and the City.
Some might question my inclusion of the Mieville work as alternate history, but as a kind of alternate now, it has many of the same combination of qualities I find so appealing in the alternate history/mystery sub-genre. The mystery genre has a utopian view of justice, in which the truth outs and justice prevails. The real justice system can never measure up. The alternate history political system strives to impose order, but causes its own chaos. The marriage of the two makes for very interesting fiction.
I finished Farthing, and immediately downloaded the second and third books of the trilogy, having found the first book a page-turner the likes of which I haven’t experienced in years. It begins with a country house murder set in an England that made peace with Hitler in 1941. The investigation of the country house murder, and the Inspector’s solving of the crime, is supposed to return us to the security of a lawful society, as per the world-view of the mystery, as described above. But there’s a problem, and that problem is the corruption of a sane and orderly legal system by the madness of a British government being overcome by fascism. How does the truth-seeking Inspector Carmichael restore order, when the integrity and fundamental morality of that order has been gutted?
China Mieville’s police detective has a different problem. He is attempting to solve his murder case as a citizen of a city state that coexists with another city-state that occupies the same territory, but which he must ignore. All citizens must ignore the other city-state which is right before their eyes. Reality has been fractured, and perception cannot be trusted. How can truth be found in such a state? The detective’s own perceptions are distorted by the lifelong conditioning of his culture, of not-seeing what is right in front of him. What greater handicap can a seeker of truth have than self-blinding from what one is forbidden to see?
The existential threat to Detective Landsmen in Chabon’s alternate history is at once remote and immediate. The lease on the temporary Jewish settlement/homeland in Sitka, Alaska, is about to run out, throwing the detective and all of Alaska’s Jews into statelessness. In the meantime, crime goes on, including murder, one of which Landsmen is tasked with solving. He expects to keep doing his job, in spite of the imminent demise of the jurisdiction he works for. Talk about being a lame duck. Madcap alternate history/police procedural it is, but Chabon also points squarely at a serious dilemma we’ve all faced. Why bother to do the right thing, if no one cares, and if it seems not to matter, to make any difference to anyone?
So here are my speculations for the week: What do we do when 1) We learn the authority that comforts us, and that we depend upon, has become hopelessly compromised? 2) We learn that we have been in denial all our lives about what is true and what is not? Or, 3) Our moral and ethical best efforts are probably meaningless to the world around us?