Fantastic Detectives &
the Detective Yarn: Romantic Literature
Fantastic Detectives & the Detective Yarn: Romantic Literature
The minute she walked in the door I knew she was different. Not in a bad way, you understand, just not what you usually see downtown. She said hello. I waited. In my business, when a woman walks through your door she’s got a story to tell, and any chit chat before that story hits the floor is wasted breath. Time is money, they say, but for some reason I don’t have much of either.
The cliché is beyond recognizable—a carefully dressed and made up woman enters the office of a private detective. She’s got trouble, and the PI is the only guy around who can help. Just thinking about it brings a bit of Bogart to your tonsils. Or Guy Noir.
What if the damsel in distress is an alien? While a reader might still have Bogart in the back of his or her mouth, the book the reader is holding is no longer a detective novel, according to several different kinds of assessment. This brings us to a chicken-or-the-egg question: do publishers and bookstores segregate science fiction and fantasy from detective fiction, which leads us to the idea these sub-genres are indeed distinct, or do they follow the preferences of readers who would rather not mix their Elves and their gumshoes?
As with many questions, the answer is of course a little bit of both. More interesting to me is how these distinctions play out when mixed. But what, exactly, are we mixing?
A common way of understanding detectives is to see them as seekers of truth. In the narrowest sense, mystery fiction (a general term I mean to include mystery, detective, and crime fiction) generally features a crime, a truth seeker, and a just resolution of the conflict. It is remarkable how narrowly this successful type of fiction can be categorized. In contrast, science fiction and fantasy literature is a much wider category the definitions of which receive much lively attention. Where Murfin and Ray note that mystery fiction is “popular fictional narratives with plots revolving around puzzling or frightening situations,” (278) definitions of fantastic literature range from Damon Knight’s famous “Science fiction is what we point to when we say it” to Judith Merril’s “Speculative fiction: stories whose objective is to explore, to discover, to learn, by means of projection, extrapolation, analogue, hypothesis-and-paper-experimentation, something about the nature of the universe, of man, or ‘reality’” (Clute and Nichols 312). Fantasy literature has an even wider door.
Is it useful to see this sort of literature in the context of a single definition? As a columnist I often arm-wrestle with my editor about what constitutes my mandate, as when I include discussion of mystery fiction with my formal charge of addressing academic and reference issues in science fiction and fantasy literature. I see these literatures as having a common rubric: that of Romantic Literature. I would like to revive this term in order to best describe a wide array of popular literatures now outperforming “traditional” literature in the marketplace of ideas. I have little patience for spilled ink involving definitions that proscribe what Science Fiction, for example, cannot be and prefer this wider, more inclusive definition as it allows focus to fall upon the common root of these romantic literatures, a root that James Gunn argues reaches back to Gilgamesh, which touches on the same matters of concern to science fiction, such as brutish rulers and immortality (XII).
Romantic Literature, to borrow from Gunn and historical definitions, is a literature of change that harnesses the improbable or implausible to its cause. Romantics, note Murfin and Ray, “valued emotions and expressed their ideas in everyday language and in their own individual styles rather than in formal imitation of the ancient writers.”
If we were to adopt this common terminology would it still matter what happens with detectives and teleportation (or magic, or both) mix? Yes. The wide world is moving, I believe, toward a less structured view of these literatures, but we have not arrived at a unified genre literature theory yet, much less a reality based upon it.
Marketing is one way existing categories are perpetuated. Even at ten yards many book-savvy consumers can determine the category of a paperback novel, just by the general graphical presentation of the cover. In bookstores these texts are strictly segregated. Science fiction and fantasy go on one set of shelves; mystery fiction on another. At best the shelves are near each other in the store, denoting to some degree the bookstore’s recognition that paperbacks, despite the relatively recent “hardbound bestseller” trend (Da Vinci Code, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and so on) are birds of a feather and should flock, if not be shelved, together.
Is this segregation enough to suggest that we are stuck within these categories, that change will be forever stifled? No. While bookstores have evolved over recent decades, changing from what used to be modest-sized individually owned book shops into corporate mega-stores such as Barnes & Noble, a new form of book selling has become prevalent: online booksellers such as Amazon. While online booksellers utilize the same categorizing as corporate mega-stores, online browsing blurs categories in a way that real life browsing does not.
If one searches, for example, for “detective” using Amazon.com’s search engine, one easily finds this science fiction / fantasy type novel (more properly a work of “fabulism”): The Well of Lost Plots: A Thursday Next Novel. Jasper Fforde’s book is a sort of magical realist tale set within literature itself. And while searching for “detective” can lead one to this sort of novel, Amazon provides even more opportunity for category-free browsing. On a “customers who bought this book also bought” list one can find (my comments added in parentheses):
The Confessions of
Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer (man ages in reverse)
To those used to web browsers this list is unremarkable. What’s notable in this context is the mixture of expected fantastic texts such as Confessions and Game with books from the Today Show list—the top five of which are non-fantastic, as are the books in the Janeway series. Customers browsing this list will perforce see novels side by side that would be adjacent in a bookstore only by chance. This is especially true today, whereas small non-chain bookstores can organize their stock as they see fit, large chain type bookstores have floor and shelving arrangements that work according to a central plan, a plan that invariably keeps genres separate.
While the list showcased above is generated by some kind of data-farming algorithm Amazon applies to its sales data, and is therefore subject to the unpredictable whims not only of the system being used but of consumers themselves, Amazon takes steps to deliberately blur the lines between genres. In the following menu,
Search for books by subject:
web users are able to check a box next to one or more of these categories and perform searches that will result in a list of books that match as many categories as are checked. Want to find detective and mystery stories that are cross listed as being science fiction and (or &) fantasy? Check the two or three boxes that apply and select “search.” One will be rewarded with a list that again defies typical categorization.
How does this apply to genre dominance? I take as a sign of the fraying of the commercial category system the fact that detective fiction is not viewed as such when science fiction and/or fantasy elements are introduced. Mystery fiction is the more focused genre, with some sub-categories. It is more predictable in its form. While sf/f literature is often formulaic, those formulas are less predictable and more apt to mutate over time. This gives rise to recognizable movements in the field, such as the cyberpunk era kicked off by writers such as Sterling and Gibson.
It is easy to observe this pattern of dominance at work. Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake is clearly a representative of the current generation of female detectives such as Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum or Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone. Anita Blake is, however, as the cover of any of Hamilton’s books will tell you, Anita Blake Vampire Hunter. And where do you suppose Hamilton’s books are shelved? Typically in the horror section. Blake is one of many such fantastic searchers-after-truth. Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos might be an assassin and criminal, but each of his stories centers around a mystery of some kind. C. Dale Brittain’s charming Daimbert is a wizard who investigates fairly traditional mysteries set in a fantasy world the author is determined to make consistent and real—in a fantastic way—enough for mysteries to actually work. The same establishment of a consistent environment contributes to the success of Asimov’s The Naked Sun, and Larry Niven’s Gil Hamilton, who appears in a number of successful science fiction detective stories.
Note that today it is easy to take for granted that there can be such a thing as a science fiction or fantasy mystery. John Campbell once argued no such thing could ever be, as the author could rely on unreal changes to the “world” in order to make a mystery work. As recently as 1983, Hazel Beasley Pierce in her book A Literary Symbiosis: Science Fiction / Fantasy Mystery found it necessary to explain in detail not only Campbell’s objection to such a synthesis but also a comprehensive demonstration that it had been done. “The two modes do have much in common,” Pierce argues on her way to promoting the idea of combining these once more distant literary cousins (9).
If there is a mystical aspect to this argument, here it is. If the introduction of detective elements into a science fiction or fantasy novel were enough to get it moved from the sf/f section to the mystery section, I would argue that genre categories are here to stay. As the opposite appears to be true, I hold that genre categories, for that and other reasons, are in the process of disintegrating. Why?
Energy. The power of category definition, which is an amorphous fusion of corporate and consumer interest and action, is becoming less prescriptive. Science fiction and fantasy is a broader, more inclusive category of fiction, and detective fiction with fantastic elements is invariably placed in the wider category. Where big book chains and their sales-maximizing floor layouts helped impose categories on the reading public (categories the public, of course, to some degree demanded), online booksellers are providing tools that provide for user-defined flexibility. One can look for as long as one wishes in the mystery fiction section at a Barnes & Noble bookstore and not find a single book with fantastic elements. Only a few seconds is required for a web-browsing patron to find texts that combine multiple sub-genre elements. To me the movement or energy of the question of category is clearly moving up and out, not down and in.
I don’t see this as a surprising trend, as I’ve always seen these literatures to be kindred spirits, to be Romantic Literature by their essential nature. John D. McDonald’s now dated Travis McGee series and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series share much in common, as do C.J. Cherryh’s Company Wars novels and Tony Hillerman’s Navajo mysteries. The general notion of the postmodern is to disrupt and re-evaluate traditional sources of definition and authority. The commercial success of Romantic Literature is and has been forcing just such a reassessment of traditional views of the quality of science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and other popular forms of fiction.
Rather than critique the critics of these popular literatures, I offer this observation: what happens when fantastic elements are introduced into detective fiction? It is no longer called detective fiction, not a sad thing, but rather a sign of the vitality of what I call Romantic Literature, and an indication that the signposts that have long channeled this energetic and commercially successful field into separate lanes are beginning to fall.
Is my goal the rearrangement of shelves in large chain bookstores? No. But by identifying these usually disparate sub-genres of literature by a common name, by promoting the idea these novels have more in common than is generally understood, I hope to provide a strong foundation upon which to build a better understanding of the quality and value of texts frequently dismissed by the mainstream as lacking intellectual value or even in some cases as not being “literature” at all.
Are there science fiction, fantasy, mystery, even thriller novels that lack substance? Of course there are, but even that lack of substance is worth discussing from a popular culture perspective. The commercial success of Romantic Literature (which I hasten to admit includes much maligned yet most successful category of all—romance novels) suggests that readers do indeed like to “read about what’s bothering them,” to read stories in which there is something at stake, that explore moral and/or psychological issues not addressed by mainstream fiction (Murphy X-XII). Crime and punishment are what Murphy speaks about, but the same is true in general about science fiction and fantasy literature—there is something at stake in these stories, most vividly brought to life by the recent big screen adaptation of the grandfather of fantasy literature novels, The Lord of the Rings.
The growing energy, or vitality of Romantic Literature can be seen in the many cases where otherwise “mainstream” books, films, and television shows contain fantastic elements but which are not themselves identified as being science fiction or fantasy. In short, if science fiction elements trump detective elements, the mainstream has the power to adopt and make familiar elements of Romance Literature, trumping science fiction, fantasy, and other literatures in turn—yet another sign that the clear lines between genres is blurring not just in the marketplace but in the world of creative expression as well.
Do not look for the non-fantastic detective to perish. In the ebb and sway of Romantic Literature there will be more or less fusion between the fantastic and the mystery. More than a century of mystery tradition suggests that while mystery fiction may at times dwindle it will not pass out of our literary life. The same is true of science fiction and fantasy literature. Ultimately, of course, it is Romantic Literature that remains, no matter what flavor, trope, or theme carries that impetus.
Clute, John and Peter Nicholls. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, St. Martin’s Griffin, New York 1995.
Gunn, James. The Road to Science Fiction: From Gilgamesh to Wells, Scarecrow Press, Lanham, MD 2002.
Murphy, Bruce F.. The Encyclopedia of Murder and Mystery, Palgrave, New York 1999.
Pierce, Hazel Beasley. A Literary
Symbiosis: Science Fiction / Fantasy Mystery, Greenwood Press,
Westport, CT 1983.
Ross, Murfin and Supryia M. Ray. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, Bedford/St. Martin’s Press, Boston 2003.