Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Crime fiction and science fiction

After watching the film Village of the Damned last weekend, I started to think about the links between sci-fi and crime fiction (or should I say cri-fi?) The film is based on The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham, someone whose books I devoured as a teenager. Wyndham, like H.G. Wells, was a writer who tends to appeal to readers who aren’t really sci-fi buffs, as well as enthusiasts for the genre. The film might be rather dated (I saw the 1960 version, not the re-make) but I thought it well-done, with plenty of suspense, and one or two nice mysteries. It’s a long time since I read the novel, but the adaptation is, I think, reasonably faithful to the original.

I don’t read much sci-fi (though I’m an avid watcher of Dr Who), but in Waterloo Sunset, I have used science fiction as one of the background elements. The reasons for this relate to the theme, as well as the plot. Harry Devlin spends quite a lot of time in a (fictitious) bar called the Stapledon. I named it after Olaf Stapledon, a Merseyside man who wrote well-regarded science fiction books in his spare time. (Has there ever been another Scouser called Olaf? I wonder.) He went to the same Oxford college as me and worked in a shipping office in Liverpool close to my own office. Nevertheless, I haven’t yet got round to reading any of his novels. Perhaps a treat in store?

Back to John Wyndham. His first literary executor was a friend of mine, a solicitor who was a marvellous companion, but confessed – to my amazement, for in all other respects he was a civilised fellow of fine judgment – to having no interest whatsoever in fiction. Maddeningly, when I interrogated him about what John Wyndham was like, and what he had to say about his books, he could recall very little. Wyndham was evidently a quiet and private individual, pleasant but not inclined to open up too easily.

I did, however, recently discover a little known fact - that, in the 1930s, Wyndham wrote a detective story called Foul Play Suspected, under the name John Beynon. It’s a rare book, which cropped up on eBay a while back and was sold for a sizeable sum.

There are plenty of other writers who have crossed over between sci-fi and crime. Isaac Asimov is an obvious example, and the excellent Fredric Brown achieved success in both genres. Among detective writers who have dabbled are W.J. Burley and P.D. James, while a good many novels combine elements of both genres. I’ve never tackled sci-fi myself, but I would like to have a go one of these days – in a short story, not a novel.


Ali Karim said...

Good points Martin - and there is a healthy tradition of Mystery / SF crossover historically - More recently exponents such as Mike Marshall [Smith], Paul McAuley are worth exploring -


Anonymous said...

I would like to read that John Wyndham detective novel, having loved all his SF books when a teenager. They were just so good!

These days, it seems more fashionable to do your crossovers all within one book. The Eve Dallas books of J D Robb (pen name of Nora Roberts) spring to mind as "SF police procedurals".

A more direct answer to your question-- maybe "Children of Men" by P D James, compared with her other output? I confess to going by the recent film because although I read the book it is too long ago to remember whether it was as "SF" as the film made it out to be.

The pseudonym angle is also interesting - Michael Innes/J I M Stewart is one example -- not that he wrote SF, but he wrote detective under the Innes moniker.

C Day Lewis/Nicholas Blake -- poetry/detective

Vine/Rendell detective/detective (!) though Vine is more "psychological".

Another Lewis, C. S. wrote three (?) SF novels that I read when young, but I can't recall if "under his own name" to quote. As well as the Narnia books (these days, would be called YS SF), he wrote serious theology eg The Screwtape Letters.

Unknown said...


Stapledon is wonderful, though a bit of an old-fashioned read these days. Very philosophical subject matter.
There are loads of crime and Sf authors who have worked in both genres. Did you know Reg Hill did a couple of books as Dick Morland?

Anonymous said...


The legend, if I remember rightly, is that uber-editor John W. Campbell (a legend himself) pontificated that SF (science fiction) and the mystery story were incompatible, and that Isaac Asimov took it as a challenge to prove him wrong.

In his own Introduction to "Asimov's Mysteries" (1968), Asimov admits:

"Oddly enough, it was the mystery form [and not others such as Westerns or romances] that seemed most difficult to amalgamate with science fiction. Surely this is unexpected. One would think that science fiction would blend easily with the mystery. Science itself is so nearly a mystery and the research scientist so nearly a Sherlock Holmes.

"And if we want to reverse things, are there not mysteries that make use of the 'scientific mind'? R. Austin Freeman's Dr. Thorndyke is an example of a well-known and successful (fictional) scientist-detective.

"And yet science fiction writers seemed to be inhibited in the face of the science fiction mystery.

"Back in the late 1940s, this was finally explained to me. I was told that 'by its very nature' science fiction would not play fair with the reader. In a science fiction story, the detective could say, 'But as you know, Watson, ever since 2175, when all Spaniards learned to speak French, Spanish has been a dead language. How came Juan Lopez, then, to speak those significant words in SPANISH?'

"Or else, he could have his detective whip out an odd device and say, 'As you know, Watson, my pocket-frannistan is perfectly capable of detecting the hidden jewel in a trice.'

"Such arguments did not impress me.

"[Of course] you DON'T spring new devices on the reader and solve the mystery with them. You DON'T take advantage of future history to introduce AD HOC phenomena. In fact, you carefully explain all facets of the future background well in advance so the reader may have a decent chance to see the solution.

"But talk is cheap, so I put my typewriter where my mouth was, and in 1953 wrote a science fiction mystery novel called THE CAVES OF STEEL (Doubleday, 1954). It was accepted by the critics as a good science fiction novel AND a good mystery and after it appeared I never heard anyone say that science fiction mysteries were impossible to write. I even wrote a sequel called THE NAKED SUN (Doubleday, 1957) just to show that the first book wasn't an accident."

(ASIMOV'S MYSTERIES, pages 13-15)

This was long before Asimov published his first Black Widowers mystery in EQMM.

And good luck on that story; if you can combine mystery with science fiction, all the better.

Best regards,
Mike Tooney

Juliet said...

Fascinating post. Not least re the literary executor with no taste for things literary! A bit of a waste, really.

I too devoured all the John Wyndham books I could lay my hands on as a teenager, and absolutely loved them, especially The Midwich Cuckoos and The Chrysalids, both of which I read several times over. Yet neither then nor since have I been able to stomach any other 'sci-fi' (apart from H G Wells - so I clearly fit the mould you describe very well!)

At the risk of becoming a Complete Radio Drama Bore, I'll just mention that there was an excellent R4 dramatisation of Midwich Cuckoos, starring Bill Nighy and Sarah Parish a couple of years ago, which was aired again on R7 just before Christmas. For people who enjoy being spooked as they drive, it's available on CD from

Martin Edwards said...

Ali, I do have a Michael Marshall Smith in my (frighteningly massive) to be read pile. I hope to get round to it before too long.

Petrona, I too would love to read Wyndham's detective effort. But it is very elusive indeed. The manuscript is, I think, held by Liverpool Uni, which has a large sci-fi collection. Again, one of these days I'd like to nip round there for half a day or so and take a look.
Pseudonyms - very interesting subject. I shall post about them soon.

Martin Edwards said...

Maxim, I've read 'Albion, Albion!' by Reg writing as Dick Morland,but not the other Morland title.
Am I right in recalling that you wrote for 'Dr Who' at one time?

Mike - very interesting; thanks. I went through a brief Asimov phase as a student, but haven't read anything by him for a very long time.

Juliet, I'm definitely in the market for recommendations of good audio books to ease the tedium of the daily commute. I tend to like the less concentration-demanding stories (eg Paul Temple mysteries) so that the driving doesn't suffer. I tried to listen to a rather complex Booker Prize nominated novel once and found it a bit distracting!

Juliet said...

Oh dear, now I'm worried that you will listen to Midwich Cuckoos and skid off the road when it gets really scary and it will all be my fault for recommending it! Please DON'T buy it, ok?

Ed Gorman said...

My first wife and I were such John Wyndham fans that we named our son Joseph Wyndham Gorman.

Martin Edwards said...

Ed, that's a wonderful story! Does he like science fiction?

Juliet, worry not. I have coped with the innumerable killings, bombings and car crashes in the Paul Temple saga. It's books with obscure intellectual complexities that might take my eye off the traffic cones!

Anonymous said...

How about "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency" and/or "The long dark Teatime of the Soul"(best title ever)?
As long as you don;t take over Dirks driving style...

Martin Edwards said...

Good suggestions, Liesbeth!

Karen (Euro Crime) said...

You can't get any easier listening material than the Mma Ramotswe books read by Hilary Neville. And they conjure up sun and warmth!

Martin Edwards said...

Good suggestion!