SFF Whodunnits

A post at Crime Reads: 9 GREAT SPECULATIVE WHODUNNITS

I’ve got one that they probably missed, and one or two more that might possibly be included, but let’s see! This post begins this way:

I love a great whodunnit, and one with sorcery or sentient spaceships is even better. In my debut novel, The Longest Autumn, priestess Tirne must solve just such a mystery. As one of four seasonal Heralds, it is her job to escort the deity Autumn between the human and godly realms each year for his season. But this time, the magic mirror separating their worlds shatters after they pass through. Tirne is accused of sabotage, and her title of Herald is stripped from her. The world is trapped in endless autumn. While sorcerers and priests work to repair the mirror, crops fail and plague sweeps through the populace. Time runs out as Tirne dives into her temple’s intrigues to find the true culprit, clear her name, and regain her prestigious position as Herald.

This does not sound appealing to me, and why not? A specific common trope is centered in this story, and it’s one I particularly dislike. I’m not sure I identified this as a trope, and in particular a trope I hate, until now, when I said to myself, I just flinched away from this book; why did that happen?

It’s this line: Tirne is accused of sabotage, and her title of Herald is stripped from her.

I really, truly dislike the trope of false accusation, particularly of humiliation that comes from false accusation. This is not a rare trope! This is common! Then the person works hard, clears their name, triumphs over the bad guy, and everyone celebrates. That’s all very well, but the dark period that comes after the false accusation, especially public and underserved humiliation, is very difficult for me to get through. If I see that a story has this plot element, I am unlikely to pick up the book. Even if the novel has glowing reviews — even if people here tell me it’s great –– I will remain reluctant to pick up that novel. If I hit that trope in the middle of a novel, I may stop reading. This is true even if I know for certain the person clears their name. I hate it that much.

However, obviously not all Whodunnits have this element. Most don’t. I wonder what SFF mysteries this post is going to pick out? Let’s see:

The Death I Gave Him by Em X Liu. This unique spin on Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a closed-circle, futuristic murder mystery set at Elsinore Labs.

Okay, that sounds interesting! A Hamlet retelling! Didn’t see that coming.

Told through fictional memoir excerpts, phone transcripts, and descriptions of security footage, it’s the perfect blend of the literary and science fiction genres.

Still interesting! I enjoy epistolary novels. I don’t particularly like tragedies, of course, but a take on Hamlet? That really does sound interesting.

Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey. Ivy Gamble is a hard-drinking loner of a private investigator, hired to solve a grisly murder at a magical high school. Her estranged sister is a teacher there, and the story perfectly balances Ivy’s personal stakes and fractured relationships alongside the murder case.

Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty. In a world where cloning allows anyone to extend their lifespan indefinitely, the six-person crew of a spaceship all wake up as fresh clones in their ship’s lab. They emerge into their own murder scene. Their previous bodies are obviously decades older, but all memories of their time on the ship are missing. Together, they must discover what happened over the past years and solve the mystery. Complicating matters, every one of them has past crimes they’d prefer to keep hidden.

Voyage of the Damned by Frances White. Twelve magical heirs of a kingdom–one from each province–embarking on a luxury ship for a pilgrimage to their sacred mountain. On the first night, one of their number is murdered.

Even Though I Knew the End by CL Polk. Helen Brandt … made a deal with a demon ten years ago. The collection date for her soul is only days away when she receives an offer she can’t refuse. A new demon offers to return her soul if she uses her mystical abilities to track down the White City Vampire, a serial killer who’s been stalking the streets.

This book has a great cover:

But although I love this cover, I am also pushed away by the obvious horror vibe. I know Polk writes dark. That plus this cover means I am unlikely to try this book. Thus we see that a cover can be amazing and cool and evocative and so on, but still signal a reader: NO.

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo. Alex Stern [is] a young woman with the rare and extraordinary ability to see ghosts. This gift earns her an invitation to attend Yale University, where she uses this talent to monitor the university’s mystical secret societies. The upper-class students use various forms of magic to charm their way into politics, manipulate the stock market, and climb the social ladder even higher. But when a girl is murdered and the underground societies are possible culprits, Alex must find the killer. 

The Deep Sky by Yume Kitasei. In the past, the protagonist Asuka struggles with questions of identity, belonging, and family on a dying Earth, all while competing with other hopefuls for a place on the mission. In the present, an explosion during the journey kills three people and knocks the ship off-course. Asuka is the lone survivor of the explosion and accused of the crime. 

Winters Orbit by Everina Maxwell. Set in a fictional high-tech solar system, a prince dies suddenly. His cousin Kiem is tasked with marrying the prince’s widower Jainan to secure political alliances. When it’s revealed that the prince was murdered, Jainan is the prime suspect. He and Kiem search for the truth behind the crime while they grow ever closer to one another. 

Murder at Spindle Manor by Morgan Stang. Isabeau Agarwal is a monster hunter seeking her latest quarry at a quaint roadside inn. The beast can hide in human form, and she must determine which of the residents is actually the inhuman creature. But the investigation is made even more complicated when one of the guests is killed.

Okay, those are the nine from this post, and I have to say, almost all of them sound good! That’s unexpected! More extensive comments for each book if you would like to click through to the post at Crime Reads. I tried to pull out a good teaser from each.

I have of course already read Winter’s Orbit, and while I thought it was flawed, I also thought it was amazingly catchy and I liked it a lot. Of the other’s, I’m shying away from The Deep Sky, ,and of course it’s obvious why, right? Of course. It’s the false accusation.

Lafferty’s setup sounds amazing; a lot of these do sound really promising, I hardly know which sounds the most intriguing. That last one looks light and fun. What are some more SFF Whodunnits? A few did immediately leap to mind for me:

Wrapt in Crystal by Sharon Shin. Here are my comments about this book, which I took as a mystery, but which Sharon told me she thought of as kind of a Western. I think it works both ways.

The City and the City by China Mieville. Have you all read this? It’s my favorite of Mieville’s.

Jade Dragon Mountain by Elsa Hart. I have not read this, though it’s on my TBR pile. Someday, someday …

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All right, comments? Have any of you read anything here? Or do you have another SFF Whodunnit you’d like to add ot the list? Drop ’em in the comments!

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8 thoughts on “SFF Whodunnits”

  1. I feel like I should be able to think of more, but while a lot of the urban fantasy books I read involve investigations, they don’t feel like whodunnits.

  2. Have read and very much enjoyed three of these: Ninth House, Even Though I Knew the End and Six Wakes.

  3. The Spare Man by Mary Robinette Kowal is a recent SF mystery. I really like Kowal’s writing, this sounds like lots of fun, I enjoyed what I read of it … but I haven’t finished it for dislike of the same trope you dislike. The main character’s new husband is wrongly accused of murder. I expect I’ll come back to it at some point.

    Katherine Addison’s two sequels to The Goblin Emperor that follow Thara Celehar’s career, The Witness for the Dead and The Grief of Stones, have mystery elements.

    An old favorite, hasn’t entirely aged well (some casual misogyny), but the Lord Darcy stories by Randall Garrett. Sherlock Holmesish in an alternate England with magic.

    The Djinn books/stories by P Djeli Clark, in an alternate Egypt. The Haunting of Tram Car 015 and A Master of Djinn. There’s at least one more but I haven’t read it.

    They are more adventure tales than mysteries, but The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox by Barry Hughart, have some crime-solving threads.

  4. Elsa Hart’s Li Du novels are not fantasy but you talked about her in the blog at some point and I enjoyed them, particularly in how they talk about the imperial examinations that I really first read about in Phoenix Feather.

  5. Alexis Hall wrote a LGBTQIA+ Sherlock Holmes inspired novel which is titled, IIRC, The Affair of the Mysterious Letter. I really enjoyed it, enough so that I’ve always wanted a sequel. It’s got both SF and fantasy elements. I’m racking my brain for other examples, but like SarahZ, having trouble coming up with more. How about Patricia Wrede’s A Scholar of Magics and A College of Magics, which both have mystery elements? As for the books you listed, I liked Magic for Liars; Six Wakes; Ninth House; The City and the City; and Winter’s Orbit. OtterB’s list is a good one as well, although the Lord Darcy stories are definitely products of their time, just as OtterB notes. I’m going to check out the other books mentioned which I haven’t read yet, so thanks everyone!

  6. The Katherine Addison books are great. Alexis Hall has a series about Kate Kane, paranormal investigator. I simply adore them. There is a pudding nun. Everyone should read these books.

    Tangentially, Hall also writes excellent book reviews.

  7. Hmmmm – I thought CL Polk wrote fluffy-sapphic slightly steampunk-ish fantasies… I rather liked her Witchmark series… I’m off to explore.

    In terms of others…. I loved Jodi Taylors ‘Just One Damned Thing After Another’ – time machines and the havoc they can wreak with a whodunnit (sort of) at the core.

    And Natasha Pulley’s first novel ‘The Watchmaker of Filigree Street’ is a fantasy-historical thriller that’s kind-of wrapped up in a crime novel, though if she were a kosher crime writer, her editor would have had kittens. Still, anything/everything she writes is gold-dust beautiful, so I’m not complaining.

    Katherine Addison’s ‘Witness for the Dead’ and it’s sequel, ‘The Grief of Stones’ (both of them sequels in the same world as The Goblin Emperor – which is one of my favourite novels of all time, along with Tuyo and Natasha Pulley’s The Kingdoms) are both basically crime novels set in a slightly steam-punk world of elves and goblins

    Venomous Lumpsucker by Dan Beaumont is a literary who-dunnit (of sorts) where the two main protagonists are trying to work out who committed a hit on the last remaining DNA stores of various extinct species. It’s great.

    Not sure these count as what you’re meaning, but they’re all fun.

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