I often think of science fiction and fantasy as a genre-shaped cloak for other kinds of stories. That’s not to detract from SFF or to say it’s derivative, but the best genre stories are still about the people at their center. That’s a universal part of storytelling.
I’m always on the lookout for crime stories in sci-fi and fantasy, and it’s exciting when I find a well-told mystery in a place I didn’t expect. I love diving into these types of novels and seeing the world building take place beside the mystery. Whether you’re a fan of these types of stories or have never given them a chance, I highly encourage you to check out these four different crime SFF novels. They’re all very well written and are incredible examples of the varied kinds of stories you can tell using genre.
The Hazel Wood - Melissa Albert
This provocative novel follows Alice, who has been on the move with her mother all her life. Her mom hasn’t gone into detail about why exactly it feels like they’re on the run; Alice just knows it has something to do with her mother’s childhood at her home, called The Hazel Wood. Alice’s grandmother is a recluse famous for writing a set of fairy tales with a cult following, and she hasn’t been seen outside The Hazel Wood in years. Alice has never met her grandmother.
All of this is just part of Alice’s life, but it becomes very important when something drastic happens. Alice’s mother is kidnapped by someone who claims to have come from the Hinterland, the mysterious land where Alice’s grandmother’s stories were set. Alice must figure out if the Hinterland is a real place, who took her mother, and how she can get her back. It’s a thoughtful and deliciously creepy novel, and when it’s over, it’s hard to let go. It’s thick with atmosphere and feels like the best kind of dark fairy tale.
Yesterday - Felicia Yap
The premise of Felicia Yap’s excellent novel is that the world is divided into two types of people: Monos can remember the last 24 hours, and Duos, the elite part of society, can remember the last 48. No one can remember more than that, though there are constant rumors of people who retain all their memories. Society functions through the use of detailed journals — both Monos and Duos write down everything that happened to them and review their entries daily.
When a woman is found murdered, the Duo police officer’s suspicion immediately falls on her lover, Mark. He’s a handsome Duo politician married to a Mono woman named Claire, who’s completely disillusioned by the news that her husband was having an affair. But everyone in this situation has secrets, and it’s riveting to watch the story unfold and understand just how deep the betrayal and lies go. Yap has constructed a world that looks much like ours, and through it asks provocative questions about the nature and fallibility of memory and what we think we know.
Six Wakes - Mur Lafferty
It’s hard to beat a classic locked-room mystery, except maybe when you do what Mur Lafferty did and set it aboard a spaceship. Six clones awaken to a gruesome sight: someone murdered their former bodies. Usually (according the world Lafferty creates) clones have their previous memories downloaded into their bodies before they’re awakened, allowing for an unlimited lifespan. But these clones awaken without access to those past memories, and they must figure out who among them is a killer.
It’s an incredibly gripping story, and it’s commendable that Lafferty was able to create such a rich world in one book. She delves into the pasts of each of the clones while also telling a tense story of survival on a spaceship. This book made FANGRRLS’ Best of 2017 list for sci-fi and fantasy books, and it does not disappoint.
Night Film - Marisha Pessl
It’s hard to describe Marsha Pessl’s masterpiece of a novel Night Film without giving too much away. It’s a haunting thriller, a literary page-turner about a journalist named Scott McGrath who’s spent much of his adult life obsessed with cult filmmaker Stanislas Cordova. Cordova hasn’t been seen in public in decades, and there isn’t much known about him. His work speaks for itself: dark, unsettling films that have hints of the paranormal surrounding them. Scott once worked on a story that aimed to uncover the man behind the persona, and it resulted in the end of his journalism career.
But now, Ashley Cordova, Stanislas’s daughter, is dead, and Scott is determined to uncover the truth behind what happened. He once again finds himself immersed in the world of Cordova’s fans and can’t stop probing for the truth that seems so elusive, even if it costs him everything. This novel is overwritten at times, but it’s absolutely gripping. Pessl immerses the reader in her dark, fictional world, and it becomes hard to tell what is real and what is imagined. This is a book you’ll want to read late into the night, and you’ll savor the nightmares that result.