Seven Speculative Fiction Books All Mystery Writers Need to Read (by Mike McHone)

The more you read, the better you’ll write. Good words to live by. Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, and numerous others have offered similar advice. From a writer’s perspective, reading a variety of stories can help you understand how to craft dialogue, plot, pacing, and how to stick the landing when you’re heading toward the end of your own work in progress. But “variety” is the key word. It doesn’t just help you to check out the classics, the greats, the bestsellers, and recommended reads in the genre in which you love to work, it might also be a big help to read stories from a genre that you’ve probably never read before or wouldn’t expect to enjoy at first blush.

I have a friend whom I’ll call Dave (mostly because that’s his name). Dave is well-read, but for years he wouldn’t touch anything if Stephen King’s name was on the cover. I’d recommend certain books, and Dave would roll his eyes. He wasn’t a fan of horror, fantasy, speculative fiction. He liked Hemingway, Faulkner, non-fiction, and crime novels. I asked if he liked the film Stand By Me. Of course, he said. I asked if he liked The Shawshank Redemption. He said yes, and added that only a moron wouldn’t like that movie. I said both were based on Stephen King novellas (The Body and Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption respectively). Dave cried and begged forgiveness.

Not really, but he did check out King’s Different Seasons, the collection which included the aforementioned novellas. He liked it, and from there he read Road Work, written under King’s pseudonym Richard Bachman, and a number of other Bachman books, and finally ended up breaking out of the crime and realism books of good ol’ Uncle Stevie and read It, Cujo, and even The Dark Tower series. He ended up becoming a fan, but he would’ve never known just how wonderful books like It, The Long Walk, Cell, or The Running Man are if he didn’t push himself out of his comfort zone and into The Dead Zone. (Sorry. I had to.)

It’s kind of like what your mom or dad might’ve told you when you were at the dinner table and turning your face up at asparagus and broccoli. How do you know you don’t like it unless you try it? Now, I’m not saying I’m going to treat you like you’re my kid, but if I find out you haven’t given at least one of these books a chance, you’re grounded and there’ll be no TV for a week.

Instead of King’s books, however, I went ahead and compiled a brief list of seven speculative and science fiction books that all mystery writers should check out. I might get a list together of seven Steve books we should all read, or seven horror books in general, but for now, we’re focusing on sci and spec.

Oh, and before I receive the obligatory why-didn’t-you-include-such-n-such book email, or before I read the assured you’re-an-idiot-because-you-didn’t-mention-such-n-such book comment, trust me, I know I’m leaving A LOT off this list, and, hey, what’s stopping you from writing one of your own after you’ve slogged through mine? After all, didn’t we already establish that the more you read, the better you’ll write?

See what I did there? Aren’t I cute?

Anyway, enough stalling. On with the list.

7. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon

From the author of Wonder Boys and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, comes an alternative history detective novel set in Sitka, Alaska, a post-World War II Jewish settlement. Detective Meyer Landsman investigates the murder of a man who lives in the same rundown hotel as Landsman and as the story progresses we find there a number of people in Sitka that don’t want the mystery solved. The main character draws from classic noir detectives like Sam Spade and Philip Marlow, and Chabon himself said the book was an homage to Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Ross Macdonald. It’s a great story that paints a vivid picture of both an evocative mystery and what could’ve been in a post-war world.   

6. The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead

“It’s a new elevator, freshly pressed to the rails, and it’s not built to fall this fast.”

Thus begins the debut novel of an amazing talent. Here we have another alternate history piece that details life of Lila Mae, the first African American female inspector for the Department of Elevators in a sprawling metropolitan city. Now, in fairness, you probably wouldn’t think the trials and tribulations of an elevator inspector wouldn’t make for a gripping spec fiction thriller, but you’d be wrong. Backstabbing, setups, intrigue, examinations of racial and gender bias, it’s all here in this amazing story.

In all, I struggled between putting this one and Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad on the list because the latter certainly deserves all the adulation it’s received since its release in 2016, winning the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award in the same year. I opted for The Intuitionist because I thought it was interesting to go back and check out Whitehead at the start of his career, but, really, people should read both books. In fact, just go ahead and read anything Whitehead has ever written, speculative fiction or otherwise. Hell, the guy’s grocery list is probably better than most short stories. The man is simply the best writer working today. 

5. The Caves of Steel by Issac Asimov

To say Issac Asimov was prolific would be like saying Bill Gates has a few bucks in his pocket. If you want to be in awe of the incredible number of short stories, novels, and non-fiction books the man turned out during his lifetime, check out his bibliography pages on Wikipedia, but be careful. You might wind up with a case of carpal tunnel while scrolling.

Asimov was known primarily for his Foundation, Galactic Empire, and Robot series. The Caves of Steel is part of the latter (as well as the Foundation series later on, but that’s a very long story). The interesting thing about this novel is the fact Asimov wrote it to prove science fiction could be injected into any kind of story and not just stick to the parameters of its own genre. Hence, we have a murder mystery complete with robots and interstellar travel.

Three-thousand years in the future, Earth is overpopulated. Those left behind live under massive metal domes while the luckier, wealthier earthlings move off-world and live in luxury on newly inhabited planets with their robot servants. The trouble is, the off-world types (Spacers as they’re called) don’t exactly have much love for Earth, so when a prominent scientist winds up dead, it threatens to cause a political shift where the Spacers enforce full rule over the Earth.

New York City detective Elijah Baley is partnered with R. Daneel Olivaw to solve the case. Trouble is, R. Daneel turns out to be a robot, and Elijah is prejudiced against robots. Although the world-building in this book is unmatched, and the core mystery intriguing, the budding relationship between Elijah and R. Daneel is what makes this novel one of Asimov’s best.   

4. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams

Aliens, ghosts, time travelers, the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, magic tricks, a missing cat, and . . . Well, if you’re not intrigued enough by now, you’ll probably never be.

The reason I’ve included this on the list is not just because it’s a detective story (and a sci-fi story, and a ghost story, and a romance story, etc. etc.) but because it’s a humorous detective story and Douglas Adams was simply one of the funniest human beings to have ever drawn a breath.

If you want to craft a comedic mystery yarn, you’ll do yourself a lot of favors by checking out the crime novels of Robert B. Parker, Gregory Mcdonald, Carl Hiassen, Dave Barry, or Tim Dorsey, but you should also check out this book for the sheer amount of madness Adams could weave into a few paragraphs. He knew how to pace a book as well as any bestseller, but had the comedic chops of a seasoned standup comic or sketch comedy writer. After all, this is a guy who cut his writing teeth with Monty Python, penned a few episodes of the classic Doctor Who series starring the funniest, and the best Doctor, Tom Baker (and I’ll knife-fight anyone who says different), and influenced the likes of Neil Gaiman (American Gods, Sandman, Coraline) and Dan Harmon (Community, Rik and Morty) with his magnum opus The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.

Seriously, if you don’t want to read the guy after this, I can’t help you.      

3. Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

I chose this book for three primary reasons. One, it’s a good lesson in how to pace a complex story (something all mystery and thriller writers need to learn), two, the prose is outstanding, and finally, not enough is written about the late, great Octavia E. Butler.

To put it briefly, the story concerns a young African American woman named Dana who slingshots unwillingly through the spacetime continuum between late-70s Los Angeles and mid-1800s Maryland where she experiences slavery and the journey of her ancestors firsthand. It’s unflinching, painful, heartbreaking, and brilliant. And it’s seen a bit of resurgence recently thanks to the mini-series currently streaming on Hulu.

This book breathes rarified air in the sense that it’s one of the few books that fits snugly in the science/speculative fiction category but highly regarded enough by critics and those in academia to rank it alongside George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and consider it serious literature (but those of us with taste understand already that just because a book can fit into a certain genre, it doesn’t mean that it’s kid’s stuff or lowbrow or not to be taken seriously). It should be noted that Butler was mentored early on by none other than Harlan Ellison (we’ll get to him in a minute) who sang her praises repeatedly throughout the years.

So, let’s take stock here. Asimov, Morrison, Orwell, Huxley, Vonnegut, Bradbury, and Ellison. Yes, this is the company the woman kept, and on some days I might put her above them all. She was simply that good.

Now, would anyone care to explain to me why she’s not required reading in every school on the planet?  

2. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? By Philip K. Dick

The book that inspired Blade Runner. Look, there have been countless articles, essays, and, yes, books about the novel, the movie, and Philp K. Dick, and to put it bluntly, I probably can’t add anything to the conversation aside from saying I love the film and the book and would count both amongst my favorites.

Even though the noir aspect is glaringly apparent when you watch the film, it is certainly found within the text. Dick draws heavily from the influences of the classic hardboiled detective genre in terms of scene, setting, and the way he crafts Rick Deckard, the haggard bounty hunter sent to “retire” renegade androids. Religious, philosophical, sexual, and identity themes seep in as they do in many of Dick’s works, but here, with the protagonist approaching his job coolly at first and becoming more and more despondent and dour as the story chugs along, one could easily see Deckard standing alongside the classic detectives or the busted-up drunk dicks haunting the pages of a pulp mag found on the dime store racks back in the 40s. If your only experience with this world is the film, you’re in for a treat when you crack this sucker open.

1. The Top of the Volcano: the Award-Winning Stories by Harlan Ellison

Admittedly, this one’s kind of a cheat. Not all the stories in this collection are speculative fiction. Some are horror, some are crime, some are something different entirely. But the common thread between them all is the unmistakable prose that only Harlan Ellison could put together.

I could’ve picked just about any short story collection by Ellison, of which there are many. The Deadly Streets and Gentleman Junkie and Other Stories of the Hung-Up Generation are from his early years and focus primarily on crime fiction or gritty urban lit. Paingod and Other Delusions comes right as he made a name for himself as a unique voice in speculative fiction. Shatterday, Strange Wine, No Doors, No Windows, are all good, brilliant really, but The Top of the Volcano is like a perfect greatest hits collection, hence a good intro to his career if you’ve never read him.

If author John Dickson Carr is correct in his statement that the natural habitat for a mystery story lies more within the parameters of a short story than a novel, anyone looking to refine their approach to short fiction absolutely, one hundred percent needs to read and study Harlan Ellison, no questions asked. He, in my not so humble opinion, ranks alongside Hemingway, O’Connor, Kafka, Poe, Dubus, Chekov, O. Henry, Oates, Twain, and Bradbury as one of the best short story writers the world ever produced.

Want to see a good example of how to inject heartache and loss in your story? Read “Jefty is Five.” Want to know how to craft a sense of dread and foreboding? Read “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” (which garnered the man his first Edgar Award). And if you want unrelenting terror, then you need to do yourself a favor and study “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.” The story doesn’t make your skin crawl, it doesn’t make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, it reduces your nervous system to mush, melts your bones, and leaves whatever’s left in a twisted, horrible wreck. Pardon my language, but the thing is a fucking masterpiece.

There are many more stories to list from Volcano and many more examples of how Ellison influenced generation upon generation of writers, filmmakers, video game designers, TV producers, and more. I could go on, but let me put a bow on all this by stating there’s a reason why Ellison was one of the most awarded writers of his or any generation (six Bram Stoker Awards, two Edgar Awards, ten and a half Hugo’s, five Nebula’s, four Writer’s Guild Awards, and eighteen Locus Poll Awards, amongst others). He was an unparalleled talent, and although his personality could be brash, to say the very least, the literary world is worse off without him, but at the very least, we have plenty of stories to enjoy far, far into the future.

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One response to “Seven Speculative Fiction Books All Mystery Writers Need to Read (by Mike McHone)

  1. Right, Mike! As you know, I write mostly crime, but I have a long love for science fiction (I wrote 4 SF books after all, lol). We share Dick, Adams, King, and Asimov (yes, I read Caves of Steel!). In the discovery drawer, I would tell you to go look at Connie Willis’ “The Doomsday Book”, it’s my super favorite, and Ian M. Banks’ “The Player of Games”. That’s great stuff. Horror is on my shelves too. Re-reading Kostova’s “The Historian” right now. It’s so good. I would also recommend taking a break from fiction from time to time. History is my go-to. Try Schama’s “Citizens” for starters… Cheers. Martine Proctor

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