Mystery books are often divided between contemporary or historical, hard-boiled or cozy. Is it a police procedural, a PI, or an amateur sleuth tale?
But murder and mayhem aren’t confined to a single genre. Even classic sci-fi writers like Isaac Asimov have written whodunnits. Here are three excellent books or series in sci-fi settings that give their protagonists a seriously twisty and thrilling mystery to solve.
Shovel Ready (the Spademan series)
Written by Adam Sternbergh
Set in a near future that has seen dirty bombs decimate New York City and many people ditching reality for a fully immersive VR Internet world, this series follows Spademan, a former garbageman turned assassin. Spademan is the definition of an anti-hero. He’s violent and he’s done many bad things. He’s not shy about torture and murder. In a future with sophisticated technology, his weapon of choice is his trusty box cutter. But he has a strong moral code, and he looks after the people who mean something to him. The gritty near-future setting feels familiar while weaving innovative plot elements into the story, with Spademan going back and forth between the ravaged real world and the slick VR plane that so many people have escaped to. The hard-boiled style is wonderfully noir. In Shovel Ready, we find Spademan taking on a contract to kill a famous evangelist’s daughter and becoming a reluctant sleuth as he becomes embroiled in the mystery surrounding her instead.
Written by Lauren Beukes
In this alternate reality set in Johannesburg, when you commit an egregious crime, you become “animalled,” that is, you literally get an animal, a familiar that you’re bonded with, who has to go with you everywhere. It’s an outward sign that you’re a criminal, and it opens you up to the undertow, which will eventually claim your soul. But the animal can also be handy, and it comes with a mashavi, or special power. Enter Zinzi, a pop journalist caught up in 419 scams to pay the bills for her drug habit. She’s got a sloth and an uncanny ability to find lost objects….or lost people. The last thing she wants is to go on a missing-persons hunt. Too messy. But she needs the cash, so she takes on a high-profile client looking for a missing pop singer. Kidnappings, murder, drugs, blackmail…all in a day’s work for Zinzi in this inventive and evocatively written mystery.
The Quantum Thief (the Jean le Flambeur series)
Written by Hannu Rajaniemi
The first book in the series is very much a conventional mystery. It just happens to take place on Mars. Really, that’s an oversimplification. This series is hard sci-fi that takes no prisoners. The author isn’t one for exposition, trusting you to figure out the tech, social customs, history, and even unfamiliar words from context. The tale begins with master thief Jean le Flambeur in a space prison, continuously fighting copies of himself in a neverending game of prisoner’s dilemma. He’s broken out by Mieli, an cybernetically enhanced assassin from the Oort Cloud, and her sentient spaceship. Together they go to the Oubliette, a perpetually moving city on Mars–think Howl’s moving castle on a grander scale. On Mars, time is currency. There, they meet a detective investigating the death of a chocolatier, and Jean begins to realize that he is missing memories, whole chunks of his life that his past self has left a trail of clues for him to find. Part heist, part murder mystery, you’ll be puzzling out the clues right up to the breathless finale.