China Miéville's detective story The City And The City is well on its way to being the award-winningest novel of the year. But it's not the only great novel about science fiction/fantasy sleuths. Here are 10 other SF detective classics.
Speculative fiction and detective fiction have a lot in common — they're both about digging down to the truth of matters. Fictional scientists and explorers, like detectives, follow clues and act on hunches. The truth is enshrouded in an ocean of red herrings and false trails. Plus, a lot of great science fiction authors, like Ray Bradbury and Robert Silverberg, also wrote detective novels, for money or as a change of pace.
A Philosophical Investigation by Philip Kerr
I loved this book when it came out in the early 1990s, but I see it has tons of mixed reviews online. In a nutshell, it's the future — the year 2013 — and we've replaced executions with punitive comas as a method of punishment for extreme criminals. And a neurologist has discovered that men with a particular brain configuration are much more likely to become sociopaths and serial killers. Everybody gets tested, and the list of men with this deficiency is kept on file, with each man given a code name from the Penguin Book of Great Thinkers. One of the men, codenamed Wittgenstein, finds out about his diagnosis — so he hacks into the confidential database and erases his information, then goes around killing the other men on the list. And the serial killer begins to see his murders through the lens of Wittgenstein's philosophy. It's up to police officer Isadora "Jake" Jakowicz to find out who Wittgenstein is and stop his murder spree. Like I said, I loved it.
The Retrieval Artist novels by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
This series, which started with the short story "The Retrieval Artist," takes place in the future, when the Moon has been colonized for centuries and humans are in contact with lots of alien races. And when humans inadvertently break the laws of alien cultures, they have to face those aliens' punishments — no matter how bizarre or severe. And people sometimes try to disappear, or change their identities, to avoid this harsh alien justice. Detective Miles Flint and his partner Noelle DeRicci wind up solving murders whose solution is often startling — like the cleaning robots were reprogrammed to rearrange the crime scene, or the murder wasn't what it first appears — and at the same time, avoid offending the strange customs of the alien races living amongst us.
When Gravity Fails by George Alec Effinger
It's the 22nd century, and the Arab world has advanced far beyond the West, into a cyberpunk marvel. Marid Audran is a cocky, wisecracking hero who's forced to solve a series of brutal murders — the killer is using "moddies" to download the personalities and skills of some of history's most bestial serial killers into his brain, making him more than a match for the non-upgraded Audran. Audran finally discovers and overpowers the killer, but his problems are just beginning.
Tea From An Empty Cup by Pat Cadigan
Detective Dore Konstantin is called upon to investigate the murder of a young man inside an Artificial Reality chamber, and discovers that he died the exact same way inside the game as in reality. Her investigations into AR worlds lead her into the VR gamescape of post-apocalyptic Noo Yawk Sitty, and she begins to discover that other people have died while wired into the game. The murders turn out to be part of something much more complex, and startling.
The Automatic Detective by A. Lee Martinez
Mack Megaton is a nearly indestructible robot, built by a scientist bent on world domination. But he's gained free will, and decided to give up the world-domination racket in favor of assimilating with society and driving a cab. So far so good — until his neighbors are kidnapped and he decides to find them. His quest takes him into the secrets of Empire City, aka Technotopia, and he confronts talking gorillas, mutant villains and robot thugs, eventually going on a rampage of destruction that might just save Empire City.
Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan
Another cyberpunk-esque noir future, in which people can be "shelved" and then later "resleeved" into new bodies. For the super-rich, known as Meths (or Methuselahs), it's possible to remain young and healthy for hundreds of years, just regrowing a new body whenever you want one. So when someone apparently murders wealthy asshole Laurens Bancroft, he just gets resleeved in a new body soon afterwards. But he still wants to know who killed him, so he hires/enslaves former soldier and current convict Takeshi Kovacs, giving Kovacs a new body, which happens to have a nicotine addicition and a few other annoying quirks. Possibly the greatest classic of the "future noir" genre. James McTeigue (Ninja Assassin, V For Vendetta) wants to make the movie version.
Gun, With Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem
Lethem's trippiest novel, this book follows Conrad Metcalf, a detective in a world where asking questions is considered shockingly rude, and guns have a violin soundtrack. He's looking for the murder of a prominent urologist, and this takes him through a futuristic version of Oakland and San Francisco, in a world full of weird drugs, uplifted animals, babies with adult consciousness and erotic nerve-swapping. The mob has a kangaroo enforcer. And psychology is now considered a weird cult. Lethem writes the whole thing in a wise-acre Chandler pastiche, which makes it just so bizarrely awesome. "The sky was clean and blue. I tried to concentrate on it, to keep my mind off what I'd just held in my arms and pressed against my body, as well as the fact that I made my living picking the scabs off other people's lives. But the day I can't shrug off a twinge of self-pity is the day I'm washed up for keeps."
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams
The creator of the Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy series turns his twisted mind to detective fiction, and creates a story so convoluted, that will turn your brain into haggis. The plot revolves around a ghost possessing a guy to kill another guy, and also embedding clues into the poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge that will allow him to use a secret time machine to prevent his spaceship from blowing up four billion years in the past. It's sort of a mash-up of the Doctor Who stories "Shada" and "City Of Death," but the genius is in the telling of it and the way in which the titular "holistic detective" infers stuff based on the fundamental inter-connectedness of all things.
The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon
One of the great meldings of detective fiction with alternate history — the other one being Robert Harris' Fatherland, which is in the list of "other notable titles" below — Chabon's Hugo Award-winning novel takes place in an alternate world where the Jews settled a patch of Alaska and Israel was never founded. Mayer Landsman, an alcoholic homicide cop, is called to investigate the execution-style murder of a man in a residence hotel. But the chess-playing victim turns out to be more than he first appears. Chabon's prose pays homage to Chandler, as well as Ross MacDonald and Dashiell Hammett, but his alternate-history worldbuilding elevates the story beyond the pure detective genre, and creates something much stranger and funnier.
The Caves Of Steel by Isaac Asimov
As Asimov writes in his introduction to one edition, "[John] Campbell had often said that a science fiction mystery story was a contradiction in terms; that advances in technology could be used to get detectives out of their difficulties unfairly, and that the readers would therefore be cheated. I sat down to write a story that would be a classic mystery and that would not cheat the reader — and yet would be a true science-fiction story. The result was The Caves Of Steel." In a nutshell, in this novel and The Naked Sun, Asimov pioneers the human-robot "buddy cop" genre, with policeman Elijah Baley paired with robot detective R. Daneel Olivaw.
Other notable titles:
The Andrea Cort novels by Adam-Troy Castro, the KOP novels by Warren Hammond, the October Daye novels by Seanan McGuire, Daymare by Frederic Brown, Zombies Of The Gene Pool by Sharyn McCrumb, The Johnson and HARV novels by John Zakour, The Elysium Commission by L.E. Modesitt, Jr., Dark Heart by Margaret Weis and David Baldwin, The Victory Nelson series by Tanya Huff, The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher, Sacred Ground by Mercedes Lackey, The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester, Fatherland by Robert Harris, and the Arabesk novels by Jon Courtenay Grimwood.
There are also several anthologies of SF detective stories, including Isaac Asimov's Detectives, a collection of mystery stories from the pages of Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, Mike Resnick's Down These Dark Spaceways, and the Asimov-edited 13 Crimes Of Science Fiction.