Down Those Mean Skies…

The Case of the Private Detective in Science Fiction, Fantasy and Related Genres

“I’ve seen the future, brother/It is murder.”
Leonard Cohen, “The Future”

“I checked out with K19 on Aldabaran III, and stepped out through the crummalite hatch on my 22 Model Sirus Hardtop. I cocked the timejector in secondary and waded through the bright blue manda grass. My breath froze into pink pretzels. I flicked on the heat bars and the Brylls ran swiftly on five legs using their other two to send out crylon vibrations. The pressure was almost unbearable, but I caught the range on my wrist computer through the transparent cysicites. I pressed the trigger. The thin violet glow was ice-cold against the rust-colored mountains. The Brylls shrank to half an inch long and I worked fast stepping on them with the poltex. But it wasn’t enough. The sudden brightness swung me around and the Fourth Moon had already risen. I had exactly four seconds to hot up the disintegrator and Google had told me it wasn’t enough. He was right.”

They pay brisk money for this crap?

Raymond Chandler on sci-fi, in a 1953 letter to his agent (Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler)
(It should be noted he wrote the passage which he’s commenting on.)

Let’s get one thing straight — nobody’s ever accused me of being a big sci-fi or fantasy or speculative fiction or whatever-the-hell-you-call-it-this-week kinda guy. Hell, it’s just too much fun laughing at Trekkies in their styrofoam Spock ears, and anyone over twelve years of age carrying a light sabre on a day other than October 31 is basically wearing a cosmic “Kick Me” sign.

But I’m not denying that the two genres, science fiction and detective fiction, sometimes do overlap.

It all started years ago when, at the urging of several of my sci-fi pals back in Montreal, I reluctantly tuned in to watch an episode of TV’s Quantum Leap (this article was originally written in 1990, back when the internet itself seemed to  exist for most folks only in the realm of science fiction) because it was a rerun of an episode they insisted I would enjoy. That night’s episode promised our intrepid time traveler’s reincarnation as a hard-boiled 1953 private eye — charged with his partner’s murder, no less.

Okay, that did interest me. Yeah, I knew the show wasn’t a mystery program, much less a detective show, but I figured a little science fiction never hurt anyone.

I figured wrong.

Now, my friends had always been after me, telling me about all these great sci-fi detectives I should check out. They suggested Blade Runner, Larry Niven’s Gil Hamilton, Isaac Asimov’s Lije Baley and R.D. Olivaw and a host of others. But the highly touted episode was pure agony. Sort of like brushing your teeth with a brick. A bunch of shopworn clichés from both genres sprinkled over a generic plot that gave new meaning to the word “hackneyed.” The show wasn’t written so much as photocopied.

It left such an unpleasant taste in my mouth that — perhaps out of guilt — I just felt I had to give the whole concept of a science fiction/private eye fiction crossover another shot. That initial study lead to an article in a local Montreal fanzine, WARP, the “Official Newsletter of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association.”

Surprise, surprise, I discovered more than a few sci-fi/P.I.’s that didn’t totally suck. And more than a few writers over the years who had tried — with varying degrees of success — to merge the sci-fi and detective genres, treating them with respect. Sure, there were still plenty of cut-and-paste mash-ups that betray the hack’s total lack of understanding of either genre, or the dearth of imagination that reduces a genre to its most obvious clichés and over-used tropes.

But any twist on a genre that doesn’t kill it only makes it stronger. Or, as Dylan put it, “He not busy being born is busy dying.”


Of course, first of all, I’m talking private eyes here. Not cops, not soldiers, not even mercenaries, all of which appear with alarming frequency in sci-fi. Probably something to do with a sort of kneejerk conservative faith in authority and technology and organization, whereas the private eye tends to be a bit more of a loner and even a rebel, of sorts, whatever his political values are. After all, he’s doing a job the police can’t or won’t or maybe even shouldn’t do. The private eye, at least in my book, serves no master, save for his client and his own particular code of ethics.

Despite that, science fiction and detective fiction do have a lot in common. They share similar, parallel histories, both tracing their roots back to the last part of the nineteenth century (Jules Verne, Edgar Allan Poe, H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle).

Both were reborn in the early part of the twentieth century, and gained large followings due to the pulp magazines of the day, including, it should be noted, the short-lived, but prophetic Scientific Detective Monthly of 1930.

Gradually the best of the pulp writers (and yes, some of the worst) graduated to novels. Later exposure through film and television greatly expanded the genres’ audiences. So greatly, in fact, that, to the general (and generally non-reading) public, science fiction conjures up images of Star Trek, Star Wars and the like, while private eyes are relegated to old Humphrey Bogart flicks or maybe Jim Rockford or, God help us, Magnum P.I.  But take a gander down the aisles of any decently-sized bookstore. Check out the size of the science fiction and mystery sections. See that? The only other genre fiction section that even comes close is Romance.

Western? War? Men’s adventures? Everything else falls far behind.

And, of course, several writers have worked in both genres. Sci-fi writers who came over t crime include Leigh Brackett, queen of the space operas, whose first novel was actually the private eye classic No Good From a Corpse, recently excerpted on this site. She went on to write the screenplays for The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye, two classic P.I. films based on novels by Raymond Chandler. Manly Wade Wellman wrote a straight P.I. novel, Find My Killer (1949). So has Keith Laumer with Deadfall in 1971. And writers such as the afore-mentioned Asimov and Niven, Alfred Bester, Poul Anderson, George Alec EffingerAvram Davidson, and Philip K. Dick were no strangers to mystery either.

Anthony Boucher, renowned sci-fi author and co-founding editor of The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, was also editor for several years of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and the revered mystery critic for The New York Times Book Review. In fact, the most important annual convention for crime and detective fiction buffs is called Bouchercon, in his honour. He also wrote perhaps one of the first amalgams of the mystery and sci-fi fields, with his classic 1942 Rocket to the Morgue, some editions which conclude with a note from Boucher urging mystery fans to give science fiction a shot.

And it’s been a two-way street. Several notable crime writers have also dabbled in sci-fi and fantasy, including Donald Westlake, John D. MacDonald, Michael Collins, Erle Stanley Gardner, Lynn S. Hightower, Mike Avallone and Lawrence Block. Even Chandler himself reportedly wrote a fantasy short story.

And then there are those genre-straddling writers who belong to neither camp (or, more correctly, both camps), including Fredric Brown, Ray Bradbury, Max Brand, Murray Leinster, Ray Cummings, Ron Goulart and William F. Nolan.

However, my concern this month is not so much which writers work both sides of the street, but those who’ve plunked themselves smack dab in the middle of the street, ignoring traffic, and created something unique, a whole new sub-sub-genre, the sci-fi/P.I. crossover.

I was surprised, in researching the original article, to discover how many people have attempted it. And how some of them have even been worth the paper they’ve been printed on. Not all of them, mind you. There are also some real turkeys, and some real heartbreaks along the road.

But there are also many who do honour to both genres, as you can see by our ever-expanding list. And so, may I submit, for your consideration, the following:


Report respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith, freely adapted from an article I did way back in the December 1990 issue of WARP, a Montreal sci-fi newsletter. It was my first published piece, I think. I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now. Thanks to WARP’S editor, Keith Braithwaite for starting this whole mess.

One thought on “Down Those Mean Skies…

  1. You need to read the Mathew Swain series by Mike McQuay. 4 novels published in early 80s about a 21st century private eye. Beautifully written in a hardboiled style…they are precursors to the whole cyberpunk genre. I highly reccommend them.

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