Malka Older mashes classic crime fiction detective tropes with a science fiction premise and some ferocious world building in her latest book The Mimicking of Known Successes. Older’s new book has been described as “cosy”, a form of crime fiction usually set in quaint English villages, which is odd given its setting in the atmosphere of Jupiter. But in riffing on Sherlock Holmes it does invite that comparison. But crime fiction provides both a familiar structure and a gives her characters a reason for exploring their milieu.
The book’s prologue involves a missing person. Investigator Mossa has been sent to the platform at the end of the railcar line where a man has disappeared into the fog. It is presumed that he jumped. The colony that Mossa is part of is built on platforms that orbit in the atmosphere of Jupiter (called Giant by its inhabitants), each joined a series of railways. When Mossa discovers that the man was an academic at the university she realises that she needs to reconnect with her old lover Pleite, herself an academic. The rest of the book is narrated by Pleite as she becomes instrumental in helping Mossa with the case but also finds her attraction being rekindled. The case itself will take them across the colony, and intersect with the work that Pleite and her colleagues are doing to support the eventual return to a damaged Earth.
Mossa is an intuitive and insightful investigator, while Pleite is more methodical and works to keep Mossa grounded. The unresolved attraction between the two, complicated by Mossa’s apparent lack of emotion, adds to the dynamic of the relationship. This pairing is pulled straight from the Holmes and Watson dynamic and is increasingly used in crime fiction duos. At one point Pleite needs to do her own investigating not to solve the crime itself but just to keep up with Mossa. But the reason this approach is used so much is because it works.
The narrative gives Older a chance, through her characters to explore her futuristic gaslight-noir milieu. Yes this is a colony in orbit around Jupiter but it still has train lines, tea shops, a kind of strange zoo and a fusty university.
There are few better genres for really digging in to a place and a time than the crime genre. As far back as Isaac Asimov’s robot detective books (The Caves of Steel (1953) and The Naked Sun (1956)) science fiction authors have been using the genre to support their world building. The set up usually allows a detective to move around a society, engage with people and make observations about how it all works. Some recent examples of this approach include John Scalzi’s Lock in, Chris Brookmyer’s Places in the Darkness, Alastair Reynold’s The Prefect and Elysium Fire and Eddie Robson’s Drunk on All Your Strange New Worlds. And when the two genres come together well (as they do here), they support each other – giving an expansive view of a particular milieu but also a structure on which to hang the plot.
The challenge with mashing science fiction and crime is getting all of the elements of both genres right. And it is here that this book suffers a little in that while the solution is clever and partially set up, there are some elements missing that would allow readers to make all of the connections they need. Part of this is that the solution relies on a deeper understanding of the world, and particularly the academic world, in which the action is set and perhaps a longer narrative would have allowed these dots to be connected more securely. But this is a minor quibble in what is an enjoyable introduction to new characters and a world that it seems Older is likely to explore further.