I implore every fantasy and science-fiction writer to read some mysteries. Read the plot driven Agatha Christie novels to understand how clues are laid out, how testimonies contradict earlier statements, how the detective uses logic to determine the motive and method of the murder. Then go forget about that and read Raymond Chandler’s seminal essay The Art of Murder. The essay is a scathing rebuttal to the cozy mysteries, the absurd locales of exotic lands, rich duchesses, and other English patterned mysteries. This is where hard-boiled was born.
The novel I’m making slight voice/exposition updates called Through a Dark Lens, is heavily inspired by my love for Raymond Chandler novels. The best way I would pitch it is “wayward mage heir tracks down what happened the night he lost part of his memories and leads him to uncover a decades old conspiracy concerning himself, his family, and the tragedy of that day.” It can be better trimmed down, but that’s the basic plot in a nutshell.
But Chandler’s world evokes 1930s-1950s LA with gangsters, lounge singers, working class stiffs, the tension of movie moguls and needy actors, all through the eyes of a man of contradictions and not quite real but real enough, Phillip Marlowe. But I wrote a fantasy novel, not a straight wisecracking month long mystery. But what I did echo from Chandler’s works were the character interactions, the American grit in the streets, the bars, the clubs, a half destroyed ashed out nation buried alive, all through the eyes of the “detective”, a wayward mage prodigy who has to dig and find out what happened to himself, his friends, and how this small scale tragedy echoes on a larger stage.
Through a Dark Lens is a manapunk hard fantasy mystery. It’s manapunk because mana empowers a large aspect of the world, the cultures, the religions, and the intersection between these forces impacts all the characters. It’s not cyberpunk despite being set in a 22nd century projected world. Corporations have only regional influence and the culture will never accept large scale economic provincialism. It’s hard fantasy because the system is defined, being defined, and refined through scholars, scientists, and street toughs figuring it out. It’s a mystery because at the heart of the story is the why. Why did this happen? Why is this happening? Why can’t I stop this?
And that plot/story structure feeds into everything. Every scene is a question that later is answered, flipped, or reversed. Every vivid detail serves to foreshadow, to mess with the reader’s perceptions, to undermine their grasp of the characters. It’s about the character interactions and by limiting the perspective to the detective, readers are forced to deduce, to guess, and later have their hunches confirmed or flipped. Character drives plot. Especially in fantasy, character relationships are at the core of the genre.
That’s why I wrote Through a Dark Lens with the body of a hard-boiled mystery but the soul of low/dark fantasy. I’ll follow up with this post the breakdown of the detective protagonist, the aesthetic of an anti-cyberpunk world, and how low perspective gives insight into greater events going on in the story.