Perhaps all novels are genre mashups, in some sense. Or at least, any novel has several key influences circulating within it, informing its tone, the tendencies of its characters and the directions of its plot. Few romantic novels are exclusively about the mechanisms of two people becoming a couple. Few SF novels concern solely scientific concepts.
But the pitch for my novella Universal Language is more overt than most. It’s an SF murder mystery. I’ll be honest: it’s refreshing to be able to pitch one of my books in such simple terms. You like SF? You like murder mysteries? Come over and take a look!
I’ve always loved Victorian crime fiction, and I suppose the locked-room mystery is the pinnacle of the form. It’s often struck me that plotting a novel is similar to reading mystery fiction – you’re confronted with an impossible-seeming problem, then you turn it around in your mind, searching for possibilities, weighing up likelihoods. Mystery novels are by default an interactive experience. Universal Language features a map hand-drawn by the detective, Abbey Oma, in homage to Gaston Leroux’s The Mystery of the Yellow Room, the ultimate locked-room novel which contains a map that makes tracking the development of the mystery overtly a spatial puzzle as much as a story. Even mystery novels that lack these visual cues require readers to construct a mind’s-eye model of settings, such as the chamber and long street that are the central geographical features in John Dickson Carr’s masterful The Hollow Man.
Allowing myself the additional indulgence of setting my novella on Mars actually served to lower the stakes rather than complicating the scenario. Perhaps, unconsciously, I was daunted by the idea of constructing a gaslit crime novel like those I love. (I’m over the hump now: my next two novels will be Sherlock Holmes mysteries.) The setting also let me pay respects to my other great fictional love: golden-age SF. Like Ray Bradbury’s vision of the planet in his stories collected as The Martian Chronicles, my Mars is populated with colonists dwelling on their past and their old world, facing isolation and ruin. It’s no surprise that this scenario proves fertile ground for a murder mystery: a fixed cast of suspects, each with their specialisms and particular hang-ups.
The inclusion of robots provided another satisfying wrinkle to the plotting of a whodunnit. A servile ‘aye-aye’ robot is the sole suspect of the murder of a human scientist – yet the Asimovian protocols determining its behaviour don’t allow it to harm humans. Add in the detail that the body is discovered in a room not only locked but also airlocked, and you have yourself a seemingly impossible crime.
What surprised me when writing this novella was how much fun I was having. Part of that was the creation of the private-eye ‘Optic’ Abbey Oma, an acerbic offcomer who treats the crime and the colonists alike with frustrating irreverence, and who adopts as her Watson the puppyish Franck Treadgold. More than anything, writing the story as Abbey’s shaggy-dog tale (to an unknown – at first – listener) added a human dimension that might otherwise have been lacking.
Despite its fairly blatant influences, I think that Universal Language is its own peculiar beast, and Abbey Oma a peculiarly engaging character. I hope that readers will agree.
Tim Major’s Universal Language is out now, published by NewCon Press in the UK.
Also on CR: Interview with Tim Major (2020); Excerpt from Snakeskins
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