Unlocking the Mystery of Procedurals (And Why We Love Them)

I love procedurals. I love all sorts of stories, but if I’m going to curl up after a long day to be entertained I probably want it to be with Miss Fisher or Kinsey Milhone, Spenser or Lord Peter or Sherlock (in one of his, her, or their many incarnations), Bones or Cormoran Strike or William Monk or Rebus and Siobhan…

“Procedural” is sort of a weird word for mystery stories, but if part of what I love about these stories are the mysteries themselves—the tickle of suspense, the itch of a puzzle—the other part of it is exactly the procedure: the repetitive, methodical steps to a resolution. It is that duality that makes procedurals so perfect: the tension of the unknown and dangerous paired with the restful confidence that each episode will follow, if not a set pattern, at least the simple rule of resolution. We know that the detective(s) will solve the crime in the end, and so we can relax into the mystery. We get (at least) two plots: the story of how the mystery is solved and, through that, the story of how it was created.

And there’s a third story, too: the longer meta-story of the characters and their lives. We get countless Sherlock Holmes variations, but few of them reboot the specific cases from the original canon, because it’s the character who fascinates us. The episodic mysteries distract and entertain us, giving savvy authors the chance to take their time developing characters and relationships—and also relationships—inch by inch over season after season or dozens of novels.

So when I didn’t see a procedural in Serial Box’s impressive portfolio of series—fantasy, science fiction, romance, alternate history—I pitched them one. That’s what I want to read and/or listen to in weekly increments! And that’s how we created Ninth Step Station, written with Fran Wilde, Curtis Chen, and Jaqueline Koyanagi and coming out January 9th. For me it was a dream project, because every time we shared our episodes I got to read a new mystery, and they were all the best kind of mystery: creepy, over the top, filled with cool tech, bizarre and fun. And one other thing I’m particularly happy about: without any of us talking about it beforehand, none of the episodes exploits sexual assault or sexualizes a woman or child being in danger.

And all the while, we got to build up our meta-story. We built on the classic procedural buddy-cop elements with two main characters: Miyako Koreda, a Tokyo cop living in a divided, damaged city; and Emma Higashi, a U.S. Peacekeeper trying to figure out her role in an occupied country. We teased out the geopolitical elements of a near-future world in which disaster and war has left Tokyo the clandestine battleground of Great Powers in a stalemate, and threw in some drones and bodymodding.

What we ended up with is exactly the kind of procedural I love, and it emerges episode by episode, week by week, in the Serial Box format. Drop a line in the comments to let us know what you think or suggest your favorite procedural—whether it’s TV, text, or radio drama.

Malka Older is a writer, aid worker, and PhD candidate. Her science fiction political thriller Infomocracy, was named one of the best books of 2016 by Kirkus Reviews, Book Riot, and the Washington Post. She is also the author of the sequels, Null States (2017) and State Tectonics (2018), as well as of short fiction appearing in WIRED, Twelve Tomorrows, Reservoir Journal, Fireside Fiction, Tor.com and others. Named Senior Fellow for Technology and Risk at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs for 2015, she has more than a decade of experience in humanitarian aid and development. Her doctoral work on the sociology of organizations at the Institut d’Études Politques de Paris (Sciences Po) explores the dynamics of multi-level governance and disaster response using the cases of Hurricane Katrina and the Japan tsunami of 2011.

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