I recently happened across a Twitter conversation in which an author asserted, with the unwavering confidence of a person about to denounce the heliocentric model of the Solar System, that mystery/detective/police or legal procedurals are antithetical to horror/fantasy. This is a claim for which I am grateful. My quest for inspiration is endless and nothing serves me quite as well as a bar so low it requires a trench.
The assertion is unsurprisingly related to a debate back in the 1950s about whether science fiction mysteries were possible, given that detectives could easily solve the mystery with futuristic technology in a manner the reader could not duplicate. As one might expect from writers, a number of them took this as a challenge. Thus, a small flurry of science fiction mysteries appeared in the 1950s. Perhaps most remarkable was Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, which chose as its setting one in which getting away with murder should be impossible, before depicting how one might go about doing just that in a society filled with telepaths.
In this case, the easiest disproof seems to be to provide at least one example of the eight combinations of mystery, detective, police, and legal procedurals with fantasy and horror.
For the purposes of this proof by example, police mysteries involve crime-solvers who are state sanctioned, detectives are individuals who do not work for the state but who may be hired, mysteries feature crime-solvers who do not fall into the previous two sets, and legal procedurals focus on court systems. Like science fiction and fantasy, these are not really distinct sets. Fantasy is fiction incorporating a significant supernatural or magical element. Horror can cover much the same territory, in such a way as to create tension or dread for which positive catharsis seems unlikely. Your definitions may differ—feel free to expound on this in comments.
Mystery horror: Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated (April 5, 2010–April 5, 2013)
This entry in the long-running Scooby-Doo! franchise begins conventionally enough. Four teens (Fred, Daphne, Velma, and Shaggy) and their talking dog (Scooby-Doo) solve seemingly supernatural mysteries in Crystal Cove. As one might expect in a series where the dog talks, the solutions invariably prove entirely mundane. Or so it appears at first. In fact, Crystal Cove is and has been for centuries home to a malign cosmic entity. Should the teens fail to uncover and confound their unseen foe, Crystal Cove (and perhaps the world itself) face certain doom.
Detective horror: Cast a Deadly Spell directed by Martin Campbell, written by Joseph Dougherty (1991)
In a 1948 Los Angeles where magic is as commonplace as jet airplanes, electric washing machines, and automobiles, private detective Harry Philip Lovecraft stands out. Lovecraft refuses to use magic, preferring to rely on cunning, insight, and experience rather than sorcery’s dubious shortcuts. This moral stance makes Lovecraft uniquely useful to his latest client. Of all the detectives in this fantastic Los Angeles, Harry Philip Lovecraft is the only one so uninformed about magic that he would willing accept a commission to locate for the client a copy of the infamous dark grimoire, the Necronomicon.
Police horror: The Wolfen by Whitley Strieber (1978)
We humans like to believe we are at the top of the food chain. NYPD cops Hugo DiFalco and Dennis Houlihan could argue otherwise, had DiFalco and Houlihan not perished discovering that there is at least one species for whom humans are prey. The evidence suggests that the two cops were simply victims of improbable circumstance and opportunistic feral dogs. However, as Detectives Becky Neff and George Wilson belatedly discover, the truth is far darker: to the canine-derived Wolfen, humanity’s view of dogs as friendly pets allows the four-legged hunters to prey without consequences. Key to Wolfen success is concealing from humans that Wolfen exist. Thus, Neff and Wilson’s investigation places the detectives at the top of the Wolfen menu.
Legal procedural horror: “Convergent Series” by Larry Niven (1967)
While most legal procedurals involve lawyers, this one does not. Its anthropologist protagonist Jack would have been immeasurably better off had he thought to consult a lawyer before successfully reproducing the lost art of demon summoning. Demons invented shrink-wrap contracts long before software companies embraced the idea. By summoning the demon, Jack agreed to all the terms and conditions of a demonic contract of whose existence he was entirely unaware…until it was too late. Jack is certainly damned unless he can find a loophole Hell’s lawyers have somehow overlooked.
Mystery fantasy: The Library of the Dead by T. L. Huchu (2021)
In this novel, part of the Edinburgh Nights series, democracy and civil liberties are now dead in Scotland, where the lower classes are now near-slaves to their “betters.” Ropafadzo “Ropa” Moyo is just one of the many desperate poor. She has one slim advantage over her peers: she can speak to the dead. Ropa makes her living delivering messages from the deceased to the living. Not only does this pay badly, but talking to the dead is a perfect way to become aware of mysteries of which society is unaware, mysteries whose solution could imperil the great and powerful. Mysteries that if investigated spell a death sentence for the unlucky investigator.
Detective fantasy: The Affair of the Mysterious Letter by Alexis Hall (2019)
Recovering from a war wound, Captain John Wyndham returns to his college town, the cosmopolitan city of Kelathra-Ven. Not unlike a certain doctor returning from Afghanistan, unworldly Wyndham finds lodging with a brilliant, if hard-to-motivate consulting detective. In Wyndham’s case, his roommate is flamboyantly decadent sorcerer Shaharazad Haas. While at first valued mainly for his placid toleration of Haas’ many lurid eccentricities, the insufficiently cautious Wyndham soon becomes Haas’ companion in detection, a career choice that will supply the increasingly alarmed Wyndham with a marvelous bounty of ravenous vampires, fanatical revolutionaries, and punchable sharks.
Police fantasy: Point of Hopes by Melissa Scott and Lisa A. Barnett (1995)
The great city of Astreiant and the monarchy of Chenedolle to which it belongs recognize the rule of law…in rudimentary fashion. However, there does exist a cadre of professionals charged with enforcing such laws as exist. Pointsman Rathe is one such professional. What begins as a simple missing-persons case is revealed to be a problem of far grander scale: all across the city, children are vanishing. The straightforward folk of Astreiant default to blaming the first scapegoats who come to mind. Rathe, for his part, actually cares about the truth. It’s not at all clear that he will be able to uncover the truth in time to save the children.
Legal procedural fantasy: Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone
Necromantic firm Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao has taken on a new employee, junior hire Tara. She is to accompany her boss Elayne Kevarian to Alt Couloumb, where the recently deceased god Kos is in need of the firm’s specialized services. As is the city of Alt Couloumb, which depended on Kos. The firm can indeed raise the dead, even dead gods. But first, a contract must be drafted and signed. This proves difficult. It becomes even more difficult when Tara and Elayne discover that the situation in Alt Couloumb is far more complex than it appears and that much more is at stake than they had expected.
These are just eight examples. I imagine if I locked myself in a garret I could cook up dozens more. No doubt some of you are astounded at the books left unmentioned. Comments are, as ever, below.
In the words of fanfiction author Musty181, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll “looks like a default mii with glasses.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis) and the 2021 and 2022 Aurora Award finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award, and is surprisingly flammable.