Murder mysteries carry a unique yet familiar set of tropes and archetypes; cracking the spine on one is like opening a board game of Clue. There are locked rooms stalked by inspectors and suspects, unexpected murder weapons and devious red herrings, missing memories, and sympathetic motives. But while that genre has its beloved classics rooted in contemporary realism, more and more sci-fi and fantasy authors have turned to this formula and framework—to continue the metaphor, like a special-edition Clue with fun new speculative trappings.
In the past five years especially, there has been a rise in SFF murder mysteries, stories set in secondary fantasy worlds or near-future cities or in the cold infinity of space (where, yes, someone can hear you scream and can try to solve what made you scream). Some of these SFF sleuths are detectives and inspectors by trade, conjuring up futuristic versions of Columbo and Sherlock Holmes. Others are amateur investigators (paging Jessica Fletcher and Phryne Fisher) thanks to their lucky proximity to an unreasonable, nearly comical amount of foul play and seemingly random deaths.
These eight engrossing mysteries entangle angels and demons, clones and hyper-insomniacs with some good old-fashioned murder. Whether you want to dip into a brisk whodunnit novella, or curl up for hours unraveling every clue and motive in a thicker volume, we have all the pieces for you to play.
Station Eternity by Mur Lafferty
Station Eternity, the first installment of Mur Lafferty’s new sci-fi mystery series The Midsolar Murders, already has a killer pitch: Murder, She Wrote in space! But Lafferty delves much deeper than her own punchy premise to really explore just how awful it would be for an amateur sleuth when people keep dying around her; poor Mallory Viridian removes herself from parties, family reunions, part-time jobs, and eventually Earth itself in the hopes that she’ll stop stumbling upon murders.
But her status as one of the few humans on the sentient Station Eternity is threatened when a shuttle full of Earthlings comes hurtling into her orbit; there are several corpses, both human and alien; and Mallory’s murder-senses start tingling. Because what do you know, but everyone on that shuttle has a connection to someone(s) on Eternity. While some of the jumps in perspective dull the edge of Mallory’s investigating, the overall effect is still a great tribute to Miss Marple and Jessica Fletcher, with the opportunity to expand Mallory’s unofficial career into new galaxies.
A Restless Truth by Freya Marske
What Freya Marske loves about murder mysteries set on cruise ships is the forced proximity to strangers warring with the temptation to toss everything (clues, suspects, self-styled meddling detectives) overboard. What I love about A Restless Truth, the second installment in her fantasy romance trilogy The Last Binding, is how her protagonist Maud Blyth shares a similar aversion to lying as Knives Out’s would-be murderer Marta—it doesn’t make Maud vomit, but it makes her so uncomfortable that she would rather twist herself in knots to mostly tell the truth… just obscured in key moments, like when she’s trying to outrun some murderous magicians on a ship in the middle of the Atlantic.
Pair Maud with Violet Debenham, an actress and magician who can’t fathom making herself vulnerable enough to be truthful with anyone, and their romance unfolds along the same breathless plot beats as solving a murder that could shift the balance of all the magic in England.
The Sleepless by Victor Manibo
Victor Manibo’s speculative debut The Sleepless taps into both high-concept futuristic mysteries like Minority Report but also the last few years of our own personal pandemic: In 2043, a pandemic of Sleeplessness has rendered a significant portion of the population hyperinsomniacs, who are able to fill their sleeping hours with more consumption, more exercise, more partying… and, no surprise, more work. But while Sleeplessness has plateaued, the prejudice against this privileged (or cursed, depending on your perspective) class is only rising. When investigative journalist Jamie Vega discovers that his boss Simon has been found conveniently dead the night before a corporate takeover, it’s easy to dive into a conspiracy that starts with media moguls but appears to go all the way up. Not only is Jamie convinced that Simon’s supposed suicide was staged, but he has to clear his own name: He was apparently the last person to see Simon alive, and he doesn’t remember anything from their final interaction.
Jamie’s investigation balances the external tropes of the genre—chasing leads, dodging the authorities, recreating a timeline—while also dipping into intensely personal experiences of coping with grief (including a fascinating sex scene with a Sleepless fetishist) and self-interrogation of his self-created “special status.” Because while some had no choice but to be rendered Sleepless by the disease, Jamie is one of the growing Sleepless who biohacked themselves into hyperinsomnia. How that dovetails with Simon’s death makes for a fascinating near-future thriller.
Even Though I Knew the End by C.L. Polk
C.L. Polk launches readers into magical noir novella Even Though I Knew the End practically mid-sentence, as exiled-augur-turned-detective Helen Brandt is photographing the latest murder scene from Chicago’s grisly serial killer the White City Vampire. Helen isn’t too worried about her own well-being, as she sold her soul to the devil ten years ago and her card is about to be punched; she’s made her peace with her fate, even as she pre-grieves her beloved Edith and her estranged brother Ted.
But when her employer offers her the chance to earn her soul back, Helen throws herself into this case and discovers just how personal it gets. Polk smartly uses the last three days of Helen’s life before she’s dragged down to Hell to keep this murder mystery snappy, with layers of divine worldbuilding and heartache that stays stamped on the story like a photo negative long after the final page (which both is and isn’t the end that Helen already anticipated).
Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty
Just as a non-SFF version of this list might have two Agatha Christie titles, we’ve got another locked-room murder mystery in space from Mur Lafferty. But instead of a cruise ship or a space station, this forced-proximity setting is a generation ship (cleverly named the Dormire), twenty-five years into its mission ferrying thousands of cryogenically frozen colonists to their new home on the planet Artemis.
Staffing the centuries-long voyage is a crew of six clones; when they die, they are simply recloned, their mindmaps downloaded into a fresh new body. But when the ship’s general housekeeper Maria Arena awakens into her latest reincarnation, she discovers the remains of a mass murder of her fellow clones—and her memories of the past quarter-century have been wiped out. The same is true for the other five crew members, leaving them with no idea of how they all met their ends… or which of them is the murderer. Lafferty weaves a double-helix mystery full of red herrings, both about the clone killer’s motives but also about who has become whose friend, confidante, lover, rival, and/or enemy in their many lifetimes together.
The Witness for the Dead by Katherine Addison
A pivotal point in Katherine Addison’s elven court intrigue fantasy The Goblin Emperor saw fledgling ruler Maia investigating who murdered his father and brothers so that he would be forced to inherit the throne of Ethuveraz and the accompanying disdain of its people. Thara Celehar, the Witness for the Dead who used his access to the spirit plane to solve that mystery, proved so fascinating that he basically got his own mystery spinoff.
The Witness for the Dead expands the reader’s sense of the city of Amalo by following Celehar around on various cases, including a fraught will reading and the murder of an opera singer with dozens of suspects. But while Celehar’s services are in high demand, none of the cases can be dismissed or forgotten, because in each one he must relive the death of the ghost with whom he’s trying to communicate. This, as well as Celehar’s solidarity with the city’s commoners over his more elite royal clients, brings fantastic gravitas to this fantasy procedural.
Far From the Light of Heaven by Tade Thompson
Generation ships are a popular setting for murder mysteries, as they conveniently trap hundreds of strangers into an enclosed space with an airtight alibi (they were frozen!) and the delicious tension of something going wrong when humans are very much out of their element. But Tade Thompson’s tense novel Far From the Light of Heaven takes things a step further by having its unlikely crime-solving duo both be people who are already questioning why they’re in this story.
There’s Michelle “Shell” Campion, first mate of the generation ship Ragtime embarking on her very first mission yet aware that her existence is a formality, as the ship AI steers their voyage to the colony of Bloodroot. Then she wakes up to a malfunctioning AI and several dozen bloody corpses, which calls the attention of Bloodroot detective Rasheed Fin. Except that Fin has been suspended from his usual repatriation work, and wonders why he is somehow the perfect investigator for this ongoing killing spree up in space. Thompson draws inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” one of the first modern detective stories, to similarly explore a futuristic take on the genre, far from Earth.
The Mimicking of Known Successes by Malka Older
In The Mimicking of Known Successes, Malka Older conjures the gaslight streets of Holmesian London on the gas-wreathed planet of Jupiter, better known as Giant to its inhabitants, descendants of the Earth refugees who fled their own ruined planet centuries before. Investigator Mossa, brilliant and inscrutable to the end, pursues the befuddling disappearance of a man who seemingly leapt off the side of the planet… or was he pushed? But a potential murder like this requires talking to people, which is not Mossa’s strong suit. And so she reunites with her ex-girlfriend, the Watson to her Sherlock, a scholar named Pleiti.
The duo’s unorthodox investigation takes them to the university of Valdegeld, the proud center of the colony’s knowledge of the home they left behind and have been trying to recreate on Giant, down to the ecosystem. Told mostly from Pleiti’s perspective, this novella augments the mystery beats with a personal meditation on whether you can ever (figuratively and physically) go home again.
Natalie Zutter is a Brooklyn-based playwright and pop culture critic whose work has appeared on Tor.com, NPR Books, Den of Geek, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter @nataliezutter.