It is always interesting to see what good authors make of a loose theme. Editor Mike Resnick has asked five top-notch authors to submit stories about alien crimes, with the only proviso being that the style of the story not be noir, since that was the theme of one of his previous anthologies, Down These Dark Spaceways (2005). Thus we have a new anthology, Alien Crimes, that contains six detective stories, each different to the others in everything from style to theme. In the end, the only points of commonality are crimes or misbehaviors of some nature, and the fact that a detective has to investigate them.
In each story, as it must be, the detective is the central figure, usually a human detective. In fact, in the atmospheric near-future opening story by Pat Cadigan, "Nothing Personal," the detective is almost the only figure. For Cadigan's long-time Boston cop what matters most is that she is aging and starting to look back on a life of regrets and "what-ifs." When she starts to be consumed by a feeling she names the Dread, it at first seems like nothing more than a severe version of these feelings. Slowly she begins to realize that it might be related to a case she has and a new partner she's been assigned. The ending is perfectly science fictional, but more importantly it is an excellent metaphor for that reflection on a long life one gains through experience.
The detectives in "The End of the World" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch and "Dark Heaven" by Gregory Benford also have personal problems and histories, but in these stories the themes introduced by their introspection doesn't mesh as well with the themes of the surface plot. In "End of the World," the detective (Becca) is called in to investigate a mass grave stirred up by her ex-husband's construction project. In flashbacks, we learn about the young alien survivor of the massacre that occurred about a hundred years before. In the present, Becca investigates the physical evidence and the town's history, but spends more time worrying about her relationship with her ex. The massacre story is a tale of fear of the Other, survival, and hope, beautiful and well told, but not complemented terribly well by the tale of a woman's angst over whether or not to get back together with her ex-husband.
When a body washes ashore in "Dark Heaven," there's nothing terribly unusual about it, except for some odd markings on the corpse. Our Southern detective (McKenna) quickly intuits that the recently arrived amphibian aliens, the Centauri, may be involved. They have built a center for themselves on the coastline since the warm climate and seashore fit their biome needs nicely. They have federal escorts to run interference for them, and have been hiring fishing boats to take them out for night cruises. When a second body with similar markings floats up, McKenna finds himself deep in the middle of an alien mystery. In the background, we learn he is a lonely man who hasn't been successful in finding companionship to replace what he had with his late wife. He tries to keep in touch with her family, but finds it difficult without her there. Again, both angles are interesting, but they don't mesh as well as one would hope. From the stories presented in Alien Crimes, one gets the feeling that being a detective is rough on one's personal relationships.
In the remaining stories, the detectives are cast more in the mode of Hercule Poirot, the Agatha Christie intellectual hero. They exist simply to solve the mystery before them, needing little in the way of character exposition. This is most explicit in Mike Resnick's "A Locked-Planet Mystery," a deliberate Christie homage. The retired CEO of a multi-solar-system conglomerate is murdered on a planet with a chlorine atmosphere while entertaining a few vice presidents at an isolated corporate retreat. There seems to be no motive for the crime, as he had already announced his successor (who was at the retreat as well). The other inhabitants of the system, a beach-ball-with-legs-type species, have almost no experience with crime themselves, so hire the services of a detective-for-hire (Masters). He travels to the planet, interviews the suspects and gets a feel for the lay of the land, and soon, with the worshipful help of his beach ball escort Max, has identified the culprit and set a trap to prove it. It's an amusing story that directly adapts the Christie style to a science fictional landscape, and would be right at home in the pages of Analog or a similar magazine.
Harry Turtledove provides us with a planet where humans and the alien Snarre't live in uneasy harmony. The Snarre't are a nocturnal species that communicate as much with sight and smell as with sound, leading to many miscommunications between species. When a Snarre't couple go to a human dealer to buy a car, it seems like the deal has actually gone smoothly and successfully. However, when the car salesman's wife gives birth nine months later to a child who is alive but has been horrifically scrambled, the authorities realize that the couple have been the victims of a "hoxbomb," the sort of delayed-trigger organic technology that usually only the Snarre't have access to. Both human and Snarre't detectives must team up to track down the perpetrators of this abhorrent crime. The focus of this story is the world-building and, by writing scenes from the perspective of both the human and alien detectives, Turtledove does a particularly good job of describing the strengths and weaknesses of both, especially in terms of language and technology.
Finally, in the long story "Womb of Every World," Walter Jon Williams presents us with something completely different: we begin with a man wandering through what appears to be a blasted, fantasy-style landscape. He's got a sword and a cat, and quickly meets up with Trolls and caravans. He soon becomes aware of a particularly unsavory cult, and reports back to "The College" to report on what he has found. At which point Williams provides us with a very nice world-building twist. As it turns out, the cult may be the tip of the iceberg for a conspiracy that threatens all the sentient beings in the universe, and it is up to our detective (Aristide), with his cat and his sword, to try and identify the culprits and save the world. This turns out to be a story with some fun world-building, and one hopes it's not giving away too much to compare this story with some of Charles Stross's writing. However, it also shares some of Stross's weaknesses: meandering story-telling that sometimes revels too much in the world-building without furthering the plot, plus lots of witty but ultimately shallow dialog. One of the biggest oversights is that Williams doesn't put enough effort into explaining exactly what this existential threat is,storytelling so it's hard to feel very concerned about the outcome, especially given the relaxed storytelling style. Likewise, there is no motive whatsoever given for the bad guys: apparently these are basically Bond villains who want to destroy/control the universe just for the heck of it.
That also ends up being a problem with the Resnick and Turtledove entries: the lack of motive. In your average detective story, the crime is solved based on the time-honored formula of "means, motive, and opportunity." In fully half the tales in this book, the motive ends up being, "well those crazy aliens, you just never know what the heck motivates them." That feels fundamentally unsatisfying, since the end result of a mystery story should typically wrap up all three of those elements with a nice shiny bow. Despite this, Alien Crimes is, on balance, an entertaining anthology. There is a wide range of stories here, from atmospheric character pieces to flat-out end-of-the-world adventures. The clever world-building, plotting, and problem solving combine to make it an enjoyable read.
Karen Burnham is vocationally an engineer and avocationally a speculative fiction reviewer. She lives in Long Beach, CA, and archives her reviews at www.SpiralGalaxyReviews.com. She can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.