REVIEW SUMMARY: This is a very readable anthology despite my usual aversion to history.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: An anthology of 15 original alternate-history mystery stories.
PROS: Alternate history and mystery are two good genres that taste good together.
CONS: My own ambivalence towards history made the stories that emphasized it less enjoyable.
BOTTOM LINE: A worthwhile anthology for alternate history lovers and mystery lovers alike.
I was never a student of history. It always bored me. It wasn’t until I ran across engaging alternate history stories in science fiction anthologies that I took a mildly active interest. Admittedly it was limited to Googling for the true history to better understand the fictional one, but even so, the sub-genre of alternate history intrigued me.
In his illuminating introduction to Sideways in Crime, an anthology of alternate-history mystery stories, Lou Anders sheds some light on why that might be. It has to do with another genre I like: mystery. Anders makes a compelling case for both alternate history and mystery being close genre cousins since both engage the reader by dropping clues that explain the world or plot. He’s right. There is an added appeal to these stories for being two-pronged mysteries that reward careful reading.
That tasty blend is not necessarily a sure-fire formula for success, though. Like any anthology, this one has some hits and misses. The ones that didn’t work so well for me were the ones that put the emphasis on the history instead of the mystery – an impression that is probably a holdover from days of long and dreadful history lessons in school.
Be that as it may, there were plenty of enjoyable stories here. Two of them stood out as being exceptional: “Via Vortex” by John Meaney and “Murder in Geektopia” by Paul Di Filippo. These stories went one step further than just offering up an alternate history and a mystery. They also mixed in some more traditional science fictional elements and for me, that made all the difference between a good story and a great one.
Individual story reviews follow…
“Running the Snake” by Kage Baker tells the story of a young ex-druid named Will Shakspur who falls in with con men in an alternate druid-ruled Britain. Their con, called “running the snake”, involves giving god-like status to a snake puppet. Against this tableau, the Queen’s son-in-law is murdered and Will, whose scam is at the center of the event, is called upon by the Queen to solve the crime. The story moves along at a fast pace and it’s interesting to see how Baker not only creates her alternate history, but also how the crime is played out.
“Via Vortex” by John Meaney takes place in a world where the Germans came to control “Amerika” and force Einstein to flee to France where he hooked up with de Broglie. Instead of quantum physics, they together developed “Vortex theory” which gave rise to a gruesome and ethically-questionable form of matter teleportation. The plot involves a New Munich (New York) detective who is against teleportation, a visiting English detective who isn’t, and a murderer who uses teleportation to dastardly effect. Hopefully, this adequately describes the wonderful world building Meaney has accomplished, the thrill ride of the story, and the thought-provoking issues surrounding the technology. My only reservation – a minor one – is that I never quite understood, from an in-story science perspective, how it was necessary that teleportation required such sacrifice; it’s almost as if it was thrown in simply to provoke thought. Otherwise, though, top notch story.
It’s a fateful 1914 in the Roman Empire, and the murder of a Roman Emperor’s son on British soil is enough to start a war. That’s the premise of Stephen Baxter’s alternate history story, “Fate and the Fire-Lance”. The alternate history aspect of the story (seen before in Baxter’s Time’s Tapestry series) is adequate, but the mystery component of the story carries it along; even though the “detective” on the case is merely a translator to the British princess who was to marry the victim. It’s not too hard to foresee the murderer, but I found myself intrigued nonetheless.
In “The Blood of Peter Francisco” by Paul Park, the narrator is a member of an underground movement who races to find a fellow rebel before the police. The man is wanted for the murder of a Jewish socialite and the narrator wishes to sever ties to his organization. The story’s alternate history setting (a 1940’s America under British rule) is largely uninteresting in this short story, and the straightforward plot, despite some capable prose, didn’t stoke my interest much either.
Jack McDevitt’s “The Adventure of the Southsea Trunk” is a treat for fans of Sherlock Holmes (like me). But it isn’t a pastiche as much as it is Sherlockian meta-fiction. The story concerns a modern day police inspector’s investigation into the murder of an English teacher/book critic. The victim recently met with the creator of the recent literary sensation Sherlock Holmes. The author of Sherlock Holmes in this modern-day story is Christopher McBride, a descendent of Arthur Conan Doyle, Holmes’ creator in our reality. The story doesn’t quite read like a Holmes story – a fact perhaps explained in-story when a character says that a Holmes story in Victorian times would have “lost the atmosphere.” Regardless of setting, McDevitt sets up a decent mystery – one that I guessed before the reveal, something I never managed to do in the Holmes stories I’ve read – and a fun read.
Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s “G-Men” is equal parts sixties era detective story and political cover-up. A night of FBI agent murders – one of them a high profile figure – leads one FBI agent (Bryce) and a New York City policeman (O’Reilly) looking for clues. Meanwhile, Robert Kennedy, still in mourning after the death of his brother Jack, maneuvers to hide some private files that would reveal devastating secrets. The political aspect of the story makes it alternate history, but it’s the murder case that props this story up.
When a Chinese consul’s son is murdered in Aztec territory, The Aztec leader calls upon his daughter’s tutor to find the truth. This is the mystery premise of “Sacrifice” by Mary Rosenblum. The alternate history aspect of the story comes from the fact that the Aztecs were not conquered by the Europeans since the Chinese gave them the gift of firepower. I have to admit that my apathy for history made that aspect of the story seem to drag. (Except for the Aztecan concepts of honor and sacrifice, which were educational.) The mystery aspect of the story was serviceable if perhaps slightly off-putting to witness seemingly present-day detective techniques used in technologically archaic times; for example, the equivalent of a hotel ledger being recorded on reeds.
Imagine a world where the Geeks have inherited the Earth, or rather, a clandestine plan by President William Randolph Hearst in the early 1900’s fostered in a culture infused with geekish sensibilities. That’s what you have in Paul Di Filippo’s wildly imagined “Murder in Geektopia”. The protagonist is a detective who tries to resolve the curious circumstances surrounding a doctor’s death. This is a serviceable plot as far as it goes, but the real wonder here is the world the author has created. Paul Di Filippo drops geek references at an impressive rate (many of which admittedly escaped my own geek knowledge) and offers other world building tidbits like sports being an outdated pastime, Hollywood stars being famous for their roles in films based on science fiction books, and the like. When the center stage murder mystery revolves around geek personalities, the story elevates itself even further. Well done.
Jon Courtenay Grimwood put a new spin on the story of Al Capone with his story “Chicago”. Capone is a suspect in a murder investigation complicated by cloning technology. While this would seemingly offer a great springboard for thought-provoking issues, the issues are only touched upon briefly, though in a significant way, to be sure.
Theodore Judson’s alternate history mystery “The Sultan’s Emissary” is, sadly for my personal tastes, heavy on the history and light on the mystery. An assassin threatens to upset the delicate balance of peace in Britain, the last bastion of Christianity in a world where Islam is predominant, thanks to the Huns defeat of Rome. The narrative follows Lord Thomas Fairfax as he enlists the aid of Oliver Cromwell and Jean Baptiste Colbert to solve the assassination. The solution is nicely done, but the overbearing history lesson, alternate though it may be, killed this one for me.
“Worlds of Possibilities” by Pat Cadigan is another engaging story featuring detective Ruby Tsung. (Another is “Nothing Personal” from Alien Crimes edited by Mike Resnick.) Here, Ruby is once again overcome with an immense feeling of Dread, a feeling that coincides with the murder of a psychic and a mobster. The entire story plays out in one extended scene involving parallel universes, although that it never quite clear, especially to people who haven’t read “Worlds of Possibilities”. Although not as powerful as that other story, it was fun to see the characters again.
S.M. Stirling’s “A Murder in Eddsford” takes us to an alternate future of 2049, where technology is limited by altering the laws of nature. (The story is set in his Emberverse universe.) A Scotland Yard inspector named Ingmar Rutherston investigates the death of a miller’s son, the village Bad Boy who is the victim of mysterious and deadly lesions. With the aid of Corporal Bramble, Rutherston comes to the boundaries of the technological initiations imposed by The Change. This is an interesting background premise, and I found myself wanting to learn more about it, to the point where it overshadowed the front stage mystery – though the ending did tie it all nicely together.
“Conspiracies: A Very Condensed 937-Page Novel” by Mike Resnick & Eric Flint is meant to be a humorous story involving aliens and Jimmy Hoffa. And though it took most of the story to get into that groove, it is mildly humorous, but otherwise a minor outing when considering the combined caliber of these two writing talents.
Tobias S. Buckell’s “The People’s Machine” is set in an alternate post-colonial America where a visiting Aztec (from Mexica, a country won by defeating the Spanish) teams up with a British investigator from Scotland Yard (Mr. Doyle, nudge-nudge, wink-wink) to solve a murder with ritualistic overtones. Political instability is at stake when they start poking around. This story reads like a cross between the recently-read book, The Affinity Bridge by George Mann, and a Sherlock Holmes story. One glaring error, though, was how a street urchin was able to cut the ropes of the British inspector when he had been bound by handcuffs. Egads!
“Death on the Crosstime Express” by Chris Roberson is not so much an alternate history as it is a series of alternate histories. It takes place in the multiverse of his Myriad/Bonaventure-Carmody stories. The accompanying murder plot pales in comparison to the setting, in which airships traverse the “underspace” as it ferries passengers and cargo between worlds. This particular voyage of the Crosstime Express is marked by the murder of the ship’s navigator, a seer who has the ability to steer the ship. Luckily Vivian Strakweather is on hand to ferret out any wrongdoing amongst a host of suspects from many worlds and backgrounds. It’s a fun setting, but I would not have objected to trading some of that exposition for some character-building dialog.