Science Fiction vs. Mystery Writing

Mystery Writer’s Opinion at “Spaceman Come Home” by Richard Lupoff

A former sci-fi novelist talks about his galactic journey to the strange new world of mystery writing.

How old was I? Probably twelve or thirteen. Certainly not more than fifteen. I was a fanatical science fiction reader and member of the fan community, and one of my favorite writers was Fredric Brown. Trouble was, he kept writing these mysteries. Novels like The Fabulous Clipjoint and The Screaming Mimi and Compliments of a Fiend when I wanted to read more books like What Mad Universe and Martians, Go Home.

I was really unhappy about that, but I figured that the mystery field paid better than science fiction and Brown had to make a living, and if anybody was to blame it was the parsimonious publishers of Startling Stories and the other folks in the science fiction field, who were unwilling to support a talent like Brown.

I noticed that a lot of other science fiction people were involved with mysteries to varying degrees: Anthony Boucher, Jack Vance, Poul Anderson, Miriam Alan deFord and I’m sure uncounted others.

I couldn’t figure it out. Why limit yourself to the crummy world of smoking guns, bloody daggers, deadly poisons and cooling corpses, when you could sail the starlanes to endless worlds of wonder? What was the appeal?

Segue forward some forty years or thereabouts, and a moderately prominent science fiction novelist named Richard Lupoff quietly fades out of that field and re-emerges as a mystery writer. And since I’ve–pardon the expression, please–Come Out, I find that any number of my new colleagues have had similar experiences.

At one convention I found myself chatting with Sharan Newman, the author of those marvelous medieval mysteries. Sharan said that at least she’d heard of me as a science fiction writer; nobody had even noticed her books in that other field. My friend Shelley Singer had a science fiction novel in her background, and Susan Holtzer told me that she cut her writer’s teeth on science fiction short stories before turning to mystery novels.

Hey, even the great Arthur Conan Doyle wrote The Lost World. But would you rather be remembered as the creator of George Edward Challenger or of Sherlock Holmes? Don’t even bother to answer.

Any number of science fiction fans have asked me the same question that I would have asked Fred Brown in 1950, if only I’d had the good fortune to meet him.



Well, there are a number of reasons. One of them is that the science fiction field is amazingly volatile. The readership has a very rapid rate of turnover, in a league with comic books and teen heart-throb magazines. A generation of science fiction readers seems to run about three or four years. After that, most of them put their rayguns affectionately away beside their teddy bears and Ninja Turtle dolls and move on to other things. Their successors want their own heroes, their own icons, and their own writers.

There are the evergreens, of course. But by and large, science fiction writers come and go nearly with the speed of science fiction readers.

The second reason is that science fiction tends to be about things. A writer who is more interested in character than in novelty, will have a hard time in science fiction.

One day a friend dropped in just as I was finishing a science fiction short story. She was an English teacher; I thought she would enjoy it and might have some interesting comments to make. Besides, when I write, I write hard and I was feeling sweaty and stale and had to excuse myself to shower.

When I came back, glowing with health and smelling like a rose, the English teacher handed back my manuscript and said, “This isn’t science fiction. Science fiction is about machines and this is all about people.”

Anyway, after struggling for a very long time to write science fiction novels that were about people, and meeting with a very, very modest level of acceptance, I yielded to pressure on the one hand from my wonderful wife and on the other from my estimable agent, and tried a mystery, The Comic Book Killer. This was followed in due course by The Classic Car Killer, The Bessie Blue Killer, The Sepia Siren Killer, The Cover Girl Killer, The Silver Chariot Killer and The Radio Red Killer.

Mystery readers, it seems to me, are more mature by far than science fiction readers, and generally more stable. They stick around longer, and they like authors who do the same. They’re less dazzled by novelty and more interested in empathy and craft.

And mysteries are about people. Yes, they’re about people. The smoking guns and the dripping daggers are there, all right, but they’re props. They’re not what the stories are about.

So when that science fiction fan asked me, somewhat forlornly, Will you ever write another science fiction novel? I was tempted to say, Not on your life.

But I didn’t. I figure, I’ve got bills to pay. Things could change. I don’t want to burn that bridge, not really. So I told the fan, If an editor wanted to talk to me, I’d surely be willing to talk. If a publisher wanted to make an offer, I’d look at it.

But just between you and me–shh, don’t blow my cover, willya?–as long as I have my druthers, I druther write mysteries.

Buy Mystery Books at

The Hobart Lindsay & Marvia Plum Mysteries

  • The Comic Book Killer, 1988
  • The Classic Car Killer, 1992
  • The Bessie Blue Killer, 1994
  • The Sepia Siren Killer, 1994
  • The Cover Girl Killer, 1995
  • [su_amazon_link title=”The Silver Chariot Killer” code=”0312147368″], 1996
  • [su_amazon_link title=”The Radio Red Killer” code=”0312171811″], 1997

Short Story Collections by Richard A. Lupoff

[su_amazon_link title=”Before… 12:01… and After” code=”1878252232″], (includes mystery stories, science fiction, horror, etc.) 1996


Richard A. Lupoff is the author of seven novels featuring amateur sleuth Hobart Lindsey and Berkeley, California, homicide detective Marvia Plum. He has also written science fiction and fantasy novels, thrillers, a hundred short stories (plus or minus a few), and assorted screenplays, comic books, and several volumes of citicism.

Science Fiction vs. Mystery Writing Mystery Writer’s Opinion at MysteryNet: the Online Mystery Network


Comments are closed.

MysteryNet: The Online Mystery Network
For everyone who enjoys a mystery!