Writers and Sci-Fi and Murders, Oh My!

I can’t tell you good people what I’ve been writing, because it’s a mystery and it’s supposed to be a surprise.  So to keep you busy and out of trouble while you wait (impatiently, I’m sure) for the unveiling of Bidding On Death, I thought I’d review some mysteries you might have missed.

For our first installment, here are two by Sharyn McCrumb. Of course, McCrumb is a legend and doesn’t need my seal of approval, but the reading public, especially the mystery-reading public, might have missed these two. When they came out, they were frequently shelved in the science fiction section, even though they’re not science fiction – they’re mysteries about science fiction. But bookstore owners and employees can be confused by cover art and title, so there you go.

First up – Bimbos of the Death Sun. Yeah, that’s the title. Published in 1988, it deals with murder at a science fiction convention. Our sleuthing duo are James Owen Mega (pen name Jay Omega) and his main squeeze Marion Farley.

Jay is an engineering professor who wrote a hard science fiction book. He met Marion in the book’s backstory when he sought her out for writing and publishing help. Marion is an English professor at the same college who teaches a course in the literature of science fiction. She helped him with his manuscript and as the story begins, they’re a couple and Jay is a published author. But his book has come out as a paperback original with ridiculous cover art and a ridiculous title (this is where “Bimbos” comes in – that’s the title of Jay’s book), and little to no marketing, and is in imminent danger of sinking without a trace. Marion, with greater knowledge of the book world and science fiction in particular, understands that he has to market his own work and has convinced him to go to the local science fiction convention as a guest author.

Where hilarity, as the saying goes, ensues. There are the costumes, the vendors, the rivalries, the hookups, the filking (relax, folks, filking involves singing). Anyone who’s ever been to a science fiction convention will feel right at home. There’s a touring Scottish musician, playing the role of ‘the mundane accidentally booked into the same hotel as the convention, who wonders if he’s landed in an asylum’ and who gets roped into being Scotty for the Star Trek wedding.

And there’s Appin Dungannon, the ragingly ‘difficult’ primary Guest Author, a big name writer of an interminable fantasy series about a muscle-bound Viking. It’s no secret, since it’s in the cover copy, that this detestable individual winds up dead at the con.

The police, it’s safe to say, are baffled. Baffled?  They’re gobsmacked. So it’s up to Jay and Marion to identify and unmask the killer.

I like my mysteries with at least a touch of humor, and this one is laugh-out-loud funny. And I’ve been to sci-fi conventions; I recognize these people.

Jay and Marion returned in 1992 for Zombies of the Gene Pool. No conventions in this one, but a reunion of science fiction writers and hopefuls from the 1950s. Marion learns that a respected elder colleague in the English Department is also the man who wrote a sci-fi classic under a pen name back in the ‘50s.

Erik Giles was once a member of a group of young dreamers and sci-fi writer/fans who lived on a farm in Tennessee back in the day. They all saw themselves as the new wave of science fiction and were confident that they were going to be famous one day. A few of them actually made it. Before they left the farm and went their separate ways, the young men each wrote a science fiction story, and the stories were buried in a time capsule. Now the time capsule is going to be dug up, and due to the eminence of several of the group, it’s worth a lot of money. A publishing auction has been arranged and Erik has been invited, but due to his heart condition, he asks Marion and Jay to come with him as the old gang gets together again, at least those still alive and sane.

And what a gang it is! Bunzi went Hollywood and is insufferably rich. Brendan Surn, the grand old man of science fiction, is sinking into dementia. George Woodward is a high school teacher whose writing these days consists of a lame, low circulation fanzine. Absentees are Lovecraftian Philip Curtis, long dead in an asylum, and the unlamented sharp-tongued Pat Malone, who died after leaving fandom with one last blast – a vitriolic roman a clef that shone a cruel and unforgiving light on everyone he knew.

The reunion is uncomfortable, and soon becomes more uncomfortable when it’s crashed by Pat Malone, the last person any of his old friends wanted to see back from the dead. And it’s Pat Malone who winds up dead – again. This time for good and this time for real.

It’s up to Jay and Marion once again to find out whodunnit, and what secrets from the 1950s this old band of comrades are hiding.

As with Bimbos, McCrumb shows again that she knows her sci-fi and she knows her fandom, and she knows how to create a mystery at once baffling and chock full of wit.

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