Cover of The Tainted Cup

Five SFF Mysteries That I Couldn’t Put Down

Don your best sleuthing cloaks, adjust your deerstalker hats, and prepare for adventure! Today, we’re investigating the nebulous space between genres. SFF and mysteries often share common threads: dastardly villains, fateful twists, and plucky problem-solvers. When the two genres combine, readers get to enjoy all manner of speculative twists on the mystery genre with sci-fi and fantasy threads woven throughout. If you love following breadcrumbs, uncovering clues, and discovering the culprit in the epic climax, these SFF mysteries should be right up your alley!

The Tainted Cup by Robert Jackson Bennett

Cover of The Tainted Cup

Robert Jackson Bennett has long been a must-read author for me, starting with his Divine Cities trilogy (my all-time favorite series) and carrying on to The Founders Trilogy, which I’d love to see adapted for TV.

His latest endeavor is the Shadow of the Leviathan series, which begins with The Tainted Cup. Released in February 2024, The Tainted Cup combines Bennett’s lifelong love for mystery novels with the detailed character work and worldbuilding he is known for.

The Tainted Cup followsDinios Kol, aka Din, and his quirky-but-brilliant mentor Ana Dolabra. Din is an engraver—a magically enhanced human who can perfectly recall memories and experiences. The magic system allows citizens of the world to be altered (“grafted”) in order to drastically improve certain skills or attributes. At the behest of Ana, Din applies his engraving talents to a particularly gruesome murder case, in which a high-ranking official exploded into a grotesque tree under suspicious circumstances. Din and Ana set out to unravel what happened to the victim and hopefully catch the person (or people) responsible.

The core mystery and investigation of The Tainted Cup is a delight from beginning to end, and as revelations unfold toward the end of the novel, the reveals have a similar feel to Benjamin Blanc’s deductive monologues in the Knives Out films. But it’s the world that Bennett’s created that makes this story so special. Leviathans—massive sea beasts— constantly threaten the outer rims of the empire. During a specific season each year, Leviathans could come ashore and destroy wide swatches of the Empire.

This results in a fully realized atmosphere and setting in which the denizens of the outer reaches of the Empire are under constant danger of destruction, while the richest of them remain safe and sound, miles away from the immediate Leviathan threat. Bennett explores what impact this has on the people who live in the heart of the danger, and this detailed worldbuilding threads nicely into the central mystery of the book.

Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke

Book cover of Childhood's End by Arthur C Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke is one of the undisputed masters of hard science fiction, rooting his plots in semi-feasible concepts and building the speculative elements from there. In Childhood’s End, alien ships appear over many of the world’s cities, and the beings initiate communication with humanity’s leaders. The mystery doesn’t necessarily lie in the aliens’ motives. They seem genuinely invested in preserving humanity, and their actions—carried out through human liaisons—appear benevolent and well-intentioned.

The mystery, instead, comes from the aliens’ reticence to show themselves. The primary alien liaison to earth, the Overlord Karellen, only speaks to humans from behind a blackout screen, and nobody on Earth knows what Karellen looks like. Naturally, this worries humans, and it deepens the rifts between opposing factions. Some dislike Karellen and his species’ interference on earth while others wish to expedite the ongoing improvement of Earth and its inhabitants.

Karellen’s hesitance to show himself is the heart of the Childhood’s End mystery, and its resolution is one of my single favorite reveals in all of sci-fi. It also plays well with the book’s other themes. Clarke explores humanity’s future in relation to its past and crafts a singular vision for our species’ fate.

Storm Front by Jim Butcher

Book cover of Storm Front by Jim Butcher

We’ve reached the middle of this list, and clearly we need some Jim Butcher in the mix, so consider this entry more of a recommendation for The Dresden Files as a whole. Wizard Harry Dresden openly practices magic in Chicago (my hometown!). He assists the police with supernatural cases and occasionally works as a private investigator for people who have nowhere else to turn.

The Dresden Files is an excellent blend of pulpy detective fiction and fantasy. The series takes place in our world, but magic exists behind the curtain, and those who dabble in it aren’t always benevolent. Dresden uses his magical talents to suss out the more nefarious of Chicago’s magical practitioners. His adventures in the series bring him to face to face with Fae Courts, vampire dens, and werewolf packs.

Storm Front is an excellent entry point, not only because it’s the first book in the series. The mystery is small and well-contained, providing a solid intro to Dresden’s world. Fans of classic thriller and mystery novels will find a lot to enjoy, and the fantasy elements add flavor and excitement to the tried-and-true formula.

Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger

Book cover of Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger

Here we are with another SFF mystery I’d love to see on screen. Darcie Little Badger’s Elatsoe injects our world with the magic of Lipan Apache folklore. Mythical creatures abound, and the protagonist—Ellie, short for Elatsoe—has a unique ability. She can speak with the spirits of dead animals.

Humans are animals, sure, but human ghosts are remarkably dangerous, and Ellie avoids them at all costs. But when the spirit of her cousin appears to her and asks Ellie to find his killer, she finds herself mixed up in a murder case. It brings Ellie to the off-kilter town of Willowbee, Texas. Something fishy is going on in the little town, and Ellie starts to investigate with the help of Kirby (the spirit of her deceased dog) and other friends. As the mystery is revealed, we learn more about Ellie’s past, her powers, and the forces at work around her. Elatsoe is a fantastic mystery story that also embraces elements of self-discovery and a healthy dose of mysticism.

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

Book cover of The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

The Three-Body Problem features one of the biggest mysteries on this list, in terms of sheer scope. For some readers (myself included) it can take some effort to stick with the story until it gains momentum. But once it hits its stride, The Three-Body Problem offers layered and dense mysteries that unlock the wonders of the imagined cosmos within.

There’s a reason Cixin Liu’s seminal work is so popular—popular enough to be adapted into a new Netflix series. The sweeping epic grapples with very real concepts laid over a fictional plot. It’s not so much a capital-M mystery of the sort you’d find in Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle’s work. Instead, The Three-Body Problem’s mysteries are deeply rooted in science and driven by massive, loaded “What if?” questions: What if an alien species discovered Earth? What if they fled their dying planet to pay us a visit? What if that visit wasn’t exactly friendly in nature?

Those questions are the heart of The Three-Body Problem’s mystery, and the characters unravel the tangled clues and revelations at different rates until the big picture becomes clear. Cixin Liu and translator Ken Liu do a phenomenal job of letting the mysteries unwind while interlacing them with the key concepts necessary to make the story work. If you like hard sci-fi and don’t mind getting a crash course in physics and astronomy in service of the story, The Three-Body Problem is a perfect SFF mystery for you.

And just in case you can’t get enough SFF mysteries, check out this list of sci-fi fantasy murder mysteries from Elisa Shoenberger! And if you’re interested in expanding the search to other media, here are just a few of my favorite speculative mysteries to watch and to play:

  • True Detective: Night Country (limited series on MAX)
  • The Case Of The Golden Idol (video game for PC, Mac, and Nintendo Switch)
  • 1899 (limited series on Netflix)
  • Severance (series on Apple TV)
  • The Return of the Obra Dinn (video game for various platforms)
  • Inscryption (video game for various platforms)

Of course, this list only touches on a few highlights in a vast field of possibilities—please share your own recommendations for SFF mystery books (and stories, movies, TV shows, games, etc.) in the comments below! icon-paragraph-end

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