The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov (1954)

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So I’ve been on an Asimov kick lately, and I also signed up for Karen’s Back to the Classics challenge, which means I needed to read a classic crime story… and this is definitely a classic crime story. There was a murder, and the main character is a detective, or “a plain-clothes man” in the lingo of the novel. It totally counts! Woohoo!

I find it interesting that Asimov wanted to write a science fiction murder mystery in the first place—apparently his editor had told him that it wasn’t possible to write, because with science fiction, the mystery could only be solved by what would seem like deus ex machina to the reader… that is, by “magic” technology. I admit, I can imagine that being the case.

Can you imagine how unsatisfying that would be? Imagine if you were reading a modern murder mystery novel in Victorian times (scandalous!), and at the end the detective finds incriminating cellular tissue—say, blood—that we know must belong to the perpetrator. The detective is excited to find this, because of course, boom! There’s the DNA evidence. The perp is caught. You, the Victorian reader, would feel confused and kind of jipped, though. What kind of ending is that?! That’s not a clever ending! This DNA fantasy totally ruins the story! Where’s the elegant reasoned-out evidence?

Yeah, I can see why someone might find the idea of a science fiction murder mystery to be a non sequitur.

But hey, Isaac Asimov did a fantastic job anyway. He pulled it off, and it totally worked. Sure there are fun futuristic forensic tools like cerebroanalysis, but they don’t solve the case. The detective has a robot for his partner in the investigation, but the robot doesn’t magically figure it out with his cold logic. Nah, our detective hero does! It was a very enjoyable read.

Jenna

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