Move Over Sherlock Holmes: The Mimicking of Known Successes by Malka Older

Take a mystery featuring an eagle eye detective; an astute sidekick along for the ride; an atmospheric setting that conjures the obscuring, damp chill of pea-souper fog; railway journeys and train platforms; scholarly rivalries; tea and scones; and a soupçon of pining.

You might be imagining Victorian London. You might even have had a certain deerstalker hat come to mind. But I’ve neglected to give you two key pieces of this picture: both detective and sidekick are women; and the setting is not the past but the future, when humans have relocated to Jupiter.

But! Jupiter’s a gas giant, you might be saying. To which Malka Older and I say: Yes, yes it is. It works beautifully. In this future, humans have (unsurprisingly) destroyed Earth and moved on to colonize other worlds. On Jupiter, they have managed to construct platforms that hover in the tempestuous swirl of pink and red and orange fog, connected by railways. From its very first pages, the story is steeped in an atmospheric chill.

Mossa and the settler stared down from the platform in silence, observing the constant writhe of the gaseous mixture barely below them, barely visible in the dim glow from the gaslights of the platform.”

Prologue

It’s the perfect, storm-tossed setting for a murder mystery. Mossa is our detective, an Investigator looking into the disappearance of a Scholar named Bolien Trewl, who one day took a train to the most easterly platform and promptly vanished. Mossa’s investigation takes her to the university town of Valdegeld and back into the life of her ex-girlfriend Pleiti, who is now a Classical Scholar.

For such a slim novel, the politics and worldbuilding are strong and convincing. This story is no near future — it takes place centuries after Earth has been evacuated. Classical Scholars like Pleiti are working towards reestablishing sustainable ecosystems on Earth, but all they have to go on are fragments of literature and history. Pleiti, for example, is deconstructing an ancient children’s book about bunnies, mining it for information about which plants and animals lived together in the same climate. For Classicists, Earth is a dream, but an uncertain one.

There was a small cluster of faces on the andén—like petals on a branch, my Classical training interjected, even if I could not visualize petals with exactitude.”

— Chapter 1

(Side note: I love this line, which is a clear reference to Modernist poet Ezra Pound. In this world, he is a Classics poet. Little tongue-in-cheek things like this make me happy.)

On the other hand, Modern Scholars are intent on embracing Giant rather than trying to recreate the past. And then there are Scholars like Bolien Trewl — arrogant, self-serving, self-important. The epitome of the “victim no one will miss” mystery trope.

As Mossa and Pleiti unravel the mystery, they come up against the complex politics of the planet and the university, as well as their own history and the embers of their feelings for one another being fanned back into flames. Theirs is a sweet and understated romance, and my one critique of it is that I would have liked to see a little more of the conflict that initially drove them apart in order for the reunion to hit a with a bit more emotional depth.

The language is another thing that struck me in this book. Although the names are very futuristic, the way the characters speak is noticeably old-fashioned and formal. I’m back and forth about how I feel about this. While the word nerd in me was delighted by sentences like, “I don’t know why you’re so chary about asking me, it’s quite reasonable,” and “I am willing to entertain the idea of multiple instances of malfeasance occurring,” I did find at times I was pulled out of the story by them.

Perhaps this language is intended to be another homage to the styles and manners of the Victorian era. Or, perhaps it is indicative of the fact that in this world, Scholars are immersed in ancient texts, and therefore their speech patterns have developed accordingly. I would have liked a tiny acknowledgement somewhere in there — even just a line — to contextualize how it came to be that our descendants on Jupiter sound like they’ve swallowed a dictionary. Having said that, in spite of it jarring me very occasionally, I did kind of love it. If nothing else, it reinforced the otherness of the world and the setting, never letting me forget that I was not reading about people who share my life experiences.

If you want to curl up with a cozy mystery that is smart and fun and full of vibes, make yourself a hot cup of tea and treat yourself to The Mimicking of Known Successes.

NOTE: This book is forthcoming from Tor.com on March 7, 2023. Thanks to MacMillan-Tor/Forge and NetGalley for the complimentary advance review copy.

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