Janet Kagan’s 1988 Hellspark is a standalone SF mystery.
It’s by mere chance that Hellspark trader Tocohl Susumo interrupts an apparent mugging. Consequences! What was supposed to be an enjoyable holiday finds her sent to the newly found world of Lassti. Thanks to a misapprehension, she will be trusted to make a number of important legal determinations. Whether the late researcher Oloitokitok died by misadventure or was murdered might be the least of her decisions.
The survey team may be in the midst of a first contact. Or it might not. Nobody is quite sure.
Oloitokitok was electrocuted, which on any planet but Lassti would suggest that technology was involved. However, Lassti is a peculiar world; it features extraordinarily violent weather and plant life that has mastered the use of electricity. That said, even if the local lifeforms can deliver a lethal charge, the death may not have been an accident. Perhaps someone orchestrated it.
High on the list of candidates: a local lifeform dubbed “sprookjes” by the survey team. What the sprookjes call themselves, if the sprookjes even have the concept of identity, is unknown. Thus far, nobody has been able to determine if the alien entities are intelligent or merely bright animals who have taken an interest in the visitors. If they are intelligent, however, then if they played a role in Oloitokitok’s death, it could have been deliberate and therefore could have been a murder. With no obvious language, artifacts, or art, the sprookjes appear to be mere animals, but their inquisitive behavior is such that some (but not all) of the team is sure the aliens are intelligent.
Tocohl is not the off-world judge the survey team takes her to be, but since she declines to correct the misapprehension, she will have to do her best to perform the duties of a judge. Solving crimes — if there was a crime — is also not in her bailiwick. She is a Hellspark, however, adept at learning and using the customs of many cultures. That will have to serve.
This novel addresses an issue other SF novels don’t (omissions which irritate the $%$#%#$ out of me). Why isn’t much of the potentially dangerous work of exploring a new world relegated to robot probes? In this case, it’s because Lassti’s environment is very hard on machinery.
To be honest, aside from the question of whether it was death by misadventure or murder — and when is it ever death by misadventure in books like this? — the author telegraphs the resolution to the Oloitokitok subplot early on. It’s a broad hint, even broader if one is up on one’s genre tropes. In any American murder mystery film, it is almost invariably the British actor’s character that did it1. If someone is killed in a setting where there is a group of Always Evil Cultists who have already appeared on stage, then there’s probably a plot-relevant reason why they got mentioned. I suppose the secondary mystery is which person is a member of the Always Evil Cult and why in particular they felt the need to do what they did. So there’s your hint. I probably should have spoilered it.
(The Inheritors of God’s chaotic evil creed? That the universe exists for members to exploit, which means God wants them to be jerks. Littering is practically a sacrament. They would probably refuse to wear face masks. They’re unpopular with anyone not a fellow member.)
The murder mystery is only a subplot. Rather like the much, much older novel Little Fuzzy , the novel wanders around the problem of determining whether or not an unfamiliar species might be intelligent tool-users when the standard tests that worked in the past appear to be inapplicable. Are the sprookjes really just animals or do they have all the trappings of intelligence in a form humans don’t recognize? As it turns out, this is not an issue restricted to the sprookjes and developing better tests than they have will be useful for civilization.
Kagan hints nicely at a complex background without going into so much detail that inherent contradictions draw themselves to the readers attention. Her characters are sufficient to carry her plot. This isn’t a MAJOR! SF! NOVEL! But not every book has to be the next great work of SF to be of interest. Hellspark is a skillfully done minor work, an example that other authors could bear in mind. My only issue with it is that I would have liked to see other books in the setting, which is never going to happen.
My edition is an ancient Meisha Merlin Books edition2 but no doubt diligent readers can find copies to purchase.
1: Knives Out being a notable exception.
2: I prefer the cover of the Tor edition.