I didn’t mean to write a detective story when I wrote Fellow Travellers, but it ended up being one.
Time travel and detective work has always been interwoven in my mind, probably because time travel seems like the ultimate detective’s tool. If you could transport yourself to the scene of the crime, during the crime, all crimes would be solved. Not just all crimes, but all mysteries. You could find out whether Shakespeare really wrote all that stuff. You could find out what really happened to Amelia Earhart. You could find out why you and that one ex-friend never speak anymore.
Mystery depends on time. From where I’m sitting right now, it would take me about 15 minutes to walk to the Campus Gateway on North High Street, the building from which Brian Shaffer disappeared without a trace in 2006. But because of the distance of time, being in that place would not tell me what happened in 2006. Likewise, right this present moment, a crime is occurring somewhere in the world. But because of the distance of space, I don’t know what exactly is happening, who is doing what to whom. If I eventually learn what happened, it will be because facts have been gathered and disseminated only with passage of time. Just as time and space are linked, mystery is linked with spacetime.
As such, the detective in a detective story is always a time traveller—and ultimately, so are we—but it’s a rudimentary sort of time travel. The detective is like the first wave in a temporal invasion force, using stray facts and clues to establish a tenuous beachhead on the foreign territory of The Past. Only when the battle has settled does the detective turn and invite the reader/audience into The Past, to the scene and the time of the crime. That’s when Mr. Monk says, “Here’s what happened,” and we all get to time travel with him and watch the crime as it took place—in black and white, so we know it’s The Past.
Sometimes it turns out the detective has been operating behind enemy lines in The Past far longer than anyone might have thought. I remember the first time I read A Study In Scarlet, I was thrown when Sherlock Holmes announced who the killer was without any warning. It was like I was standing on a quiet, abandoned beach, all ready for the invasion, only for Holmes to emerge from the jungle in a ghillie suit, his face smeared with war paint, announcing that he had blown all the bridges and conquered The Past without ever firing a shot.
So I would say that to some extent, every detective story is a time travel story, but that doesn’t mean that every time travel story is a detective story. When I started writing Fellow Travellers, I didn’t mean to write a detective story, but it turned into one anyway. It has a group of detectives gathering clues and following leads, it has betrayals and twists, and even some corrupt politicians. But when the “detectives” and the “criminals,” are all time travellers, the mystery is no longer just what happened? and who did what? but what will happen? and who will do what?