The last two Saturdays on here have seen me dive into modern hardback novels, so I thought I would continue that trend and pretend once more that I’m doing this purely for TomCat’s benefit.
This is the first — though hopefully not the last — sequel to Adam Roberts’ The Real-Town Murders (2017), itself a ALHfMF–FaMLRMfTC candidate last year, and which I called “propulsive, inventive, and immersive SF which extends the scope of the impossible crime and augurs well for the futures of both genres”. Well, that future is now, as our futuristic-England P.I. Alma is back, with another couple of cases to provide bafflement and genre-crossover fun. The first concerns the murder of a woman, apparently achieved by a manner described in the title (and depicted with not 100% accuracy on the cover) in that a needle has been pushed through the top section of her thumb and seems to have been enough to kill her, without any toxins present or any other obvious means of bringing about said death. And the second concerns a murder, possibly, of someone, but the client isn’t quite sure who:
“[A]re you serious? Are you not, rather, kidding me? You think one of three people — with whom you interact daily — is dead?”
“And you don’t know which one?”
“And you want me to identify the dead person?”
In fairness to Alma’s client — Jupita, one of the four richest people in Europe — the difficulty in identifying which of the other three she thinks may have been rubbed out is compounded by the interactions they share taking place exclusively within the immersive MMORPG/internet crossover the Shine which Roberts has created in this universe. With an increasing number of people spending an increasing amount of time choosing to lose themselves in the boundless possibilities the Shine represents, pretty much all interaction in ‘the Real’ has ceased and so Jupita is trying to tell if, essentially, someone in a group chat is not who they claim. It’s a little more complicated than that, of course, with talk of gestalt forcing me to go back and check my definition of ‘gestalt’ was up to date (it was not), but the possibility to misrepresent oneself is obviously severely heightened in this universe, and so the difficulty in identifying any such chicanery and impersonation becomes equally problematic.
More so, really, when you’re dealing with four of the most powerful, isolated, neurotic, and security-conscious people in the world.
It’s a setup that offers a lot of potential, and Roberts is clearly going to enjoy himself: with chapter titles like ‘Debt Tu, Brute’ and ‘Tym Flies’ and his omniscient narrator throwing out Get Carter (1971) allusions, how could this be taken too seriously, after all? And yet, when it gets down to it, Roberts has another Big Idea at the core of his narrative that shows all the linguistic flippancy (I need a better word for that, but my point is he’s never ponderous in his wordplay) is really just the dress on a seriously tooled-up dummy. And when he wants to be taken seriously, and when he wants to write excellent prose, boy does he deliver:
The throbbing illumination was flashbulb bright, and the cutting action amazingly noisy, but in the strangest way it also possessed a kind of beauty. Alma had to hood her eyes with her hand, it was so bright; the endless cascade of ferociously bright rice-grain-sized sparks, some diamond white, some tinted yellow and tangerine, perhaps from the sand in the concrete burning. A powerful stench of slag, of burnt carpet and singed carpet, gripped her nostrils, which, as with her eyes discomfort at the pulsing brightness, she accepted as the appropriate environment in which she ought to exist.
A few sizzling flakes drifted through the air and touched her, sharp as a cut, and she did not flinch.