#443: A Little Help for My Friends – Finding a Modern Locked Room Mystery for TomCat Attempt #9: By the Pricking of Her Thumb (2018) by Adam Roberts

By the Pricking of Her Thumb

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?”

“That’s right.”

“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.

At this stage I must let those of you who are here for classic detection know that this doesn’t really set foot in your wheelhouse.  Alma’s investigation, always curtailed by her partner Marguerite’s medical condition — still one of the most brutal pieces of creative plotting I think I’ve encountered, and I’ll say no more about it here — undoubtedly starts in the classic detection vein, but by the time we’ve encountered Stanley (we’ll get to Stanley) and the Kry twins make their first appearance we’re shifting every further into the realms of SF.  Me, I love a crossover novel — A Quantum Murder (1994) by Peter F. Hamilton roots itself equally firmly in the SF firmament and I delighted in every twist and turn — I’m just letting those of you with a more clue-and-solve approach to things know that this might move a little too far from your chosen demographic.  The Real-Town Murders was definitely more in the detection/thriller genre, and I would hate anyone to come in expecting a retread of that and be put off by how different Roberts has opted to make this.

The decision comes down in part to that earlier novel being spun out of a Hitchcockian motif where this sequel is firmly rooted in the Kubrickian sphere of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  Sure, there’s a sniff of intestine political finagling to which most people are deliberately blind, but a lot of what occurs herein hinges on the extended Kubrick homage in the second section, and I think fans of more traditional skullduggery may find themselves uncatered for.


“O, rly?”

It’s all because of Stanley, really, whose orotund, elliptical pronouncements and fittingly distinct, given the ambience of the prequel to this book, aroma of MacGuffin both power the plot and manage to hold things up for a fair amount of time.  From a detection perspective it’s a little infuriating, but then this isn’t supposed to be about detection: this is Roberts nerding out over the possibilities within his universe and extending them in a way that the rules of the universe allow.  In detection terms, this is one of those rare cases where a little bit of tell would perhaps be preferable to a lot of show, but Roberts has the show of this universe down perfectly (seriously, just look over there two books and see how much of the futuristic, and hence unfamiliar, stuff is filled in without ever resulting to a “Well, we all know that X works because of Y, and now I’ll recap what is familiar to us…” awkward dialogue or authorly info-dumps — it’s pretty staggering).  Why would he tell you when you can play along at home and watch it all unfold?

The who, then, becomes deliberately apparent by about the halfway stage in one of the most savagely memorably character introductions I think I’ll ever read (my sinuses still haven’t recovered…) and the how of that seemingly-impossible murder well and truly cleared up by the 80% mark.  From here, if it’s not weird enough already for we spit-and-sawdust types, boy, does it get weirder — the final 60 pages take the Case Without a Corpse and just run and run and run into the bounds of SF in a delightful way, but would leave Inspector Joseph French scratching his head at precisely what the hell happened.  True crossover mysteries should do this — include, balance, and rely on aspects of all the genres they’re straddling — otherwise you’re just dessing up a simple genre novel with some Emperor’s New Snuff-Bo…er, Clothes, and as a fan of crossover mysteries and SF in general I’m gigantically intrigued by the possibilities Roberts opens up come the end, not least on account of the peripeteia Alma will have experienced come the end of things.

For those yearning after a little genre expansion, my advice would be to try The Real-Town Murders first and, of you like it, take this on aware that is shifts even further from the traditional detection of that opener.  In true intelligent SF style, Roberts opens up the floor to a series of very interesting reflections on wider and larger issues such as the challenegs of the Shine’s resource-palooza, the concept of money and wealth, and of course the ever-onwards march of technology (I’m a bit in love with the idea of smart clothing, and how one garment is transformed into another via simple taps and tugs).  It’s not your usual, but perhaps your usual needs a night off, and I look forward hopefully to the possibility of reading one of these a year for the next decade or so.


Previous Finding a Modern Locked Room Mystery ‘for TomCat’ attempts:

1. Murder in the Oval Office (1989) by Elliott Roosevelt

2. First Class Murder (2015) by Robin Stevens

3. The Secrets of Gaslight Lane (2016) by M.R.C. Kasasian

4. Hard Tack (1991) by Barbara D’Amato

5. The Real-Town Murders (2017) by Adam Roberts

6. Mr. Monk is Cleaned Out (2010) by Lee Goldberg

7. The Paris Librarian (2016) by Mark Pryor

8. The Magic Bullet (2011) by Larry Millett


I could make it four-for-four next week, as I have Martin Edwards’ new novel Gallows Court (2018) on my TBR.  However, instead, I imagine it will be the spoiler-heavy look at Halfway House (1936) by Ellery Queen I’ve been promising for a while.  Yup, I finished another EQ novel — be proud of me!  As to what I thought…well, find out next weekend, when Colin and I reveal (and discuss) all.

2 thoughts on “#443: A Little Help for My Friends – Finding a Modern Locked Room Mystery for TomCat Attempt #9: By the Pricking of Her Thumb (2018) by Adam Roberts

  1. I’m an occasional visitor to the SF genre but I’m always open to suggestions and I may try this, and Real Town Murders as well. It sounds different and interesting enough to pique my curiosity.

    Next weekend should be fun, hopefully!


  2. Once again, thank you for your tireless and, of course, entirely selfless assistance in helping me find even more locked room mysteries. Because you can never have enough of those. I’ll keep this one in mind for when I finally get around to The Real-Town Murders. And I’ll seriously try to get to it before the end of the year.


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