Another modern mystery promising an impossible crime, which I’m reading for my own interest on the pretext that it could pique the interest of the internet’s expert on the subgenre, TomCat, and another crossover mystery in this cause, with crime and SF aspects jostling for position.
A.G. Riddle’s Lost in Time (2022) posits a near future of 2027 in which all major crime has been virtually eradicated by the creation of a deterrent so unpleasant that it makes even the most hardened criminals blanch. The technology in question is the Absolom machine, which works by banishing criminals found guilty of heinous crimes millions of years into the past and abandoning them there without any chance of return. Well, no, it banishes them to the equivalent of the past, creating instead a parallel universe so that the effect upon our world is minimal — the questions it could raise in the fossil records of the universes they’re sent to doesn’t seem to bother anyone too greatly — and leaving these irredeemably violent types to fight out with nature and whatever creatures might be found on that reality’s version of Pangea.
So, yes, that “a fate worse than Absolom” becomes a common phrase in this world isn’t perhaps all that surprising.
In the grand tradition of world-changing technologies, however — Philip K. Dick’s ‘The Minority Report’ (1956) and Isaac Asimov’s ‘The Dead Past’ (1956) spring to mind — man should be careful what he wrangles, lest it turn around and bite him. And so, when one of the Absolom Six, the scientists who created the technology, is found violently murdered, and another member of the group comes under suspicion for that murder, it’s only a matter of time before the creator becomes the subject: Sam Anderson finds himself subjected to Absolom and fighting for survival while his remaining friends and family try to a) solve the murder which we know he did not commit and b) try to bring him back from whence he has been exiled.
This is not a book without problems, which we will get to, but the overall experience is so much fun that I’d like to dwell on that first up. Firstly, I don’t think you’d believe me if I told you how quickly I read this — I can barely believe it myself — given that it runs to about 90,000 words and takes in more than a few surprising developments along the way. The first section sets up the universe, although, unlike with Dick and Asimov, you don’t really get a sense of how the wider world has changed as a result of this astounding discovery, focussing instead on the Absolom Six and Sam’s 19 year-old daughter Adeline. The second part then gives us the dual narratives of Sam in the equivalent of the Triassic era while his friends and daughter try to work out how they can rescue him…and of the third onwards I’ll say very little except that I should totally have seen the development which hits near the start of part 3 coming, and things get very involved thereafter.
Every time I wanted to put this down, Riddle would spring another development on me and I’d haggle with myself to read just a few more chapters…only to find 40 pages disappearing and more exciting developments coming thick and fast. It’s certainly not a book you’d read for its finely-crafted detective plot, being decidedly more a thriller with a baffling question at its heart than something where you know the rules from the outset and so apply them to the situation to try and find the flaw, but as thrillers go it’s a ripper. I picked it up on the promise of an impossible crime, but can’t remember where I must have read that because, going back to the usual sources, I can find no mention of that element at all. However, I’m not complaining. It would have been a shame to miss out on this even if it doesn’t quite provide the sort of impossibility that will find its way into volume 2 of Skupin.
The setup certainly looks impossible — Sam and Adeline visited Nora Thomas at home one evening, where an argument ensued and household surveillance technology saw Adeline running away in tears before Sam followed almost immediately. No-one else approached the house thereafter, and in the morning Nora is found dead and her time of death fixed at around the period that Sam and Adeline were there. We know, learning about events from Sam’s perspective, that Nora was alive when they left her…so howdunnit? Moreover, how does someone get a note to Sam threatening to provide evidence of Adeline’s guilt if he doesn’t confess to the crime? And how could the knife which killed Nora be found hidden in Nora’s house, covered in Adeline’s fingerprints? There’s plenty of intrigue here, but it’s not the reason I’d suggest picking up the book in the first place.
For a start, as a thriller — and as a thriller with a foot firmly cemented in SF trappings — we’re very much here to be taken on a helluva ride than talked through the developments which will leave various clues scattered in their wake for us to marvel at come the end. What mysteries there are centre more on the Absolom, er, Five and their unusual behaviour, not least that of Daniele Danneros, the member of the team to whom Sam entrusts the care of his children and who seems very keen to point any finger of suspicion anywhere except herself.
It’s in these little mysteries that the novel has its worst stumbles, not least because Riddle’s exceptionally functional prose doesn’t exactly burgeon with subtlety, and drops a revelation on you roughly once every 12 pages to keep you hooked. As such, we resort to clunky devices — every member of the Absolom Six seems to have a Room of Exposition in their house, into which Adeline stumbles looking for answers, only for someone to find her and explain everything because she now Has Questions. And some of these mysteries aren’t mysteries at all — given that everyone had financial problems when they started Absolom, and that Hiro Sato is “still fighting his demon [and] always in financial trouble” what could he possibly be doing in Las Vegas all the time, eh, eh? — but the book isn’t trying to lean too heavily on these, instead building towards a wonderful development, one I’m pleased to to say that I failed to anticipate, before becoming a very different animal in its second half.
I’m also not entirely convinced that Riddle’s rendering of the discovery of Absolom quite captures the spirit it would have been made in. Everyone’s convinced they’ve failed because the machine they create doesn’t have the function it was originally designed for…and the fact that they’ve proved the existence of parallel worlds and have the means to access them is seen more as an embarrassment than the epoch-defining discovery it would actually be.
I’m also not entirely convinced — and bear in mind that I’m not even vaguely an expert — that Riddle’s grip on causality is quite as tight as it should be for the entertaining developments we get herein. Once you know the reason for that impossible murder…I don’t think it makes sense, and only happens like it does so that we get a mystery out of it rather than because the action it allows is in any way necessary in this universe. Now, you could go round and round and round in circles arguing this — and my willingness to do so can and should be taken as an indication of how much I enjoyed this book and want to engage with its core ideas — but it’s another way in which the murder mystery element of this will provide a little disappointing for traditional mystery fans.
Also, on an entirely personal note, I find the way Riddle uses parentheses in his text wildly distracting. I’ve never really been a fan of parentheses in fictional prose anyway (they make more sense in factive writing where, like here, you can entirely separate out a parallel clause) but then he writes things like:
With the sheer amount of surveillance cameras in the city (and Absolom as a penalty for the worst offenses), crime was nearly nonexistent in Absolom City.
In the volcano’s shadow, Sam spotted a small pond (or what looked like a small pond from where he stood).
Every dollar she spent was one less she had to invest, but the bike would cut down on her travel time around town (and save cab fares).
…and they just seem weird to me in a way that I could write about another 2,000 words on but shall instead just leave here for you to either agree with or wonder what the hell my problem is.
It’s a well-established fact that these endeavours to find something modern in the impossible crime subgenre haven’t exactly set a high bar, but Lost in Time is — for all my nit-picking — simply a blast of a book, best experienced at high speed for maximum enjoyment, and probably difficult to read at any other pace. Detection purists need not apply, but as a jolt of pure, giddy merry-making it’s been a while since I tore through a book with such a wide grin on my face. The survival thriller aspects of Sam’s journey to the past are intelligently considered and well-handled, the story rips along at a superb rate, and if the answers don’t always convince they do at the very least entertain…yes, those of you in the mood for something slightly outside your usual will find a lot to enjoy here.
Finding a Modern Locked Room Mystery ‘for TomCat’ attempts: