Over the course of his career of almost 20 novels, SF writer, historian and critic, Adam Roberts has always done something different with each new book and it continues with his latest, By the Pricking of Her Thumb – a standalone sequel to his previous novel, The Real-Town Murders featuring the intrepid private detective Alma and her mycroft, Marguerite.
Set in the near-future where most of the world’s population spends its time not in the physical world but in the Shine, an immersive iteration of the internet, where everything is limitless and all desires fulfilled, By the Pricking of Her Thumb begins with an impossible murder.
A lady is found dead, her thumb punctured by a needle. Needless to say, the needle is not poisoned and prima facie does not seem to be the murder weapon as all signs point to her having died from shock. Called in by the police to investigate this baffling howdunnit and the point of the needle, private eye Alma finds herself soon caught up in a bigger case as something more wicked her way comes in the form of an ultra-rich client who wants her to investigate a ‘whodunnit-to’, a case that is quite possibly a non-crime with no victim.
Alma’s uber-wealthy client in question is Jupita, part of a group known as the ‘Fab Four’ which includes three other obscenely wealthy individuals – Jay Cernowitz, an individual known only as ‘the Stirk of Stirk’ and Melissa Herford or the GM (short for Golden Meteor). What makes the case a mystery is the fact that Jupita suspects that one of the Fab Four has been killed and their identity stolen. The catch is that she doesn’t know which of them it is. It’s up to Alma now to find out if any of them has indeed been killed, and if so, murdered by whom and why.
The ‘why’, the motive is perhaps the easier of Alma’s task because of what each of the Fab Four (when convenient, as a collective) is working towards is the attainment of ‘Absolute Wealth’. The culprit of course is Money with a capital M and all Alma has to do is ‘follow the money’. A maxim that in this book works at two levels:
One, Alma – and her lover, Maguerite – are more than neck deep in debt, with all avenues for further credit, legal and otherwise, closed to them. Debt mostly incurred because Alma’s ‘Dr. Watsdaughter to her She-lock Holmes’ Maguerite is the victim of a bio-engineered pathogen that has rendered her chronically ill and whose individually-engineered pathologen manifests itself in myriad ways every 4 hours and 4 minutes, the cure to which only Alma can concoct depending on which fractal iteration her lover’s polyform pathology was taking at every instance. So, given the dire straits they find themselves in Alma takes on Jupita’s case if only at the prospect of getting paid by one of the four richest people on the planet for solving a murder, if ever there was one. But here is where the case gets complex, made so by the fact that in the near-future of the book the biggest question and challenge to wealth creation is, “How do you become rich and generate money when the world has moved to the limitless, post-scarcity virtual world of the Shine?” which leads to…
…Two, given that the source of wealth is where people are, where power & status has meaning – which is the Shine and not the physical world – Alma finds it difficult going because she’s one of the very rare people who’s not taken a shine to the Shine, primarily because of her need to be within close proximity to Maguerite to administer the medicine that the latter needs to live for another few hours. And because she’s not familiar with the Shine as she’s never been in it, Alma doesn’t know about the new dynamics of ‘social media’, of ‘the new connected world’ and her in-Shine fandom (seeded by Maguerite in the hope of monetising their fame) which makes her task of finding out which of the Fab Four is dead, if at all, doubly difficult.
Until, in steps a fan of Alma, a stan called Stanley and a Stanley Kubrick fan who knows more than he lets on and kidnaps her and gives Alma her first taste of the Shine by way of putting her in an immersive replay of scenes from 2001: A Space Odyssey to give her a clue of what both her cases are all about. And amidst all this, Alma doesn’t just have to deal with fending off the amorous advances of a police officer and avoid being indicted in a murder she’s a witness to (a murder by Smart Clothes), but avoid being killed herself by a pair of tag-teaming siblings known as the Kry Brothers who are as hilarious as they are tortuously deadly and vice versa.
An examination of the nature of money, wealth, power, death, status and greed, By the Pricking of Her Thumb is recommended not just for anyone who loves a good mystery but also for readers interested in economics, capitalism and wealth creation.
For all of the murders, mysteries and serious topics that it tackles, By the Pricking of Her Thumb is playful in its prose thanks in part to Roberts’ love of clever wordplay, generous references to pop culture and dreadful jokes which stop just one terrible pun shy of being distracting and grating on the reader. There is a lot more philosophising, contemplation and exposition – with the pacing not as fast and frenetic as the previous book – perhaps just as much as The Real-Town Murders was inspired by Alfred Hitchcock movies, By the Pricking of Her Thumb takes its inspiration from 2001: A Space Odyssey, a fact that also manifests in the dark undertones that underline the story and its none-too-happy, harrowing sequences. By the Pricking of Her Thumb will nonetheless be enjoyed by the thinking reader and people who are fans of murder mysteries, intelligent science fiction and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
And speaking of thinking readers and mysteries brings me to the first New World Weekly giveaway of 2019 where we’re giving away one copy of Adam Roberts’ By the Pricking of Her Thumb. Take a look at this passage below:
All you have you have to do is give us the name of the Indian person which has been blanked out (along with one description that gives his identity away) in the above conversation. Tweet us your answer with BOTH: the hashtag #NWWonFD and a link to this piece on or before Sunday, 10th February. All entries with the correct answer will go into a lucky draw the result of which will be announced in the subsequent week. All the best, and…
Live Long and Prosper!
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Updated at 09:45 am on February 3, 2019 to correct two typos.
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