One part near-future scifi in a post-internet world, one part locked-room murder mystery, and two parts fast-paced Hitchcockian thriller, with a dash of Hammett.
‘In a world…where the real world has lost its shine and people are migrating full-time to the virtual….a society where bots & AIs take care of almost everything…where sunbathing is a bigger vice than smoking…one woman must race against time to solve an impossible murder, a crime that lies at the heart of a high-stakes conspiracy.’
If someone ever decides to turn this intelligent and enjoyable sci-fi novel into a movie, I’d recommend the above for the trailer voice-over narration.
Let’s turn first to the author of the thing itself, Adam Roberts, one of the finest contemporary SF writers, who also happens to be a teacher of English Literature at the University of London. Winner of the BSFA Award for 2012’s Jack Glass, and nominated three times for the Arthur C Clarke Award for his SF novels Salt, Gradisil and Yellow Blue Tibia, Adam Roberts doesn’t just write clever, sophisticated science fiction but writes about science fiction as well, as one of the genre’s foremost historians and critics, and The Real-Town Murders is his 17th novel, no two of which are similar.
The inspiration for the Hitchcockian Real-Town Murders, unsurprisingly comes from Alfred Hitchcock himself, about a movie he wanted to make, that Adam Roberts has spoken of in a pre-publication interview.
The idea Hitchcock had was for a pre-credits sequence that would be set in a fully-automated, robot-only car factory. The camera would follow the whole process of a car being made, right from the raw materials being delivered. The camera would work its way along the assembly line as robots fitted the body panels together, inserted the engine, put in seats, etc. There would be no people involved. At the end of this sequence the camera would follow the now completely-assembled car as it rolled out, but with a dead body in the dicky (‘boot’, if you will; ‘trunk’ if you prefer the Americanism). Hitchcock’s only problem was he could not figure out how to get the corpse into the car, and so the movie was never made.
Enter Adam Roberts wielding sci-fi, because this is exactly the point at which The Real-Town Murders begins.
In a not-too-distant future, when the majority of the Earth’s populace has migrated to the immersive successor to the internet, The Shine, private detective Alma is called into to investigate an impossible murder in a fully automated factory controlled by an AI. Scouring through the camera feeds – of which there are many, covering every single angle, nook and cranny – she finds no way in which a dead body could have materialised into the dicky of a car freshly assembled the old-fashioned way (that is, not 3D printed).
So begins an adventure for Alma as she gets caught in a web of intrigue, then literally gets caught by the police leading to not a few action-packed Hitchcockian sequences. And the heart of it all is the whodunit. But then most murder mysteries are whodunnits, revolving around the identity of the killer. The Real-Town Murder’s mystery belongs to a special category of crime fiction known as the impossible murder or the locked room mystery, or simply, a howdunit, where the emphasis is also on how the crime took place, and the corpse found in impossible circumstances.
Soon, Alma finds herself racing against time, again, not in a metaphorical way so to speak, but literally, on a 4-hour-4-minute window. Because her partner Marguerite – the Mycroft to well, Alma’s Yourcroft – has been genehacked, infected with a bio-malware that can kill her unless Alma – and Alma only, because she’s been DNA-linked by the hacker to Marguerite – administers the medicine at the exact time, every single time, thus also putting a limit on the distance that she can travel away from the flat. A minute earlier or a minute late, Marguerite will die in their flat (from which she cannot be moved). So wherever Alma is, whatever she is doing, she has to somehow make her way back to the flat every 4 hours, while navigating through the dangers that lurk and the people who are either chasing her or wanting her dead.
In keeping with private eye tradition, there’s also a subplot involving another case that Alma is working on, given to her by a worried mother whose son is losing weight despite eating well, with the food just disappearing from his stomach after he eats.
The dénouement when it comes is a true ‘aha’ moment. The crime and solution are worthy of the past master of locked room mysteries, John Dickson Carr whose The Hollow Man – amongst others – is the benchmark against which all locked room mysteries shall be weighed. And The Real-Town Murders passes the test with flying colours. Not just because the crime is so fiendishly clever and the solution ingeniously simple, but because as with any good mystery writer, Adam Roberts plays fair with the reader. You are in possession of as much information as Alma herself. There are enough hints, clues and nudges – and diversions as well – that when the reveal happens, the reader thinks, ‘Oh! Why didn’t I think of that?!’ and that’s the best kind of reveal.
Hitchcockian references abound, from North By North West to Birds which makes this a must-read for an Alfred Hitchcock fan. The cover design (above) which is in the style of the legendary designer Saul Bass, who amongst others created the path-breaking title sequences for Hitchcock’s North by Northwest and Psycho is just the beginning. Easter eggs are splattered cleverly all over, and given Roberts’ proclivities, there are puns galore. There’s even a Watergate-style whistleblower called Derp Throat, who shoves down Alma’s feed some inside information, and at least a dozen vivid descriptions of the sky above.
Adam Roberts usually sets himself ambitious goals, trying grand thought experiments using the tools and tropes of science fiction, and it is so in this novel as well but to a lesser degree. And it is better off for it, making Real-Town Murders an effortless galloping read, for most parts. Yes, there are ‘literary-pretentious meditations’ on governments, gender, bodies and death, but they – thankfully – don’t slow the pace down. The society of the future (or one version of it at least) is fleshed out in great detail, right down to the automated mesh-suits that people in The Shine use to give their physical bodies some sort of exercise while they are immersed for days and the ubiquitous embedded Feeds that even the people who’re not in the Shine use and cannot function without (except of course for Alma, who has to learn how to).
So, the Real-Town Murders is then recommended for fans of the mystery novel as much as it is for sci-fi readers, written by an author who proves himself to be a master of both these crafts. And yes, a book that will also make Alfred Hitchcock fans happy.
Speaking of happy, and in keeping with the New Worlds Weekly tradition, we’re giving away one copy – hardbound Gollancz edition – of The Real-Town Murders by Adam Roberts to one lucky reader, who will be picked out via a lucky draw from a pool of lots of NWW readers who give the correct answer to this question: Adam Roberts is currently working on the literary biography of which science fiction author? If you want a clue, the writer in question – who is the answer – has already been written about in a recent New Worlds Weekly piece and Adam Roberts has been called out as being in the process of writing said writer’s literary biography. Tweet your complete answer with the hashtag #NWWonFD or tell us via a comment on the FactorDaily Facebook post with this piece. I wish you all the very best.
And on that note, I conclude this, the 68th edition of New Worlds Weekly, and hope to see you back here again next weekend for the 69th, as we continue exploring the many splendours of SF. Live long and prosper!