Gollancz | 2017 (24 August) | 240p | Review copy | Buy the book
Alma is a private detective trying to make ends meet. She doesn’t have many cases to pick from and the few she has are hardly promising – a mother who thinks her son is getting thinner with every meal he eats and then there’s the case of the body found in the boot of a car. This could be one of those interesting lucrative cases until Alma learns that this is a brand new manufactured car, still in its factory and untouched by human hands. That it should have a dead body in it is an impossibility but the company want her to find out why, who and, most especially, how.
But as soon as Alma starts digging into the mysterious murder of civil servant Adam Kem, she realises that she’s out of her depth. Important people keep warning her off. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. Some of them want her dead as well. But why? All she wants to do is drop the case but instead Alma finds herself on the run. It doesn’t help that she has to return to her home every four hours and four minutes to medicate her love Marguerite. If she misses that deadline, Marguerite will die. Quickly.
The Real-Town Murders is a brilliant detective thriller but that description only scratches the surface. This is Adam Roberts, after all, who yet again shows us what a wizard he is with words and ideas. He has created here a near future Britain and it is an almost empty place. That’s because 90% of the population is buried away in their apartments, some the size of coffins, to immerse themselves in the Shine – our internet’s future. The only time these people venture out is in their mesh suits – an automated robotic case which exercises these unconscious bodies. And if you’re unfortunate enough to find yourself in either prison or hospital, there you’ll be forced into the Shine – you’re so much easier to handle that way.
But the Shine has almost shut Britain down. The appeal of the real world has gone. There is a drive by some to get it back and that means giving the place a boost! The UK is now UK!-OK!, Reading is R!-Town (or Real-Town), and then there’s Basingstoked! and sWINdon. Staines is still Staines, though… The White Cliffs of Dover have been sculpted to draw in the crowds and make the British feel good about themselves – what could be better than having the monumental face of Shakespeare carved into the white cliffs to usher in tourists? But you only have to look around the streets and bars to see how ineffective this is.
This is worldbuilding at its very best. It’s complex, multi-layered, absolutely fascinating and so witty. This is very clever writing but it’s not difficult to read or get into, it’s a delight. And we see all of this crazy, really rather horrible world through Alma as she tries to work out what on earth is going on while always keeping an eye on that ticking clock. There are joys along the way – the argumentative talking door is a highlight – but there is also great tension and topnotch adventure as Alma runs from scrape to scrape.
This is also a novel full of fabulous women. The majority of the characters, both goodies and baddies, are female but this doesn’t feel forced. It’s just how it is. And Adam Roberts writes women so well. Alma is wonderful and so too is Marguerite, who sees herself as the Mycroft to Alma’s Sherlock. These two women have got themselves into a pitiable situation and the world around them is only making it worse.
There are some brilliant touches of science fiction that pay homage to such lovely things as Star Trek. There are extraordinary flying cars. There are hints of impossible things, all becoming real in the familiar mystery of the body in the locked room, which here gets such a fantastic twist.
The Real-Town Murders is a joy to read. Adam Roberts’ imagination is incredible, backed up by some truly beautiful writing. I think that it is more accessible than The Thing Itself, a book that I adored, and so I hope it gains the huge audience it deserves. Whatever will be next?!
I must also mention that all of Adam Roberts’ hardbacks have the most stunning covers. The Real-Town Murders is no different – gorgeous.
The Thing Itself