A near-future murder mystery written by Adam Roberts seemed an irresistible combination, but I’m a sucker for a science fiction crime thriller, so was my enthusiasm justified?
Alma is a private detective in a near-future England, a country desperately trying to tempt people away from the delights of Shine, the immersive successor to the internet. But most people are happy to spend their lives plugged in, and the country is decaying. Alma’s partner is ill, and has to be treated without fail every 4 hours, a task that only Alma can do. If she misses the 5 minute window her lover will die. She is one of the few not to access the Shine. So when Alma is called to an automated car factory to be shown an impossible death and finds herself caught up in a political coup, she knows that getting too deep may leave her unable to get home.
I was convinced initially that this was going to be the classic closed-room mystery – until the action suddenly kicked off, the plot jinked sideways and it all turned into something quite different… I love it when that happens! There are only a handful of writers that can pull off these flourishes with such panache, but Roberts happens to be one of them. The story surged forward, as the worldmaking redefined this thriller into something quite different.
Alma is stuck in the real world, tethered by the specific needs of her lover who has been struck down by a genetically specific cancer attuned to Alma’s DNA, meaning that she is the only one who can successfully nurse and treat Marguerite. Alongside the case, Roberts rolls out this intriguing world where increasingly the majority of people live and work in the virtual paradise that is the Shine. So what happens to the increasingly lopsided power dynamic between the virtual governing body and the real-time government?
Amidst the mayhem of full-on action scenes, there are some also genuinely amusing moments – I loved the faces of famous Britons that have been carved into the chalk cliffs of Dover to try and provide some belated attraction in the real world. Rebranding the town of Reading as R! also is funny and authentic as the kind of meaningless fluff the powers-that-be indulge in to be seen to do something about the increasing inequality between the real and virtual world.
The initial murder throws up all sorts of issues and pitchforks Alma into the middle of a really scary adventure, which bring her to notice of some very dangerous people – although, worryingly, it seems she has already been on somebody’s list. She is an enjoyable, sympathetic heroine, though if I have a grizzle, it’s that the characters seem to be able to soak up an insane amount of physical damage and still stagger forth. However, that is a minor grumble – overall, this is a thoroughly enjoyable near-future whodunit and I notice with joy in my heart that it is the first in a series. Yippee!
While I obtained the arc of The Real-Town Murders from the publisher via NetGalley, this has in no way influenced my unbiased review.