The Real Town Murders by Adam Roberts

September 6, 2017 - 6:26 pm No Comments

The Real-Town Murders by Adam Roberts

Published by Gollancz on 24th August 2017

230 pages

Reviewed by Chris Stocks

Alma is a private detective in a near-future England, where most people spend all their time in a fully immersive successor to the internet, known as Shine. However, Alma’s partner has been infected with a genetically-engineered lipid phage, which renders her bed-bound. Alma must treat her within a five-minute window every four hours or she will die. Consequently, Alma is one of the few people still living wholly in the real world.

Alma is assigned to a murder investigation at an automated car factory. A body has been found in the boot of a newly assembled car – though the CCTV footage shows there was no body present at any point in the assembly process.

She is then warned off the case by a government agent, who is subsequently killed. Now a suspect, Alma must go on the run, evade arrest, avoid the machinations of political conspirators and solve the impossible-seeming murder – as well as return home every four hours to treat her partner! This latter requirement adds an extra layer of dramatic tension to what might otherwise have turned into an extended series of chase sequences.

The near-future setting is convincing. The streets are almost deserted, as most people live in the Shine. Most pedestrians are somnambulant figures dressed in Mesh suits that take their bodies for walks to avoid muscular atrophy, whilst their minds are in the Shine – a high-tech version of The Wrong Trousers! AIs and nanotechnology are used to keep the country ticking over, but the overall impression is of decay. Indeed, the underlying political conspiracy involves different government factions who either want everyone to live permanently in the Shine or to tempt Shine users back to the real world.

This is an exciting, fast-paced and often darkly comic thriller, with all the twists and turns of an Alfred Hitchcock film, albeit in a futuristic setting. Indeed, there are deliberate nods to Hitchcock throughout. Some chapter titles allude to Hitchcock films – “Dial ‘C’ for Caring”, “Strangers on the Terrain”, for example. There are also more overt references. One passage features an attack by a swarm of small drones that could have come straight out of The Birds. Another is a tense chase scene set amongst the nanobot-sculpted faces of famous Britons (William Shakespeare, Winston Churchill etc.) that now adorn the White Cliffs of Dover – an allusion to the Mount Rushmore scene in North by North-West. The great director himself even makes a small cameo – as is only right and proper!

There are also numerous references to other works. Alma at one point gets into an amusing argument with the low-grade AI running her front door about whether it should admit her or not. This reminded me of a very similar scene from the Philip K. Dick novel, Ubik. I also spotted passing references to Catch 22, The Princess Bride and The Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy amongst others – and I’m sure I missed many more.

In summary, I really enjoyed Adam Robert’s latest novel and can thoroughly recommend it. It is an intriguing thriller as well as referencing enough Hitchcock films and SF classics to satisfy the discerning fan of both genres.

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