The Real-Town Murders, Adam Roberts (Gollancz, ISBN 978-1-473-22145-1, HC, stg£16.99, 230pp). September 2017.
The Real-Town Murders is the first novel by Adam Roberts I’ve managed to finish, if not the first I’ve tried to read. (The Thing Itself was, perhaps, excessively Kantian.) Instead of bouncing off after a grimly determined start, though, with The Real-Town Murders I got instantly caught up in a mystery-plot that turned into a thriller, as Roberts’ protagonist is caught up in a coup playing out between government factions.
Alma is a private detective in a not-too-far-future England. She’s one of the few people who work outside the Shine — an augmented-reality immersive successor to the internet — and whose leisure, such as it is, also takes place outside the Shine — something that’s even more unusual. This is partly from choice, and partly from necessity. Alma can’t afford to lose track of time. Her partner, Marguerite, is bed-bound with a tailored disease: a disease that targeted Alma and Marguerite specifically. Marguerite needs treatment every four hours, and the window for treatment is five minutes long. Otherwise she dies. And Alma must be the one to treat her, because what is necessary for treatment changes every time, but it needs Alma’s DNA all the time.
We first meet Alma as she begins to investigate a locked-room murder mystery. A body showed up in an automobile factory. There was no way for the body to get there, but the man in question is definitely dead. Alma has just enough time to become properly intrigued by the puzzle when a government agent requests and requires her to stop investigating. Then she learns that said government agent has turned up dead — when another government agent shows up to require her to come with them.
This will keep her away from Marguerite for far too long. In order to keep her lover alive, Alma has to go on the run — a process of evading government scrutiny and arrest made that much more complicated by needing to return to Marguerite’s side, like clockwork, every four hours. While also getting to the bottom of the mystery and finding enough leverage, somehow, to get these warring government factions to leave her alone and let her take care of Marguerite.
This is a compelling book, despite Roberts’ occasional weird choices when it comes to representing dialogue. (“Own dare stand” for “understand,” for example.) The thriller-plot is cunning and twisty and tightly paced, and comes together effectively. But the heart of the book, for me, is Alma’s relationship with and to Marguerite.
In the so-specifically targeted disease that has physically incapacitated Marguerite, and which binds Alma to a four-hour timetable to treat her, there is a wealth of scarcely-hinted-at backstory. (One which probably answers the question of why does Alma, of all the private investigators in the world, get roped in to a government conspiracy?) These are fantastic characters, with a compelling relationship — and that’s before we get to the other characters that people this novel.
It’s very rare for science fiction and fantasy to show a relationship between two people, where one of the two is physically disabled and the other is her carer. It’s rarer to show a relationship of mutual respect and love, where the physical dependence of one upon the other isn’t shown with any diminution of personhood or intellectual independence.
The Real-Town Murders could, I think, have shown Marguerite a little more awake and a little more intellectually involved in Alma’s investigation, but in the time we see her conscious and not delirious with fever, we still see a woman with an enormous personality and immense confidence in her own mental capacities — a woman who solves the mystery before Alma can, even if Alma believes her contribution, at the time, to be feverish rambling. Alma never questions her own commitment to Marguerite, never thinks about letting her lover die. She’s going to be there. No matter what, she’s going to be there.
The Real-Town Murders is a deeply satisfying novel. If you enjoy near-future thrillers, I recommend it — maybe even if you don’t.
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