Fiction Reviews

By the Pricking of Her Thumbs

(2018) Adam Roberts, Gollancz, £16.99, hrdbk, 260pp, ISBN 978-1-473-22149-9


This is the highly entertaining follow up to The Real-Town Murders which was also highly entertaining. This time eighteen months have passed but private investigator Alma is still in financial dire straits although she has two cases on her hands. One is an impossible murder which seems to be her forte, but it’s not going to pay much, and one is a crime that may not actually have been committed at all, but could pay extremely well if she solves it.

In the former a woman called Alexa Lund is dead, from shock, by all accounts and the only thing wrong with her is a needle through her thumb, a needle that has no poison on it, nor anything else, and nothing has been found in the woman’s system, so has she really died from a pricking of her thumb?  The second crime, if a crime at all, is the death and replacement of one of the Fab Four, the four individuals who are the richest people in the world, who are jockeying for position to be first over the finish line and have absolute wealth. One of the Fab ones is convinced that one of their counterparts is dead and has been replaced by an A1 or individuals impersonating him or her, but which one is dead, if at all?

If you have read the first novel you will know that Alma has another major problem in that her bedbound lover, Marguerite, has been targeted by a medical terrorist and is on the verge of death every four hours due to a deadly virus which mutates into something different that can kill her. Alma must be at her side to diagnose and treat whatever is happening to her, but treatments cost and Alma has exhausted most forms of credit, legal and otherwise, and is worried that one day, or at the end of one four-hour period, no drone will appear with the medicines she needs to save her partner. Having nowhere else to go, Marguerite often enters The Shine, the virtual reality world which Roberts has created which really comes to the fore in this sequel. Most people would rather be in The Shine, and often are, leaving their bodies behind in “meatspace” where they wear exoskeleton suits which move their lumbering bodies around, thus keeping them functioning while their minds are elsewhere. Alma hates this immersive world and never enters it on principle and is unaware that Marguerite has made them mildly famous as the Watson to her Holmes, when in fact, with her brilliance she is more Mycroft than Watson. If only they could make some sort of profit out of their fame as they do have fans and attract the attention of one of them, a strange little man who calls himself Stan, after his hero, Stanley Kubrick, who knows about the thumb death, and has links to the Fab Four, but will he reveal what he knows? Of course not, Alma has to earn, or learn, it.

Yes, while The Real-Town Murders riffed off Alfred Hitchcock, and in particular North By Northwest, it is Stanley Kubrick’s turn this time, especially with one of his seminal films taking centre stage – no prizes guessing which one, given that this is a science fiction novel and one section of the novel is called “The Dawn of Man”.  Like the first book some of the 15 named chapters in part one (there are four parts in total) contain some pretty dreadful puns, but it’s all part of the fun in a fast-paced novel that contains many references to popular culture, as well as a nod to two real-life murderous thugs, although here they are called the Kry brothers. Things do get bogged down towards the end by a deep philosophical discussion about the nature of money as each of the Fab Four have their own particular “project” for making themselves beyond rich if only they could make some real money out of The Shine. Apart from riffing off Stanley Kubrick and THAT film, this novel gives several passing nods to Raymond Chandler with its hardboiled noirishness in places and also to Damon Runyan in others with its wonderful cast of oddball characters (some real and some not) and set pieces. This is great fun, and a great read, and I really hope there will a third book in the series.

Ian Hunter


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