If there is anything the world never seems to tire of, it’s the murder mystery. (If it were the US, I would say mass shootings...) Likely the first form, if not the most basic form of genre, the number of iterations of: figuring out how someone died and apprehending the culprit may just occupy the largest percentage of books, film, and television in the West. Dabbling in the murder mystery medium in Jack Glass, in 2017 Adam Roberts returns with another pop-sf effort in The Real-Town Murders. And is it ever slaPdaSh.
More specifically a locked-room mystery (we even have sub-genres of murder), The Real-Town Murders opens with private investigator Alma on the scene of the crime. An auto-mobile manufactory, she watches the security video of a car being 3D printed from raw materials on the factory floor, guided only by the hands of robots, yet a corpse somehow ending up in the car’s trunk at the end of the process. The factory’s AI no help, Alma turns to interview the QA employee who found the body, but is quickly cut-off by a high-level government investigator. Brought to the morgue, Alma is shown the corpse and politely informed she is off the case; the government will take over. Upon returning home and discovering her data feed has been wiped of all information related to the case, Alma is contacted by a person who claims to have top secret information about the murder. Meeting the shadowy man at a nearby café, it isn’t long before Alma is dragged back into the case—if not just to find out how the murder was done.
As can (hopefully) be intuited from the plot summary, The Real-Town Murders is a straight-forward thriller that wants to be read for the unravel of the mystery as well as the near continuous fight for her life Alma ends up in. Roberts brings his panache for verbiage and stolid ability to unpack an idea in engaging fashion. That being said, I much prefer the Roberts who aims to write intelligent science fiction. Entertaining, yes (the solution to the locked room murder is as elegant as one would hope), but ‘intelligent’ is not a descriptor for The Real-Town Murders. Worse yet, Roberts seems to have abandoned his regard for writing technique. I’ve complained in the past that some of his stories look like manuscripts which have undergone little revision. The Real-Town Murders looks as though it has undergone zero revision. Feeling truly like a first draft, there are numerous occasions the narrative is unpolished and rushed—like Roberts’ mind was elsewhere, or he was eager just to get the ideas down on paper to be revised later. There are a few bright spots, but the overall effect is highly uneven and requires tightening and smoothing to bring it not final form. (I’m still shaking my head at:“the blood was pooling on the ground, a disc bounded by irregular curves”. What the hell does that mean?!?!?)
And there are other issues. Roberts has written pastiches in the past, and the mindset comes leaking through in The Real-Town Murders to its detriment. The dialogues and action scenes are scattershot with asides and meta-humor that distract rather than enhance the story. How can I feel that Alma’s life is truly in danger if Roberts regularly steps aside to make some snide comment on the situation as it relates to our world? Much of it is indeed clever, but it only serves to distract—the conversations with the various AIs particularly taxing. Given Roberts’ works to date, I have come to expect more; the mixing of Hitchcockian thriller with Philip K. Dick pastiche just doesn’t work at a fundamental level.
I’ve read on a couple of occasions (just a couple) Roberts’ desire to be better recognized by the science fiction community. Feeling what he writes is in line with popular interest, he can’t figure out why his books are not as ‘likeable’ as John Scalzi’s, for example. The Real-Town Murders, with its locked room premise, numerous action scenes, cheap plot devices (and resulting artificial tension), Hitchcock-ian plotting, and dependence on sf sensawunda feels another attempt at recognition—and a good attempt if one looks at, for example, winners of the Hugo and Locus awards. For certain the ingredients are all there, only time will tell whether his ploy is successful.
In the end, The Real-Town Murders is the sloppiest Roberts’ I’ve encountered yet (I’ve read about two-thirds of his sf). As always, the premise is sharp and engaging, and the reader will likely be unable to put the book down given the pace and mystery surrounding the ‘locked room’. But when compared to earlier novels like Salt, Polystom, or New Model Army, there is a lack of precision to the prose and attention to structure, tone, etc. that too regularly detracts from the overall quality. This is all not to mention it doesn’t appear Roberts looked to other writers to learn how to write a Hollywood-esque action scene. There are several such scenes, but none feel streamlined or focused, and therefore as tense or driving as they could be. Another way of looking at this is, the world can’t seem to get enough murder mysteries, and The Real-Town Murders is an example of one that uses sf in its premise. I just wish it had gone through a couple more revisions—at least one—as there is a lot of potential for a more consistent, unified narrative.