By the Pricking of Her Thumb by Adam Roberts

Reviewed by David Harris

Roberts seems to have been very busy lately so I’m glad he managed to include a return to the world of The Real-Town Murders, one of my favourite books of 2017. R!-Town is a futuristic version of Reading (the town on the Thames, not the bookish activity) though the futuristicness is less embodied in what the town is like, but more in the fact that almost no-one is around and about: all those who can spend their time hooked up to The Shine, an immersive virtual reality where lives are conducted while bodies gently decay, or at best, are exercised automatically by AI driven exoskeletons.

R!-Town is home to Alma, a down-at-heel PI, and to her partner Marguerite. Housebound by illness, Marguerite operates as part Watson, reporting Alma’s cases, and part Mycroft, making links and connections that Alma can’t. The connection between the two women is well, and gently, done – the strength of their love for one another conveyed in what they don’t say, what they don’t – can’t – do. Marguerite’s illness is a designer smart malady which strikes every 4 hours and 4 minutes with a mutated threat, requiring Alma’s presence to diagnose and treat whatever new instance of it has arisen. It has to be Alma, that’s coded into the virus, inducing a great degree of urgency to the life of an investigator – Alma simply has to be home when the time comes round or Marguerite will just die.

Of course this predicament doesn’t come cheap. Alma is deep in debt, and when she is offered an impossible case by one of the four richest people in the world, she doesn’t have many options… though the ‘crime’ (one of the four has allegedly been murdered, but nobody knows who) is baffling and the authorities unhelpful.

Like its predecessor, this is in many ways (despite the desperate situation) a joyous book. Roberts is a good writer – make that a very good writer indeed – and his prose simply sparkles. It’s a wonder to read, regardless of subject, plot or context. I think I’d happily read him if he were to draft the telephone directory or washing machine instructions. He really, really observes. Just look at this:

A concrete wall disclosed a kind of derangement of detail: unsmooth greyness stippled with an astonishing variety of pointillist dots of slightly darker and slightly paler grey. It called to her not only to see, but to touch, so she ran a finger along the wall’s five o’clock shadow.

or

The surrounding trees had swapped their green livery for scarlet, like soldiers putting on dress uniform for a royal parade.

Roberts also brings too bear a vast range of references, whether from memory or knowing where the words are buried – I was pleased with myself for spotting some of them (Ron and Reg Kry, two recognisable criminal henchmen; ‘ “Search, search, search,” agreed Marguerite, “searchability, that’s the beauty of – me” ‘ is a riff on a British Gas advert from the, 1970s or 80s) but I’m sure I will have missed many more.

The central reference here, which isn’t concealed, is, though, the homage that the book pays to the films of Stanley Kubrick and in particular, to 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is explicit, for instance in that Alma is soon approached by ‘Stan’, a self-confessed Kubrick fan (so perhaps a double reference there) who first urges her to ‘follow the money’ (of course!) and then introduces her to a private in_shine 2001 sim which he uses to illustrate theories both about the film itself and about the crime she’s investigating. It’s also implicit, in ways which I won’t disclose because they would be spoilers, other than to say that a key theme of 2001 turns out relevant to By the Pricking of her Thumb as well.

But this isn’t just a clever book filled with knowing mentions (even if Roberts makes the title of the very first chapter a nod to one of his one earlier books). It’s got some really hefty ideas behind it, from the nature of money and the consequences of ‘monetising’ the Shine (that’s what the wealthy ‘fab four’ are about as part of their quest for ‘absolute wealth’) to the limit of State power in the face of wealth to the transformational impact on society of all that virtual action.

Mild spoiler alert – skip the next paragraph if you care about these things

By the Pricking of Her Thumb  is also, in a couple of places, almost unbearably, rawly, moving and true. There is a point here where the story is bobbing along nicely, building to the conclusion – and then stops in its tracks where something truly awful happens. But rather than being something that annoys or detracts, this is a moment that enhances and deepens the story. Roberts makes the response very real, very raw and quite, quite true. I always expect a lot from his books, but here he far surpasses even what I’d expect.

End of mild spoiler alert

By the Pricking of Her Thumb is a sequel, something Roberts famously doesn’t do. He has justified writing it by saying that a sequel is, for him, itself a first and therefore justifiable. I’m pleased that this argument is recursive so ought to permit more in this series (and could be extended to allow further series if required, who knows) so I’d like to think there can be more stories of R!-Town to come (the hidden internal war within the Government apparatus that we saw in the previous book continues here, we’re told, though it doesn’t feature centrally, so perhaps a burger book may be required to resolve that?)

David blogs at Blue Book Balloon. A former physicist, he is married to a vicar and lives by a village green sometimes used to film Midsomer Murders, but has, against the odds, survived so far. David works in tax but promises he isn’t going to bring that up here.

Adam Roberts, By the Pricking of Her Thumb (Gollancz, 2018). 978-1473221499, 272pp., hardback.

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