By The Pricking Of Her Thumb (A Real Town Murder) by Adam Roberts (book review).

Adam Roberts is a great player with words, constructing lyrical prose and playful dialogue without any care as to whether it falls strictly within the rules of English grammar or whether indeed the words could be found in a dictionary. Private detective Alma, her partner Marguerite and several of the other characters she encounters like to play with their vocabulary, deconstructing words into their phonomes to give them additional meaning, rhyming words and syllables, constructing alliterative sentences. It makes every sentence much more fun than it would otherwise be, regardless of the subject of the conversation.

‘By The Pricking Of Her Thumb’ is the sequel to last year’s ‘The Real Town Murders’ and features Alma, a detective who specialises in solving crimes in the Real: real life as opposed to the virtual world of the Shine where the majority of people spend their time. Alma never visits the Shine, partly out of choice but also because her bed-bound partner, Marguerite, suffers from a debilitating illness that requires medical intervention every 4 hours and 4 minutes and Alma cannot afford to be distracted by the lures of the virtual world. This time limit also makes life very complicated for her and rather impinges on her ability to solve the kind of complex murder cases that she is renowned for. She always needs to allow enough time to get home, whether she’s in the middle of pursuing a promising lead, arranging a meeting or being kidnapped by thugs.

Alma is presented with two cases in this book. The first being the unexplained death of a woman who has a needle pushed through her thumb and the other being the suspected death of one of the world’s ultra-rich. Neither case makes much sense but Alma’s debt and the huge cost of Marguerite’s medical care oblige her to take on the cases. A selection of bizarre characters offer to help, including a man named Stanley who has an obsession with ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ and a flirtatious police officer.

The interactions between the various characters are always very well-presented and, aside from the aforementioned wordsmithery, Adam Roberts also portrays conversations in a highly realistic fashion. There is plenty of pausing and restating, interjections and intervening actions between sentences that give a real sense of dialogue between two people rather than just sentences that the author needed his characters to utter for the purposes of the plot.

As Alma struggles to pay her bills, treat Marguerite, make contact with the most exclusively rich people in the world and also solve one or possibly two murders, there is a sense of immense fun in this book. Even in stressful or harrowing scenes for Alma, there is a wonderful and compelling richness to the prose. Some of the background social and political problems from the first book are mentioned in passing, but have lesser impact in this novel.

I’ve loved both of these books. Adam Roberts seems to be working on other things currently, but I’m hoping there will be more ‘Real Town Murders’ for Alma to solve in the future.

Gareth D. Jones

September 2018

(pub: Gollancz. 260 page hardback. Price: £16.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-473-22149-9)

check out websites: www.golancz.co.uk, www.orionbooks.co.uk and www.adamroberts.com

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