The Real Town Murders by Adam Roberts

Rating 7.5/10
As much as I found the world interesting it didn't quite blow me away.

Alma is a private detective in a near-future England, a country desperately trying to tempt people away from the delights of Shine, the immersive successor to the internet. But most people are happy to spend their lives plugged in, and the country is decaying.

Alma's partner is ill, and has to be treated without fail every 4 hours, a task that only Alma can do. If she misses the 5 minute window her lover will die. She is one of the few not to access the Shine.

So when Alma is called to an automated car factory to be shown an impossible death and finds herself caught up in a political coup, she knows that getting too deep may leave her unable to get home.

What follows is a fast-paced Hitchcockian thriller as Alma evades arrest, digs into the conspiracy, and tries to work out how on earth a dead body appeared in the boot of a freshly-made car in a fully-automated factory.

A new novel from the author of Jack Glass, The Real-Town Murders is another Sherlock Holmes-style locked-room murder mystery story, but set in a future England where the majority of the population spend their lives in an online world called the Shine. Leaving themselves in the care of machines that walk their unconscious bodies around to prevent muscle wasting, R! Town, as Reading was rebranded, is a bland desert of identikit buildings, robots performing menial tasks and zombie walkers.

Alma though is one of the few who aren’t in the Shine. Her partner, Marguerite, infected with a virus that is genetically linked to Alma, requires her to personally treat her every four hours. This means that although she is digitally linked to the network, she can’t disappear like the rest into the world of the Shine. Instead, she works as a private detective, and is brought in to investigate how a body got into the boot of a car during its manufacture, when CCTV shows that no humans were on the factory floor.

As soon as she gets involved however, she gets warned off again. Then more murders occur, and she ends up tangled in political machinations that threaten not only her life, but may prevent her from getting back in time to save Marguerite.

I enjoy a murder mystery and I also enjoy speculative fiction, so this sounded like an interesting story in the style of Sam Peter’s From Darkest Skies, but rather than set on another planet in a distant future, is instead set in a near but still significantly different England. The Shine is a concept that’s been used before, people abandoning this world for one that’s inside their heads, but it’s the ‘real’ world that is the focus here. R! Town, a deeply painful piece of rebranding that tried to inject interest back in a rapidly obsolete reality, is a barely-inhabited wasteland that reminds me of vast, bland housing estates once hailed as the modern way of living, but which now look dated and forlorn. Automation has taken over the majority of services, and people are reluctant to physically engage any more when communication over the network, or life in the Shine, is quicker and more pleasant.

The murder mystery itself has plenty of twists and turns, with a healthy dose of government conspiracy, but the central core is how to keep Marguerite alive when she is too big to move, and nobody else can treat her apart from Alma, but she is on the run from police. It’s frantic and action-packed, and Alma has an entertainingly blunt approach to dealing with other people.

Ultimately however, as much as I found the world interesting, The Real-Town Murders didn’t quite blow me away. We never experience the Shine, because Alma can’t go into it, but that means that as a concept that is directly relevant to people’s actions it is never more than a vague other world that I imagined to look like Second Life. Who built it? Who runs it? What do people see in there? Sadly, despite having plenty of questions, I never felt its allure, and Alma seemed surprisingly uninterested in it despite the huge amount of stress she is under as a full time carer. The pull of this world I think would have been interesting to explore further, but then again you could argue that that isn’t the point of the book.

Overall there is some good imagery in it, though trying to explain what was really going on would be like explaining a Bourne film to somebody who’s never seen one, but it’s getting strong reviews on Goodreads so if you like a quick-paced mystery give it a go.

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