Alfred Hitchcock once described opening a film by following a car being made in an automated factory; at the end of the process, the boot opens to reveal a dead body. Hitch never made the film because the idea was too impossible even for him, so Adam Roberts has taken up the challenge and transferred the idea to the realm of science fiction in ‘The Real-Town Murders’.
There are all kinds of satisfying Hitchcockian nods throughout the novel: a virtual Hitch crops up at one point and, in a nod to the Master’s brief appearances in his own work, the murder victim is called Adam. Then there is the cyclical, even repetitive nature of the obsessions explored in Hitchcock’s work, like James Stewart’s character in ‘Vertigo’ falling for the same murder victim twice. This pattern is reflected in ‘The Real-Town Murders’ in the way the protagonist, a private detective called Alma, must return every four hours to administer medical treatment to her beloved partner, Marguerite.
Hitchcock’s work also dealt with conflicting realities: ‘Vertigo’ again, but also ‘North by Northwest’, in which a man is mistaken for a spy who does not exist. As its title suggests, ‘The Real-Town Murders’ takes place in a world where perception has come even further adrift; so much so that reality has to market itself with lamentably pitiful results against the lure of a beguiling post-Internet realm called the Shine.
Such is the power of the Shine that people spend all their time in it, with requirements like exercise being undertaken by exo-skeletons that trundle immersed users around the otherwise deserted streets of future Reading. This funny, disturbing image perfectly expresses the author’s absurdist and very English take on the genre, while reflecting other Hitchcock movies, like ‘Frenzy’ and ‘Psycho’, in which physical needs like food and desire are not only inconvenient, but downright loathsome.
Indeed, Adam Roberts takes this theme even further. Alma’s lover Marguerite is a brilliant woman, but she has been deliberately infected with a smart virus tailored to Alma’s DNA, meaning that Alma alone can provide care. Marguerite’s condition prevents her moving, and as a result she has turned into one of those enormous individuals who can no longer stand, let alone fit through a door. Touchingly, Alma’s love is such that she doesn’t care, patiently and loyally tending where she can, even to the detriment of her own health.
The enemy players in this bracingly complicated game are aware of Alma’s predicament, which means they know where to find her every four hours. They place robot guards in front of Alma’s front door so she can’t get in without being caught, and when the ever-resourceful detective finds ways around that obstacle, the villains threaten the defenceless Marguerite directly.
These antagonists, who like much of the cast are female, form a splendid gallery of officious, well-tailored psychopaths of whom Hitchcock would approve. However, my one concern with the novel is that the ‘problem’ they are trying to solve with both the murder and the obstruction of Alma is not as emotionally affecting as what was done to Marguerite. Deliberately infecting another person with a mutating virus is a level of bastardy so cunning and absolute I wanted the perpetrator to suffer the kind of horrible fate Roberts excelled at creating in his other detective science fiction novel, the award-winning ‘Jack Glass’.
That it doesn’t happen may be Hitchcock’s influence again; ‘Vertigo’ ends with the hero destroyed as much by his own failings and obsessions as by the actions of the notional villain, who gets away with the crime. Similarly, the virus was unleashed on Marguerite is because of something Alma did; we don’t find out what.
Alternatively, the stage may be set for author’s first actual sequel. I hope so, because ‘The Real-Town Murders’ is a suitably outrageous and compelling story for its world to be explored further.