“The impulse for this novel,” says Adam Roberts “was a desire to collide together some of the conventions of ‘Golden Age’ science fiction and ‘Golden Age’ detective fiction, with the emphasis more on the latter than the former.” Well, count me in! Sure, the authors he then cites (Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers, Michael Innes) don’t all fill me with delight, but this is a collision of my two favourite genres plus impossible crimes — how could I pass it up?! And it would have passed me by entirely had not blog-commenter ravenking81 brought it to my attention, so my most genuine thanks for that; at its best it’s a fascinatingly successful attempt at merging the two genres in a way that recalls both Isaac Asimov and John Dickson Carr, who, y’know, are the two finest authors to have worked in their respective genres. So that’s a good thing. By definition, however, it is not always at its best.
It might not quite play into the expectations of classic crime lovers in every respect, but it does a wonderful job of marrying the two speculatively inventive genres with a good stir of hard SF. Calling it a novel might be a bit of a stretch, too, even though the BSFA did bestow its Best SF Novel of the Year award upon it; it’s comprised of three linked novellas, each centering around the eponymous murderer achieving something that seems impossible and has a very real world explanation, and the deliberate variation of tones and setting makes looking at each of these separately the sensible approach.
Part 1: In the Box
Effectively an ‘impossible escape from a locked room’ story, except the room is an asteroid to which seven criminal have been exiled for 11 years (there’s a wonderful SF-universe explanation for this, utterly commending the conceit as a the perfect crossover of genres). There is some superlative hard SF in here, too, such as the casual explanation of why their dwellings will be permanently cold for the first few years, and an extended monologue/essay on the fundamentals of universal Economics (no, I’m not kidding — it’s excellent).
The characters conform to type, but the dynamics of the situation play out with a nightmarish and uncontrived believability, and our protagonist-murderer is an absolute coup of enigma and steel-hearted calculation. One sequence in which he is described keeping the lid on the murderous urges that have led to his reputation is astonishing — “He was inside the box,” we’re told, “but what was inside him?”. There can be absolutely no doubt that Glass is a psychopath and capable of the most horrendous things, but Roberts excels in making him a principled and reserved man you almost find yourself admiring.
As for the impossible escape…well, inevitably this is where the SF aspect has to take over, but there is — if not exactly clewing — appropriate foreshadowing of the outcome. I thought I had twigged to it quite early, but the implications seemed a bit ridiculous and so I kept that on the back burner of potential…and I’m not going to tell you if I was right or not. I can see people having quibbles with it, I really can, but the way Roberts builds from the basic setup and keeps everything moving with an oiled smoothness for 92 pages is more than enough for me to surrender some misgivings on this front.
Part 2: The FTL Murders
Now we come to the country house murder, complete with servants, aristocrats, an investigation headed by a genius amateur, and references to Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. Also, implicitly, G.K. Chesterton as this is a reframing of the Father Brown story ‘The Hammer of God’: a man is found killed by a hammer-blow that, because everyone present has only just returned to Earth gravity, no-one would have the strength to deliver. Here the SF melee is fully justified — there is a fascination with gravity throughout, especially in a description of the crime scene that borders on genius — and draws in aspects of the wider universe and its politics in a beautifully effortless and uncluttered way.
The pace suffers a bit, as this is two-thirds as long again as In the Box but contains approximately the same amount of plot, though this extra wordage gives us a more diverse set of characters. Sisters Diana and Eva Argent are given superbly contrasting personalities, the first juvenile but interested in people and the second haughty and more caught up in the larger problems of the universe, and secondary characters are captured with some astoundingly incisive prose:
This was the wrong thing to say — not just the word but the tone. Joad turned her eyes upon Diana. They were black in the way that tsunami water is black as it washes through the ruined town, black because it had churned up the living and the dead. They were the colour of hope liquified into despair. ‘I beg your pardon?’ she said, with a formal chill.
And the solution? Well, there’s a ‘twist’ that will surprise precisely no-one and then the murder turns out to have a trivial, convenient, and frankly unconvincing solution. Not the physical aspect, that’s fine, but the overwhelming coincidence of it all is simply a step too far. And the scientific claptrap that follows it is the worst kind of soft-SF hand-waving that displays a startling ignorance of how science works and is surprising from someone who dealt in such convincing concepts first time around. So a mixed bag, really.
Part 3: The Impossible Gun
Another piece of classic framing here: a man is shot in a sealed environment in front of seven witnesses who can alibi each other. Not only that, the force of the shot vaporises his body but there is only damage caused by the projectile exiting the environment, so how did it get in? Or, if that’s not complicated enough, suppose that’s the entry damage…how did it get out?
Honestly, this one is complete bullshit. The explanation is pure neo-SF invention, without anything approaching the Golden Age SF coherence that Arthur C. Clarke or E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith would give it, and lacking any attempt at reality from the Golden Age detective fiction angle and therefore only as good as ‘a poison unknown to man or science’ and so in direct contravention of Roberts’ own stated aim.
Not only that, this is far and away the least interesting of the stories: practically nothing happens, and it happens slowly, so that while as long as In the Box it has easily less than a quarter of the plot which results in a needlessly drawn out narrative. In chapter one Jack Glass tells someone “So-and-so came to see me” and then chapters two and three go back in time so we can be taken through So-and-so arriving including the painfully unnecessary “Oh my god it’s So-and-so! What a completely unexpected surprise!”…why not just skip to chapter four?
Don’t bother reading this one, it will simply make you angry, and it’s a complete slap in the face after the superb work of In the Box and the wider universe of The FTL Murders. How anyone at his publishers read this and believed it was worth including after those two vastly superior stories is beyond me. Utter and complete garbage, and a terribly sour note on which to end an otherwise very succesful experiment. This is why you shouldn’t read Ngaio Marsh, people.
Taken overall, there is a lot to recommend this to the crossover-curious. What is particularly excellent is the integration: there is suitable SF-nonsense vocabulary in here to warrant a glossary at the back, but all of it — bId, CRF, MOHmies, etc — is introduced in such a way that a four-page info-dump is not required each time for you to get a sense of it in context. In fact, the glossary is only really there for pedantry, as reading it doesn’t really add anything to your understanding — that’s how well Roberts works his SF into his prose.
Asimov did the SF mystery with more conviction and a better hit rate, but I have to commend Roberts for the work he puts into the first two stories here. If you can find it cheap, read those and then dispose of it carefully without allowing The Impossible Gun to stain your life.