#199: A Quantum Murder (1994) by Peter F. Hamilton

a-quantum-murderRespected, iconoclastic patriarch of an isolated group found murdered in his bedroom one night when no-one else could have entered the house?  Check.  All members of the household cleared from complicity in his murder?  Check.  Amateur detective-cum-paladin called in against his will to investigate?  Check.  Cantankerous police riled by this effrontery in spite of the obvious specialised knowledge this amateur brings?  Check.  Honestly, Peter F. Hamilton wrote such a classic detective yarn with A Quantum Murder, it’s almost a surprise to find it on the SF shelves.  But when your genius amateur is also a fully-functioning enhanced psychic empath I suppose you’re not really in Agatha Christie territory any more…

You may be aware that I enjoy my SF, though I’m still trying to pin down exactly what it is I look for, and the rumoured impossible crime at the heart of this was an opportunity to give Hamilton a go.  And, all told, it’s a pretty good read.  What I especially enjoy — and this, guys, is what I like about Randall Garrett’s Too Many Magicians — is how the book manages to keep a foot in both camps without compromising too much one way or the other.  There is arguably as much here for the SF nerd and there is for the impossible crime nerd: legitimate clues, a strongly-structured investigation, an impossibility that works within the confines of the world presented, and a shock revelation or two along the way.  The fact that the impossibility relies upon the detection of a psychic, and that other mind-boosted individuals have their parts to play, is simply part of the experience.

For clear world-building it’s not the strongest — it’s pretty much contemporary to its writing, just with psychics, special drugs, slightly more advanced computers, and the occasional mention of global warming — and it can be difficult to get too wrapped up in a narrative that makes a big point about futuristic Peterborough and surrounds (no offence, Peterborough, but you’re hardly Blade Runner‘s Los Angeles…).  In this regards, the book falls prey to a lot of the factors that left wannabe hard SF so moribund in the 1990s — it was very much the decade of the speculative allegory — in that you don’t quite get a sense of what is possible until you’re told it, and that leaves Hamilton with a lot of info-dumping to do, some of it relevant and some of it simply to sustain a pace that requires a lot of background information to allow you to access a scene.  Also, the women are either impossibly beautiful (if protagonists or helpful to) or dismissively ugly (if antagonists or helpful to) and that gets quite boring after about the fifth time.

Within that world, however, the investigation and the use of technology blend perfectly, and the recent overthrow of your standard Stage 3 Dystopian Dictatorship leaves societal, technological, informational, and functional rifts that are integrated extremely well indeed.  Even Greg Mandel, with his remit to do whatever he likes and everyone just has to accept it, encounters these problems, and as a characters is at his most interesting when things aren’t going his way.  And there’s a truly wonderful section of suspect interviews about a third of the way in that snaps and surges with impatience and menace, showing up some sublime character work, and really getting under the skin of the plot to that point (in stark contrast to, say, Hawk & Fisher, which put in interviews almost just because they were expected and did an unintentioanlly hilarious job).  Oh, for more of that steely-eyed prose that kicks off chapter 7!

For a second novel, Hamilton makes the expected mistakes in his occasional over-writing, but then throws in some utterly delectable turns of phrase (‘He knew one of them was Isabel, by now he could have plucked her voice out of Hell’s bedlam.’).  Oh, and as for the plot thread in which the unspeakably beautiful, borderline genius, nineteen year-old multi-billionairess owner of the largest company on the planet, who has an amazing sex life and has seen every single one of her business decisions pay off a hundred-fold — so she’s one of the good guys, in case you hadn’t figured it out — has to contend with a celebrity gossip-monger who criticises three of her outfits…yeah, whoever encouraged that thread needs their head examining.

Anyone wanting to take a look over the fence into the other genre on display here could do far, far worse.  I will definitely return to Peter F. Hamilton, though I doubt you’ll hear about it on here, and it’s wonderful to see the impossible murder so wholeheartedly embraced by SF conventions and conditions.  It’s difficult to know how to rate this for the expectations of the detective novel community, but I’m going to be slightly generous in recognition of the fine line Hamilton has walked here, as I doubt there are many who have done it even half as well.

star filledstar filledstar filledstar filledstars

See also:

Voidhawk: The science fiction content in this novel is fairly slight, mainly concentrating on the physicist’s vaguely described efforts to use quantum mechanics to use wormholes to travel or communicate through space or time. Inevitably, the consequences of this technology are key to the events surrounding the murder. The Science Fiction content does provide a bit of a twist on the typical detective novel, allowing the detective a few extra tools that aren’t present in a typical murder mystery.

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For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, last week’s The Department of Queer Complaints links to this as both contain murders where the killer SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER (I promise that it is a genuine and very good link; happy to provide details upon request!).

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15 thoughts on “#199: A Quantum Murder (1994) by Peter F. Hamilton

  1. Glad these kind of hybrids exist, but definitely sorry to hear about the portrayal of women in the book, seems to be a recurring theme in more ‘geeky’ SF or Fantasy as well. Though GAD has it’s fare share. My review of She Died A Lady coming up next week unfortunately had to go with similar criticisms.

    Though from the rest of your write up seems well worth a punt. How was the solution to the impossible itself? Did it stand-up?

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    • For a pure novel of detection, the impossibility doesn’t work, and anyone coming to this with a heavy GAD bias is going to go away feeling cheated. But, frankly, they’d probably get irritated with the use of psychic evidence and men who are, like, 90% a computer and so they’d hopefully bail out before getting as far as the ending.

      Crucail to the enjoyment of this is accepting that it takes place in an SF-rendered universe, albeit one where the parameters are slightly uncertain. But, in terms of the information needed, I’m going to say that everything you need is on the page for you — some of the interpretation may be down to the individual reader, let’s say — and Hamilton plays fair; there’s no lampshading required, and no sudden convulsions of logic, and I like how he brings the various elements of the world together. You can definitely look back and see how what you need is there for you to see, which is exactly what I want from this kind of book.

      On this evidence it’d actually be really interesting to see Hamilton take on a more traditional detective novel, actually, but I think we’ve lost him to the Grand Sweeping Space Opera now…

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      • That’s good to hear, and I’m down with submitting to the form/context that the mystery is in, worth a try! It reminds me of am episode of Star Trek which followed a complete GAD form, with gathered suspects at the denouement that was so much fun.

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    • Y’know what? It really put me in mind of those “I’m a scientist and here’s a Macguffin which someone is trying to steal” classic GAD stories like Owl of Darkness, just with the Macguffin being more heavily relied upon to fill in an very different background and approach. It won’t convince anyone who isn’t sure about it, but if you want to fly into SF and remain tethered in detection then you could do far worse…

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    • And psychics and empaths and auras and the use of artificially-enhanced glands to allow some, all, or more of the above — we’re not in Kansas any more, Toto!

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  2. I’ve always (based on about three novels of his I’ve read, but look at the thickness of a couple of ’em!) found Hamilton an extraordinarily readable writer. I think I have A Quantum Murder on my shelves (in the room where my wife is still a-slumber, so I can’t immediately check), so I might give it a go sometime soon.

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    • The readability of this one might suffer a bit, he was still just a callow sophomore at thus stage, but in parts it’s really quite excellent — those chapter 7 interviews, for one, are brilliantly sharp and concise and engaging. If he brings that to his SF, I’m onto a winner here…!

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