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By the Pricking of Her Thumb (SF) - Adam Roberts *****

Sometimes a sequel betters the original - think Terminator 2 - and Adam Roberts has done this with his follow-up to The Real-Town Murders. (It's sensible to read the first book before this: while it's not essential, there are plenty of references you will miss otherwise.)

Ostensibly this is a murder mystery, or, as Roberts tells us, a combination of a howdunnit and a whodunnit-to, as the central character Alma is called on to work out how someone found with a needle stuck through her thumb was killed and which of a group of four super-rich individuals is dead when all claim to still be alive - though one of the group who hires Alma is convinced that the death has occurred. 

However, this is anything but a conventional murder mystery - far more so than the strange crimes suggest. Alma and her partner Marguerite (the latter still trapped by an engineered polyvalent illness that requires treatment every 4 hours and 4 minutes) don't do a lot of detecting. In fact Marguerite hardly contributes anything and Alma relies more on other people telling her what's happening than inspired Holmesian induction.

In reality, what we have here is an exploration of the nature of money and death, spiced up with a buzzing mix of fun and cultural references (pop and otherwise). It all starts with the title of the book, mixing traditional (Shakespeare) and pop-ish (Bradbury) references and continues helter-skelter from there. I particularly loved the Monty-Pythonesque heavies the Kry Twins (Reg and Ron, of course), though I was rather sad they didn't mention Dinsdale or Spiny Norman.

Whether you enjoy spotting a quote from Dune or the luxurious combination of a cultural reference and a pun in the chapter title Les the Mis in Person, Roberts is clearly having a good time here. Just occasionally the punning and wordplay gets a trifle overloaded, but never enough to strongly irritate. And running through the book, both explicitly and in its structure and narrative is the über-reference of Stanley Kubrick's 2001, A Space Odyssey.

What amazes about this book is the way that Roberts combines the frippery of many of the conversations with some heavyweight emotional trauma and genuinely interesting philosophising on the nature of money, particularly in a world where much activity is in a virtual reality. Although the ending is perhaps a little obscure in this respect (though you could hardly expect anything else, given the model of 2001), the musing on money has a surprising amount of content.

Just one very small instance. One of the four very ultra-rich people has a slice of Stonehenge as the frame for the entrance to their building. Simply to demonstrate that they have so much money they can do what would be assumed to be impossible. What's fascinating is that if you visit Stourhead gardens in Wiltshire, you'll see in the garden the medieval town cross that should be in Bristol - a parallel real-life example of one of the insights in the book into the way money influences behaviour.

As long as you don't expect 'A fast-paced murder mystery' (I don't know what book the Guardian reviewer was reading) but instead a mix of fun, wonder, intellectual stimulation and more, all set in a re-branded Reading - I'm not sure this book mentioned that the main setting R!-Town is Reading - you are in for a treat. (Oh, and remember the monkeys at the start when you get to the end.)

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Review by Brian Clegg

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