When hours into the uncomfortably compelling story of survival in the extremes of space with which this masterful murder mystery begins, and it dawns on you that you’ve been tricked into sympathising hook, line and sinker with a sociopathic serial killer, in that moment you know: you’re in for something special. Adam Roberts’ unabashedly smart new narrative, Jack Glass, is absolutely that. Incredibly, it’s a whodunit so sure of itself that we’re told who done it up front... if not how or why, or even what “it” is (or was) in one instance.
But before (and after) we get ahead of ourselves — readers, meet the monster:
“The one, the only Jack Glass: detective, teacher, protector and murderer, and individual gifted with extraordinary interpretive powers when it comes to murder because he was so well acquainted with murder. A quantity of blood is spilled in this story, I’m sorry to say; and a good many people die; and there is some politics too. There is danger and fear. Accordingly I have told his tale in the form of a murder mystery; or to be more precise (and at all costs we must be precise) three, connected murder mysteries.
“But I intend to play fair with you, reader, right from the start, or I’m no true Watson. So let me tell everything now, at the beginning, before the story gets going.
“One of these mysteries is a prison story. One is a regular whodunit. One is a locked-room mystery. I can’t promise that they’re necessarily presented to you in that order; but it should be easy for you to work out which is which, and to sort them out accordingly. Unless you find that each of them is all three at once, in which case I’m not sure I can help you.
“In each case the murderer is the same individual — of course, Jack Glass himself. How could it be otherwise?”
Well, as I said a second ago, the how’s half the fun; a key piece of the puzzle, alongside the unpacking of the what and the why, the unpicking of the where and the when. At some stage, all of these “wh” words come into play... excepting the obvious, the who of this howdunnit, because obviously Jack did it, didn’t he?
Actually, Jack Glass isn’t as simple as that, especially when it appears to be. Strictly speaking. All in the spirit of this most magnificent thing, then!
As our as-yet unnamed narrator acknowledges, Roberts’ latest greatness is in fact a sequence of three intertwined tales, each of which revolves around a death. In ’In the Box,’ seven convicted criminals are — ingeniously I might add — imprisoned by a canny contractor on a tiny asteroid. It will be eleven years before anyone comes to get them, and in the interim, they can either work together, or die apart.
They’ve been furnished with a sparse selection of terraforming tools, including an air scrubber, a small space heater, several digging implements, and some lovely mould spores for supper. If they dedicate themselves to the task, the prisoners might be able to eke out the time till their release in some modicum of comfort by excavating a home for themselves — and in so doing creating valuable real estate for the Gongsi to sell at the end of their sentences. Inevitably, however, power struggles occur from the offing, and finally, like sunlight after a long night, death takes its terrible toll. As “In the Box” approaches its irrevocable ending — though the whole book, in truth, has hardly begun — sudden, shocking, even sickening violence is visited upon these prisoners.
And we all know who’s responsible.
Or are taking too much on trust?
Certainly, we are rather less convinced of our killer’s culpability in the next narrative. “The FTL Murders” is the longest of Jack Glass’ three parts, and — though the particulars differ — “The Impossible Gun” follows hot on its heels, thus we can discuss them as one, avoiding spoilers.
Our protagonist in this instance, if not necessarily our narrator — whose identity, incidentally, is among the simplest and most satisfying mysteries of Roberts new’ novel — in any event, is Diana Argent. Just shy of sweet sixteen when we meet, she becomes obsessed by the seemingly inexplicable slaying of a servant just feet from her and her sister’s secret retreat on Earth: the better to keep their bones finely honed, but also because the girls stand to inherit the solar system, so powerful and ambitious are their MOHmies... which is to say their parents, to a point.
Then, essentially the second this awful event is settled, another man is massacred in perilous proximity to Diana and her companion. And on this occasion, the circumstances — recorded as plain as day for any and all parties to examine — truly beggar belief.
Death, then, is omnipresent in Jack Glass, yet it is far from a bleak piece. On the contrary, at times, Roberts’ prose and tone is blindingly bright, so don’t let some presumption of doom and gloom dissuade you from this fantastically imagined and remarkably wrought trinity of science fiction, murder and mystery. As one of our major players puts it:
“Individually speaking, death is always a rupture, a violence. But taking a total view, death is the bell curve upon which the cosmos is balanced. Without it, nothing would work, everything would collapse, clogged and stagnant. Death is flow. It is the necessary lubrication of universal motion. It is, in itself, neither praiseworthy nor blameworthy.”
In a sense, reading Jack Glass is like going back to a book you remember very well. After all, we already know the ending. The solution to this puzzle is, fittingly, predictable. But that gets to the heart of what makes Robert’s novel so impressive, for the less time we spend humming and hawing over the name and nature of the killer, the more there is to revel in the pure pleasure of the overarching enigma. Why fixate on the destination, anyway, when the journey is so sublimely satisfying in and of and outwith itself? It’s freeing, even.
Doubly incredible, then, that though we are given definitive answers to the customary questions at the outset, Jack Glass keeps one guessing till the last second. Perfectly plotted, winningly worded, and as rewarding, despite everything, as anything you’re apt to read this year, this trifecta of golden age goodness is yet another example of Adam Roberts’ tremendous talents.
Niall Alexander reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for Tor.com, Strange Horizons and The Science Fiction Foundation. His blog is The Speculative Scotsman, and sometimes he tweets about books, too.