Thursday, 19 October 2000

Peter F. Hamilton: A Quantum Murder (1994)

Edition: Pan, 1996
Review number: 656

Though slow in getting started, Hamilton's second science fiction mystery featuring psychic detective Greg Mandel turns into an interesting piece of detection. Like the others, it is set in a post-global warming, post-socialist dictatorship Britain, much of the novel taking place in an area fairly familiar to me, around Oakham and Peterborough. Seeing the familiar transformed as Hamilton has done here is quite strange; the idea that parts of Belfast might be centres of paramilitary activity is reasonably easy to accept today, but not that the same might become true of Peterborough housing estates.

The murder to be investigated takes place at Launde Abbey, a stately home now used as a centre for research in theoretical physics loosely attached to Cambridge University. Six or seven young students are given the opportunity to work with famous cosmologist Dr Edward Kitchener, and it is he who is murdered, during a night when a storm cuts the house off from the outside world.

It proves a strange case, for though Kitchener's research might make him a target for assassination by a rival industrial concern, it is hard to see how an outsider could get into the house (the only road is flooded and the storm prevented aircraft from reaching it), and a professional would be unlikely to mutilate the body in the way that Kitchener's corpse has been. The mutilation matches the modus operandi of a convicted serial killer, but he was safely in a criminal asylum on the night of the murder. The mutilation also makes the students in the house unlikely suspects, even though Kitchener caused tension be seducing all the young women he worked with.

The puzzle is rather unfair, in a way that science fiction mysteries are often accused of being. The solution relies on not yet invented technology, so new that it is not even known to the sleuth (which makes things a little more equal). It is extremely unlikely that any reader will think of the solution in advance, and I am not at all sure that Hamilton actually pulls all the loose ends tight at the end.

All in all, A Quantum Murder is a bit of a disappointment, too slow in parts and unconvincing as a mystery.

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