Saturday, 5 January 2013

Review: Jack Glass by Adam Roberts

Jack Glass is the murderer. We know this from the start. Yet as this extraordinary novel tells the story of three murders committed by Glass the reader will be surprised to find out that it was Glass who was the killer and how he did it. And by the end of the book our sympathies for the killer are fully engaged.

Riffing on the tropes of crime fiction (the country house murder, the locked room mystery) and imbued with the feel of golden age SF, JACK GLASS is another bravura performance from Roberts. Whatever games he plays with the genre, whatever questions he asks of the reader, Roberts never loses sight of the need to entertain. JACK GLASS has some wonderfully gruesome moments, is built around three gripping HowDunnits and comes with liberal doses of sly humour.

Before I start this review I feel that I should declare that I teach in the same school as Adam's wife. However, this in no way has any influence on my thoughts about Jack Glass. In fact, despite working with his wife for many years, this is, to my shame, the first of Adam's books that I have read. I've never been a particularly avid reader of adult science fiction, but Jack Glass, and the handful of classics of the genre that I read towards the end of 2012, have whet my appetite and I aim to find the time to read more in 2013.

Based on conversations I have had with science fiction aficionados, and some less than extensive research, I have been led to believe that Jack Glass is possibly Adam's most accessible novel to date, especially where lowly science fiction novices like me are concerned. To use a potentially inappropriate musical analogy, this is in no small part due to its mash-up nature, as Jack Glass is a masterful blending of science fiction with a genre I am much more accustomed to reading - the classic whodunit and locked-room mystery. Although perhaps whodunit would be better replaced by howdunit, as explained in the book's introduction:

This narrative has to do with the greatest mind I have known - the celebrated, or infamous, Jack Glass. 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?”

So, right from the start we know that a) we are going to be reading a trilogy of three interlinked murder-mystery stories and b) the murderer in each of them is the infamous Jack Glass. As readers then, we are challenged to work out the how rather than the why.

The opening story of the triptych, as  mentioned in the introduction, is a prison story and sees seven convicts deposited inside a hollow asteroid, their prison for the duration of their sentence. In a galaxy where space is at a premium, this has become a highly profitable way of detaining convicted felons. Stranded inside the asteroid, with little more than excavating equipment, an air scrubber and light poles, said convicts are left to hollow out the asteroid, and once their sentence is up this is then sold on as real estate. As readers it is down to us to work out which one of the seven prisoners is Jack Glass, and then how the hell he is going to escape from a hollow asteroid, drifting out in space, thousands, if not millions of miles away from the nearest inhabited settlement. To say the eventual solution is a tad bloody would be something of an understatement, but mystery fans will take great delight in it as long as their stomachs aren't too easily upset.

The second 'story' of the three is by far the longest, and is the regular whodunit of the piece. No longer confined to the claustrophobic interior of an asteroid, the author uses this story to build his world, and gradually apprise his readers of the society, people and politics of his 'universe'. As a sci-fi novice, it was this story that I found to be closest to what my understanding of classic science fiction is, with imaginative and  glossary-requiring concepts. However, the murder mystery thread is running through all of this, and yet again we are left to work out where Jack Glass comes into things, and how the murder is committed.

As we enter the third section of the book we know exactly which of the characters is Jack Glass, but this time we are presented with Adam Robert's science fiction take on the classic locked-room mystery, and yet another delightful puzzle for mystery lovers. 

Jack Glass is certainly a book that can be enjoyed by readers who might usually steer clear of science fiction books. Its intricate plotting make it a truly rewarding read for mystery lovers, who like me will find themselves bemused as to how Adam Roberts manages to have us sympathising with, as actually rooting for, his main character, who is nothing short of a mass-murderer. I'm not sure I feel qualified enough to comment on the science fiction/space opera elements of the book, although this reader found the themes of over-population, corporate power and corruption deeply thought provoking and, more importantly for me, easy to follow.

Jack Glass was one of my favourite reads of 2012, as well has possessing one of my favourite book covers of the year as well. My thanks go to the good people at Gollancz for sending me a copy to review. Jack Glass is currently available in hardcover edition, with the paperback scheduled for a May 2013 release.