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Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Peter F. Hamilton on the Mind of a Murderer

A black, fuel-efficient car arrives in Oxford, England

In his story, "Watching Trees Grow," author Peter F. Hamilton transports us to Oxford, England, in the year 1832 AD. This is a different 19th Century England than we know from our history books, as Edward Buchanan Raleigh is jolted awake shortly after midnight by the “blasted telephone with its shrill, two-tone whistle.” On the other end of the line is the Raleigh Family’s missus dominicus, Francis Haughton Raleigh, who informs him that a member of the Raleigh family, a student at one of Oxford's colleges, has been murdered. Edward may be a Family investigator, but murder clearly frightens him. He wonders: “What kind of pre-Empire savage could do that to another person?” This gives him added reason to help the police solve the case, as “I didn’t want my child to come into a world where such horrors could exist.”

Like the murdered student, Edward studied at Oxford, first majoring in Science, then in Law. After graduation, he studied with the Family to gain his position as an investigator. Now he’s thirty-eight years old, with three children accredited by the Raleigh Family, although one he had to fight for one to be recognized, as it was the result of a youthful indiscretion. He's intelligent, thoughtful, and capable, but in his world, he's a mere child. His boss Francis is over four hundred years old, and has seen a vast amount of change in his life. When Francis was Edward’s age, electricity had yet to be harnessed, and medicine consisted of herbs boiled and mixed according to “already ancient lore.”

Within minutes, Francis picks him in his black car. His boss starts the battery, and winds up the motor potentiometer. As the car silently reaches 25 miles per hour, Francis regrets that the Roman Congress recently banned combustion engines. Edward reminds him of the long-term view: batteries will improve, petroleum is dangerous, a limited resource, but hazardous to the environment. Francis agrees with his much younger colleague: “Lusting after speed is a Shorts way of thinking.” Nevertheless, he’s impatient to reach the crime scene, and help the police solve the case. Sooner or later, he will have to stand before the heads of the Raleigh Family, and they won’t want to hear about an open investigation, or his lack of results.

One of Oxford's fine colleges

When the two men reach the city center, they find people trickling out of the taverns and cafes. Students are shouting, quoting obscure verse, drinking, fighting, and throwing bags and books around. Francis parks outside Dunbar College, a building of pale yellow stone. Inside, they climb the stairs to the victim’s room. Justin Aschan Raleigh was a typical final year student, with a three-room apartment, but he’s not enjoying his bedroom, parlor, and study anymore. The police detective warns Edward “This isn’t pretty.” Still, he can’t help but wince when he sees Justin’s chest smeared with blood, the result of a vicious slash to the abdomen. The knife juts from Justin’s right eye.

In our world, the fall of the Roman Empire decimated civilization. In Edward’s world, the Roman Empire found a way to remain effective, and avoided our centuries-long descent into barbarism. Human invention and technological progress continued unabated. Families such as the Raleighs safeguard their members’ interests, and medical advancements have lengthened the average lifespan by centuries. Yet Edward's world is not so different to our own that we cannot understand his reaction to Justin's ravaged body. The slash to the abdomen would most likely proven lethal, but killer wanted to make certain of Justin’s death, hence the final thrust into the skull. Much like you or I might perform under similar circumstances, Edward relies on the procedures drummed into him in his Investigation courses, and reminds the police detective to collect all available forensic evidence. Then he goes beyond this, and requests that the blood of all suspects and anyone in Justin's vicinity that night be tested for alcohol and narcotics. The murderer must be caught! As Edward puts it, “Whoever did this was way off balance.”

Dragon Dave

Read Peter F. Hamilton’s story, “Watching Trees Grow,” in his collection Manhattan In Reverse.

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