How would you like your mystery served with a side of science fiction? I found I liked it just fine.
Published in the UK and the US between 2005-2008, the Traces books by UK author Malcolm Rose are the tightly written first cases in a young Forensic Investigator's professional life.
In Futuristic England, where the North is posh, and the South -- including London and Cambridge -- is a lawless, slum-infested disaster, the Authorities have taken over.
The Authorities are everything -- your parents, your teachers, and Big Brother, all rolled into one. They've instituted a few programs, to insure maximum productivity, prosperity and satisfaction for those who participate. The Authorities are in charge of childcare centers, educational facilities and job placement. When you come of age, The Authorities will also arrange a Pairing for you, because they know you best, and can do better at hooking you up with your future mate than you could ever do yourself.
There are few surprises in this new world, because The Authorities strive to take the surprises out of life. There are no more extremes -- most people are a homogeneous light brown -- a perfect multicultural mix. Most people do what they're told, take the jobs they're suited for, and the Pairings they're given. The Authorities don't seem that bad...to most people...mostly...
Into this rigidly controlled world, 16-year-old Luke Harding graduates as the youngest forensic investigator, ever. After his start as a smart alec and troublemaker, he has faintly surprised The Authorities with his brilliant deductions. Together with his Mobile Aid to Law and Crime, -- the floating spherical robot he calls Malc -- and his daily breakfast of pomegranates (don't ask.), Luke is pretty happy to be leaving school, and is ready to take on the professional world. There are a few small snags, though: first, despite him tampering with her science grades on the school computer, Luke's best friend and girlfriend is a musician, not a scientist, which makes her ineligible to be Paired with him. Next, just after his last final, there's a murder... at the school.
Aside from the ghoulish realities of him having to do his first real case on such familiar ground -- it's just not professional to want to flee or throw up, but when you know the victim, everything is twice as hard -- there's a twist. The person who died is someone Luke has good reason to dislike. And all the evidence points to Luke himself as the prime suspect.
...Considering the fact that the Mobile Aid is the one who keeps reminding Luke of this, he knows he's got limited time to clear himself. And Malc reports everything Luke says or does in his investigations to The Authorities. Everything.
All of the books in this series have intriguing crimes, and the first in the series, Framed! was selected by the United States Board on Books for Young People (USBBY) and the Children’s Book Council as an Outstanding International Book for 2006. From infiltrating a cult, to tracking down multiple girls with the same name, to solving crimes based on a lightning strike, in a sports arena or hospital, Luke is often bewildered but never unequal to the challenge of finding the meaning in the details. The mysteries are truly challenging, and amateur sleuths will be pleasantly puzzling over the traces of evidence linking suspect to crime.
As a forensic investigator, Luke is in many ways as single-minded as his rather amusingly literal-minded computer. Despite his brilliance, he's not above asking for help from his friends, including Jade, who is allowed as a character to be brilliant in her own arena. As with most crimes in real life, issues of class, race, and culture crop up fictionally as well. In futuristic England, people who are born pigment deficient -- White -- are ostracized and treated as worrying aberrations. Profiling and "the usual suspects" are dealt with differently as well, encouraging the reader to indulge in some out-of-the-box thinking without making didactic statements of any kind.
The copies I read are paperbacks, and even in paperback there is tremendous attention to creativity and neat bottom-of-the-page illustrations to make things fun. If you are entertained by tuning out emotional angst and ferreting out clues, enjoy the highly specialized and detail-laden world of forensic investigation, and like your futuristic books to be rooted a bit in the here-and-now, this series will be right up your fjord.
I got my review copies of Malcolm Rose's Traces: Luke Harding, FI series at the Hillhead Public Library, and then actually tracked the last three down at various small bookshops around the UK. I freely admit to being both cheap and poor, so this actual book-buying in a country where I'm going to have to pack them up to go home means I REALLY am now a fan. I'm loving Malcolm Rose books so much I'm looking forward to tracking down his earlier detective series, Lawless & Tilley, too, and really, any other futuristic mysteries of his I can get my hands on.
Of course, you can buy Framed! as well as Lost Bullet, the strange case of Roll Call, the fourth novel, Double Check, the one with the great frog x-ray, Final Lap, and the 2008 mystery, Blood Brothers at an Indie bookseller near you.