/ 13 April 2024

Sci-fi murder mystery drills deep into ethical dilemmas

The Last Murder At The End Of The World 2

One of the more interesting ethical conundrums known to the world today is Philippa Foot’s Trolley Problem. Simply put, the problem asks us the question: Would you be able to leave one person to die in order to save the lives of many others? Now, what if you had to actively kill that person? Would you do it?

Expanding on this proposition, we can go further: How many people would you be comfortable to sacrifice or kill to ensure the survival of many more? What if one or more of those people was someone you care about? What if survival was not guaranteed?

Now, let’s take this to one of its logical conclusions: What if you could probably ensure the survival of your entire species by sacrificing one person, but that person was yourself?

I put forward this rather grim thought experiment because it is functionally the axis about which Stuart Turton’s The Last Murder at the End of the World rotates. Though, on the surface, the book is a mind-bending mash-up of golden age sci-fi and golden age detective fiction, beneath the labyrinthine twists and turns that mimic the later story’s setting, it is an exploration of service, sacrifice and ultimately self-sacrifice.

The novel itself is almost one-of-a-kind: Turton’s use of the phrase “end of the world” is not allegory for a geographically remote location, as I initially had assumed. He is talking about the literal end of days, armageddon, oh-my-God-we’re-all-gonna-die! end of the world. 

Humanity has finally done it, we have unleashed the devastating thingamabob that has turned on us and wiped most of the face of the planet clean of life. But one last pocket of survivors remains — a carefully maintained group of 122 hard-working, kind and selfless individuals who live on a remote island, overseen by their three “Elders”.

The elders have access to knowledge and technology from before all hell broke loose, and they use it to tend their flock dutifully, if not always lovingly. The villagers, as they are known, are brought into the tribe at the age of eight from we-know-not-where, find some way to be of service to their community and their elders, and then die peacefully in their sleep at the age of 60. 

They never break the rules, they never question their self-sufficient if somewhat imperilled existence, and they even get to attend their own funerals before their short, meaningful lives are snuffed out. 

This odd existential state is maintained faithfully for 90 years, but then the unthinkable happens. One of their elders, the most-loved of this ersatz Holy Trinity, turns up dead, apparently brutally murdered while everyone slept.

We see most of the events unfolding from the point of view of Abi, the seemingly godlike being the elders conjured into existence to oversee and aid the villagers. She can read their thoughts and talk to them, giving her a unique perspective into their lives. She can physically and mentally control them, and it is through her actions that the events of the night of the murder are scrubbed from the memories of every­one on the island. 

The Villagers must determine who or what caused the death of their elder in order to save their world, and they must do it with as little help as possible from the only deity they have ever known.

To be painfully honest, the story is slow going at first. Turton has elected to set the tale against a completely alien backdrop, one which conjures up the feeling of the worlds that Isaac Asimov, Robert A Heinlein and Arthur C Clarke gave us during their halcyon days of science fiction. 

Much world-building is needed, because we need to be fully immersed in our new setting before it is turned on its head. The author dangles the bait for about the first quarter, allowing us to become acquainted with our apocalyptic paradise, before setting the hook. The pace picks up and never really relents until we have come to the bottom of our mystery. 

The whodunnit part of the story hearkens to the finest locked-room mysteries of Monsieur Conan Doyle and Madame Agatha Christie. It is the ultimate locked room: The island is the last pocket of life in a nightmarish apocalyptic world. To leave it is death, and nothing enters because nothing else is even frikkin’ alive. 

The person who committed this atrocious act has to be on the island, because it is the only place to be. The number of villagers and elders is carefully maintained (or is it?) and the one being who can see all (or can she?) cannot help because… Well, that’s where we start stumbling into the real theme of the novel.

The villagers live a life of sustained selflessness and sacrifice in service to their island and the elders. Their elders, who are at once gods and prophets, might not return the favour. The three elders deal with this reality in different ways, from total apathy to an altruistic desire to right the wrongs of the past. And Abi, herself a god at the service of her own prophets, might have been handed the key to unlocking utopia by one of the elders. But in order to turn that key, the ultimate sacrifice might be required.

So, I ask you again, but paraphrased: What if you could probably ensure the survival of your entire world by sacrificing one being, but that being was yourself?

Turton has given us a novel with the spectacle of sci-fi entwined with the intrigue of a whodunnit. 

Though it is slow out of the blocks, it ultimately crescendos to a satisfying conclusion, presenting us with the only correct answer to my question: There isn’t one. 

There is only that which we would do to save, that which we believe in.

Stuart Turton’s ­The Last Murder at the End of the World is published by Bloomsbury.