The City & The City (2009) – China Miéville

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Inspector Tyador Borlu of the Bezsel Extreme Crimes Unit is assigned to investigate the case of an unknown woman whose body has been found discarded in a dilapidated urban area. Leads are few, until he gets an extra-legal tipoff, and begins to uncover a conspiracy that reaches wider than he thinks…

This celebrated science-fiction novel is in fact also a detective novel, and a pretty good one too. The strange location and themes of the sci-fi intertwine with the position and investigative procedure of the police protagonist to create an unique novel that I found enthralling. The City and The City takes its time building up its unusual setting(s), so although the investigation begins at a slow pace I still felt drawn in to the fascinating world that was being created, and the psychology of the people there. The readers are given information in a subtle and slow way that builds up this city in our imagination, while leaving certain key details vague in a way that keeps you guessing about the central mysteries. One of the memorable ways it does this is through the unfamiliar yet knowable terminology used to describe the strange world it depicts – “crosshatched”, “total”, “grosstopically near”.

Through the twists and turns of the investigation we also get to know our protagonist. The cliched way to put this would be “he’s a maverick, but he gets results”, but despite vaguely fitting this trope, the reader learns more about who he is as a person, and what he values. The first-person narration led me to sympathise with Borlu, while at times feeling alienated as I struggled to comprehend his reactions to something unfamiliar, in a way I think is intentional. All the explanation and exposition is delivered from his point of view, so from this and from his actions, I got the sense of someone always trying to understand and study the society they live in. He observes social customs in minute detail, is multilingual, and tries to understand most people from their own perspective. He also knows what he believes is right, and his dedication to this doesn’t always tally with laws, and leads him to make some rash decisions.

It’s worth noting that the book doesn’t go for sub-plots as many modern detective novels do, but focuses solely on the investigation for all of its plot. Of course, the sci-fi aspects mean that far more is really being investigated and considered than the dead woman. The pacing is well handled – each section ends in a big revelation or twist. The investigation builds to a breaking point over the course of the second part, and then the pace really picks up heading into the finale. Despite how well the first parts worked, the concluding section felt too rushed; although it was exhilerating, there are little niggles where I felt things could have been done more neatly.

The conclusion, detective-wise, is satisfying. Don’t go in expecting a puzzle plot, but the revelations are well backed up by scenes and clues; I actually did figure things out before Borlu.

I want to reveal as little about the book as possible, but my main takeaway post-ending was that I was left thinking about the way we as humans construct and maintain our societal structures and norms. These questions, and the options presented in the book, left me feeling unsettled (in a good way), even though the plot threads were wrapped up to my satisfaction.

This may be verging on spoilers, but the ending worked for me the way a great impossible crime does; at the beginning, the magic of the situation drives me to read on. By the end, the magic is stripped away, but the conclusion makes everything make sense in such a satisfying way that it doesn’t matter. Though perhaps The City and The City improves on this, by leaving a few threads of that strange magic woven through it even with the main mystery explained.

I imagine I’ll keep returning to this book in my mind for some time to come; thoroughly recommended.

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