CHENNAI: China Miéville is my favourite writer of science fiction /fantasy (or weird fiction as he calls it). Miéville is a literary fiction writer, who uses the vehicle of fantasy to advance a story of the human condition. While that might seem dreary to many regular detective/ crime fiction readers, let me assure you that Miéville is never boring, and never a difficult read. He made his mark with the New Crobuzon/Steampunk novels, but has written teen fiction (Un Lun Dun), and hardboiled detective fiction, which is The City and The City, the novel I will talk about today.
Let me explain the basic construct of the novel. Question: You know about twin cities. What will happens if the twin cities have been standing for well-nigh two thousand years, and have developed independent cultures, behaviours and customs which are independent and completely different from each other? Like two different countries with borders and independent laws?
Now, imagine that the twin cities have not been standing next to each other, but within each other in the same geographical space.Whoa, hold on! How is that possible? Assume that the citizens of each city have consciously ‘unseen’ the people from the other city for the last two thousand years. Not just the people, but the buildings, the road signs, even things that are happening in the other city, even if they are right next to oneself. If anyone doesn’t consciously ‘unsee’, there is this shadowy, extremely powerful organization called ‘Breach’ that will penalize the person — basically it’s the watchdog that ensures the sanctity of the two separate cities — who are called Beszel and Ul Qoma.
What you have next is a hardboiled police procedural. Inspector Tyador Borlú, of the Extreme Crime Squad of Beszel, is a gruff, bitter man, yet is the archetypal straight arrow cop. He investigates the death of a girl, a foreigner, in a street in Beszel. We find that she, Mahalia Geary, was heavily involved with underground political agitations in both Beszel and Ul Qoma. Was she killed in Ul Qoma and dumped in Beszel? Why? Why are there so many disturbances to the investigations? And why is there this silence around a theory that Geary was interested in – that of a third city within the cities, the mythical Orciny?
The City and The City is a hardboiled mystery of the truest Chandler — Hammett tradition. Being a police procedural, it is thematically similar to Ian Rankin’s classic Inspector Rebus stories, and Miéville’s clipped, classical writing style suits the genre perfectly.
I loved the novel. And I recommend it to everyone who would like to challenge themselves with an expertly written, masterfully plotted, genre-bending work, which is a page-turner, a genuine thriller nonetheless.
(The writer is a financial architect in Bengaluru)