Saturday, April 16, 2011

The City and the City

The City and the City by China Miéville
Random House, 2009
Trade Paperback , 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9780345497529
very highly recommended

When a murdered woman is found in the city of Beszel, somewhere at the edge of Europe, it looks to be a routine case for Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad. To investigate, Borlú must travel from the decaying Beszel to its equal, rival, and intimate neighbor, the vibrant city of Ul Qoma. But this is a border crossing like no other, a journey as psychic as it is physical, a seeing of the unseen. With Ul Qoman detective Qussim Dhatt, Borlú is enmeshed in a sordid underworld of nationalists intent on destroying their neighboring city, and unificationists who dream of dissolving the two into one. As the detectives uncover the dead woman’s secrets, they begin to suspect a truth that could cost them more than their lives. What stands against them are murderous powers in Beszel and in Ul Qoma: and, most terrifying of all, that which lies between these two cities.
My Thoughts:

The City and the City is China Miéville's police procedural novel; it is crime noir with an added dimension. Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad in Beszel is investigating the murder of a young woman. Solving the case means Borlú will need to carefully navigate between the city and the city.

The cities are the Eastern European cities Beszel and Ul Qoma. While they share the same physical location, they are separate entities. They have different governments, cultures, languages, and economies. Their citizens' have been trained from an early age to only see one city at a time by unseeing the other city. The citizens of one city are not allowed to react to or acknowledge the other city. Even though there are crosshatchings, places where both cites exist right by each other, there is only one legal access from one to the other, Copula Hall. To cross this mysterious division in any other place or way, is a serious infraction enforced by Breach. Breach is both a noun and a verb.

The City and the City is told as a first person narrative. There is a dream-like quality to the interstitiality, the between spaces, of the cities that enhances the noir tone of this procedural. It is very atmospheric. The dialogue is tight, closely following the typical police procedural novel. Apparently Miéville originally wanted to subtitle The City and the City, "The Last Inspector Borlu Mystery" but the publisher talked him out of it. I, however, like the implications of the subtitle.

And while it is a mystery novel, it also addresses the nature of taboos, segregation, modern urban disassociation and the lengths people will go to to preserve their preferred social realities. I would speculate that anyone could read The City and the City as a police procedural or a fantasy or both. It is the uniqueness of the setting, Miéville's genius as a writer, and the conclusion that pushed The City and the City to a top recommendation from me.
Very Highly Recommended


I could not see the street or much of the estate. We were enclosed by dirt-coloured blocks, from windows out of which leaned vested men and women with morning hair and mugs of drink, eating breakfast and watching us. This open ground between the buildings had once been sculpted. It pitched like a golf course—a child’s mimicking of geography. Maybe they had been going to wood it and put in a pond. There was a copse but the saplings were dead.
The grass was weedy, threaded with paths footwalked between rubbish, rutted by wheel tracks. There were police at various tasks. I wasn’t the first detective there—I saw Bardo Naustin and a couple of others— but I was the most senior. I followed the sergeant to where most of my colleagues clustered, between a low derelict tower and a skateboard park ringed by big drum-shaped trash bins. Just beyond it we could hear the docks. A bunch of kids sat on a wall before standing officers. The gulls coiled over the gathering. opening

“Where’s Shukman?”
“Not here yet, Inspector…”
“Someone call him, tell him to get a move on.” I smacked my watch. I was in charge of what we called the mise-en-crime. No one would move her until Shukman the patho had come, but there were other things to do. I checked sightlines. We were out of the way and the garbage containers obscured us, but I could feel attention on us like insects, from all over the estate. We milled.
There was a wet mattress on its edge between two of the bins, by a spread of rusting iron pieces interwoven with discarded chains. “That was on her.” The constable who spoke was Lizbyet Corwi, a smart young woman I’d worked with a couple of times. “Couldn’t exactly say she was well hidden, but it sort of made her look like a pile of rubbish, I guess.” I could see a rough rectangle of darker earth surrounding the dead woman—the remains of the ?mattress-sheltered dew. Naustin was squatting by it, staring at the earth.
“The kids who found her tipped it half off,” Corwi said. pg. 4

“Hooker?” he said. “First impressions, Inspector. This area,
beat-?up, naked? And…” He pointed at his face, her exaggerated makeup. “Hooker.”
“Fight with a client?”
“Yeah but…If it was just the body wounds, you know, you’d, then you’re looking at, maybe she won’t do what he wants, whatever. He lashes out. But this.” He touched his cheek again uneasily. “That’s different.”
“A sicko?”
He shrugged. “Maybe. He cuts her, kills her, dumps her. Cocky bastard too, doesn’t give a sh*t that we’re going to find her.”
“Cocky or stupid.”
“Or cocky and stupid.”
“So a cocky, stupid sadist,” I said. He raised his eyes, Maybe. pg. 8

"You know that area: is there any chance we're looking at breach?"
There were seconds of silence.
"Doesn't seem likely. That area's mostly pretty total. And Pocost Village, that whole project, certainly is."
"Some of GunterStrasz, though..."
"Yeah but. The closest crosshatching is hundreds of metres away. They couldn't have..." It would have been an extraordinary risk on the part of the murderer or murderers. pg. 14


Jeanne said...

So if the only book I've loved by Mieville so far has been UnLunDun (the YA one), would you recommend I try this one before trying Perdido Street Station again?

Lori L said...

Yes, Jeanne, especially if you appreciate crime noir. This may be the one for you to try and see if you like it better than Perdido Street Station. I read somewhere that Mieville was planning to write novels in several different genres. He certainly followed the "formula" here for a good police procedural. The writing is really tightened up too.

Jeanne said...

Okay, thanks!