Across 2 cities’ borders, a mystery of dislocation
Cities have always made for great existential settings. Streets filled with strangers, alleyways to nowhere, looming skyscrapers of inhuman corporations. And of course, there is always a mystery to be solved.
In China Miéville’s new novel, “The City and the City,’’ the urban landscape is literally and figuratively a place of dislocation. Yet despite its fantastical settings, “The City and the City’’ reads like a police procedural, where every step of the murder investigation is laid out in clinical detail. There are bad guys who turn out to be cronies of much badder guys, and detectives who are stymied by the very system in which they work.
Two fictional neighboring European cities, Beszel and Ul Qoma, share certain areas where some buildings and abandoned lots “crosshatch.’’ If you are in Beszel it’s a crime to stare too long at the oddly dressed Ul Qoma standing adjacent to you. And God help you should you cross over from one to the other, an act called a breach. The supreme authority here is a shadowy organization called Breach, which shares a name with the crime it polices.
The narrator is Tyador Borlu, a mostly cookie-cutter detective character, except that his instincts are honed unlike any of his literary precursors. By growing up in a city where he has had to train himself to see by not looking, Tyador has learned how to take this liability and turn it into a perfect tool of detection. He relies on this ability to know what to tune out and what to tune in, even when that thing exists in two places at once.
Tyador has been assigned to investigate the death of a young female grad student, an archeologist trying to dig up artifacts that might shed light on the two cities’ earliest (and possibly mutual) histories. As he probes deeper, Tydor uncovers what appears to be a conspiracy that crosses the cities’ boundaries. Like any good conspiracy thriller, “The City and the City’’ inspires a powerful sense of paranoia.
Because of Miéville’s reputation as a one of the preeminent writers of the New Weird (fantasy with a decided anachrononistically urban feel, replete with grotesqueries, strange science, and old evils), his devoted fans might be put off at first. There are no horrors lurking down alleys or in underground train tunnels. But working in that genre has honed Miéville’s skills with writing about the off-center and the world of everyday phantoms.
The novel goes into high gear when we get a glimpse into the strange world of the Breach. This secret police force has access to technology and methods that are if not other-worldly, certainly derived from something not quite human. But Miéville is coy about what exactly Breach is, even though we see it sometimes fail in its mission.
I don’t view “The City and the City’’ as an attempt by Miéville to break out of the fantasy genre, nor do I think he is slumming it in police fiction. What it looks like he wanted to do, and despite any real characters to care about, was mostly successful at doing, was to reveal that the boundaries we erect between cities and people might be artificial, but they go deeply toward arranging our perceptions both of those who stand beside us and those who live just a step across a border.
Peter Bebergal is a frequent contributor to the Globe and he blogs at mysterytheater.blogspot.com.