A woman is found murdered in a eastern European city. It seems like a routine case for Inspector Borlú; it seems like a routine, though well-written, murder-mystery thriller for the reader — until little hints start appearing that all is not quite routine in this city:
With a hard start, I realised she was not on GunterStrász at all, and that I should not have seen her. Immediately and flustered I looked away, and she did the same, with the same speed…When after some seconds I looked back up, unnoticing the old woman stepping heavily away, I looked carefully instead of at her in her foreign street at the facades of the nearby and local GunterStrász, that depressed zone.
Borlú’s city, Besźel, is overlapped (crosshatched) with a second city, Ul Qoma, in a metaphysical screw-up which has caused the populations of each city to fiercely refuse to see the other; it becomes instinctive, based on cues of how they dress and how they move. Breaches of this rule attract Breach, which at first seems like risking a fine but gradually assumes the proportions of the bogey-man. As Borlú works on his case, it becomes apparent its solution lies elsewhere, across the border in Ul Qoma.
This book reminded me strongly of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon, not because they’re similar in the literal sense of both being muder-mysteries, but because 1) the writing in both, though different, has that same elegant, attractive quality I really appreciate, and 2) because the “whodunit” could not and would not exist without the alternate setting the authors created. Many detective stories that take on aspects of the fantasy or paranormal genres could still exist in an only slightly changed form within a mundane setting; these two books could not and that is their great beauty.
Miéville does a fantastic job using the mystery plot to showcase the two cities and their cultures without ever overwhelming the reader with info-dump; he’s put great thought into how such a place would operate, including in its interactions with the outside world and the psychological ability to not see something so well that it truly becomes not there.
And he uses the setting to beautiful effect throughout the course of solving the murder. There is a thrilling chase scene here which is both taut and funny because the two participants are on opposite sides of the murky border: good-cop is not chasing bad-guy, they’re just both walking very fast in the same direction but in different cities…
I loved this book; it’s a great story, it’s inventive and clever, and the writing is lovely. Highly recommended.
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