The City & The City

China Mieville

Set in a fictional Eastern European city this starts off as a standard detective novel. A women’s body is found in the grounds of a drug ridden housing estate. It’s a place filled with immigrants from the balkans and Mieville hints at the right wing nationalist violence simmering under the surface. Inspector Borlu from the Extreme Crime Squad (ECS) is summoned to investigate. Mieville has mentioned Raymond Chandler as an inspiration when writing this story and you can see the influence. It quickly deviates from a 1950’s pulp novel as Mieville starts to introduce his fantastical tricks that make his stories so interesting.

The story starts to reference a set of rules and protocols that make no sense to begin with. Breach is discussed and referred to and it’s not entirely clear what this means. You soon learn that to breach is to pass between or interact with the two cities without going through the right protocols and authorisations.

With a hard start, I realised she was not on GunterStratz at all, and that I should not have seen her

Borlu commenting on a women he should be unseeing.

The inhabitants of one side cannot acknowledge the buildings and people that can be clearly seen in the other city. This is called unseeing. If you break the rules you are then dealt with by Breach. It’s not clear at the beginning what this is either. A group, a non-human entity. It’s bewildering to walk through the streets, some of which are Beszel some are Ul Qoma and some are both (cross hatched) or Orciny if you believe the ancient folklore.

The murder is originally deemed by Inspector Borlu to be breach as the body must have been transported across the border illegally. Borlu thinks he can wash his hands of the case but a council of 42 representatives, half from each city who meet to rule on issues of breach, decide this isn’t the situation and Borlu is forced to continue his investigation. The decision is clearly political  but this leads him to the other city and the uncovering of ancient folklore, half truths and a fight between nationalists and unionists for the future of the two cities.

The big question is whether this is psychological rather than otherworldly. It is an interesting exploration of what people are willing to see and unsee due to government directive and the fear of a bogeyman called Breach. Although breach runs through the whole story and is ever present this is still an old fashioned murder detective story at heart.

A discussion with Mieville on this novel can be found at Tor and BLDGBLOG.

More Info

Publisher: Pan Macmillan

Year Published: 2009

Pages: 373

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