Title: The City & The City
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Paperback: 500 pages
Publication Date: 06/05/2011
I have a confession to make at the outset of this review. Before reading The City & The City I had never finished a novel by China Miéville. However, I should clarify this statement. Before this book I had only tried to read Miéville once before. It was King Rat [Miéville’s debut novel]. I was sixteen at the time. And I got completely lost trying to follow what was going on.
But now that I am older, [theoretically] wiser and cleverer [although this is only a slight possibility], it seemed like the right time to return to a novelist that I have repeatedly heard great things about, but have always been slightly afraid of. So, when Miéville’s publicist gave me a copy of The City & The City, telling me that it was both a crime novel and Miéville’s “most accessible book to date”, it seemed that the literary deities were giving me a sign. But, as I’m something of an agnostic, it’s taken me over six months to get around to reading it – a decision that I am now regretting, as this is a really good book.
It is set in the amazingly realised, fictional city of Besźel [located somewhere on the edge of Europe – it is never revealed where], and begins as most crime novels do, with the discovery of a body. A young woman, found naked beneath a filthy mattress, stab wounds to her chest and a savage cut to her cheek. But, what starts out as a ‘routine’ murder case for Inspector Borlú from Besźel’s Extreme Crime Squad, soon turns into something far bigger and more deadly…
Borlú is the epitome of what a hardboiled detective should be – middle-aged, world-weary, a bit of a maverick. You can almost imagine him wearing a long trench coat! And, whilst reading the novel, I found it very reminiscent of James Elroy’s L.A. Quartet [which isn’t that surprising as Miéville mentions Raymond Chandler – the grandfather of the hardboiled detective – in the Acknowledgments section at the beginning of the novel].
But, whilst the crime procedural elements of The City & The City are incredibly well done, they are overshadowed by the scope and brilliance of the alien landscape of Besźel – which is part Blade Runner-esque futuristic landscape, part pre-unification Berlin, but still manages to be completely individual and unique. And it is a testament to Miéville’s skills as a literary world-builder that he not only builds this fantastical and allegorical landscape, but is also able to maintain it throughout the length of the novel.