Friday, August 19, 2011

Double Vision

I've always been a fan of police novels – hard-boiled detectives, mean streets, unsolved murders. (Richard Price's “Lush Life” is a favorite). And although I'm not a sci-fi fan, I do admire writers who can create an alternate universe. I loved Michael Chabon's invention in “The Yiddish Policemen's Union”. Now I've found a novel that does both these things, and the result is a very entertaining read.

China Miéville’s The City and The City starts out as a standard crime story. Inspector Tyador Borlú is investigating a murder – the dead body of an attractive girl found in an abandoned van in the city of Beszel, somewhere in post-Soviet Eastern Europe. Beszel sits next to another city called Ul Qoma – much like Buda and Pest, Tel Aviv and Jaffa, or the more prosaic Minneapolis and St. Paul. But it doesn't work quite the same way. Early on in the book, strange terminology is sprinkled in with the standard police procedural dialogue as Miéville slowly reveals that these two cities - governed by separate bodies, guarded by separate police forces, with different languages and architecture, vigorously enforcing their isolation from each other – occupy the same geographical space.

I could now give you twenty examples of the incredibly clever ways in which Miéville makes this absurd situation seem utterly believable and often amusing. But they're all spoilers, and since I really enjoyed reading this book with no advanced knowledge of this intricate conceit, I refuse to ruin it for someone else. But I can tell you that he manages to remind me of Raymond Chandler, Franz Kafka and George Orwell all at the same time.

PS This is a great book to read on a Kindle if, like me, you are unfamiliar with words like machicolation, quango, boscage, lingam, and sigil.

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