crap i have read recently #6

dark birdIt’s a mystery!

[Some SPOILERS below, proceed with caution!]

The City and the City (China Mieville):  “Read China Mieville,” people said to me.  “You will love his books!”  Their confidence was encouraging so read some China Mieville I did.  And I must say, it was pretty good.  Describing it might be a difficult but I’ll try.  It might help if I note that some of my friends who recommended Mieville told me he writes science fiction and others told me he writes fantasy.  Wikipedia, however, informs me that he  himself describes his work as Lovecraftian “weird fiction“, a sort of genre independent mash-up of horror, science fiction, and fantasy.  Fair enough.  I guess that means you can leave your expectations at the door.

The City and the City is a book built on several strata.  On one level it is a simple detective mystery.  Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Besźel police force is called to the scene of a gruesome crime:  a  young woman, her face disfigured, is found by some punk kids in an abandoned lot.  Although Borlú initially assumes that she was a prostitute who ran afoul of a john or her pimp, he soon discovers that she was an archeology student on a local dig and was actually killed in the “neighboring” city of Ul Qoma.  This development complicates matters substantially.  Because travel between the two cities is difficult, Borlú initially conducts his investigation solely in Besźel but soon discovers that he must travel to Ul Qoma.   As Borlú investigates he identifies several suspects and interesting areas of inquiry.  The student held some radical notions in her youth but appeared to have grown out of them.  There is some evidence that she was clandestinely researching a fabled city, a field of study unorthodox enough to ruin her career.   Her parents claim she had made enemies of the local nationalist groups.  Another student disappears, a guard at the dig behaves suspiciously, one of the professors receives a bomb in the mail, and shady multinational corporations deal in pilfered historical artifacts.  The mystery part of this book is moderately gripping  and in the end the murderer turns out to be someone not wholly expected.

To be honest though, by the time the mystery wound down to its denouement, I didn’t really care anymore who did it.  I was far more interested in what else was going on in the book.   As it turns out Besźel and Ul Qoma are not your usual mutually antagonist city-states.  They are actually two separate cities that occupy the same geographical space and there is a very complicated mutual agreement whereby each almost completely pretends the other doesn’t exist.  Citizens of both learn from an early age to “unsee” the other city even though streets, parks, and buildings in each city abut each other and are visible.  Ul Qomans and the Besz have somewhat different clothing styles.  The architecture in each city differs somewhat.  Different colors are forbidden in each city.  All these things become cues for unseeing and never ever seeing the other city is extremely important.  When a citizen of either city (or for that matter, a visiting foreigner) purposely or accidentally breaches the wall of separation between the cities, a shadowy organization called Breach steps in.  Breach has unlimited power and absolute authority and is universally feared and respected in both cities.  The outside world accommodates this unusual arrangement with something between amusement and practicality.  There are embassies and diplomatic missions and visa requirements and extensive regulations governing foreign tourism and investment, all of which are aimed at keeping Breach at bay.  While foreigners are permanently deported, citizens who breach just disappear.

So, this is where the book gets interesting.  The physical and mental acrobatics required of each city’s inhabitants would seem ludicrous if the stakes were not so obviously high.  Their cars share the streets; if there is an accident in Besźel cars in both cities must get out of the way but only drivers in Besźel can curse at the offending driver.  Two people can live next door to each other their entire lives, pass each other going and coming, shop at the same market, sip tea at adjoining tables, and never see each other.  It is difficult to describe and Mieville does a good job of immersing you in the habits of people who must consistently and reflexively ignore half their environment.   It is particularly intriguing when Borlú is in Ul Qoma and he must unsee his own home and co-workers.  He is suddenly unsure of his own identity and must, for the first time in many years, consciously think about the other city and not making a mistake.   In this strange world Borlu must investigate a crime that occurred in one city but was discovered in the other.    The logistics of simply arresting someone can be mind-boggling.  There is an excellent scene in the book where a suspect carefully gives no clues as to what city he is in and police from both shadow him, acknowledging neither the perp nor their cross-town colleagues, more in fear of breaching than they are of losing their quarry.

Mieville doesn’t tell us how the cities came to be this way or why they aren’t friendly, nor does he explain why it is so important that each city pretends the other doesn’t exist.  There are tantalizing hints of prehistorical convergence and national pride and the fear of loss of identity, but in the end these mysteries are not resolved for us.  Ul Qoma and Besźel are definitely the sorts of places you want to know more about.  I don’t think Mieville has ever written a sequel but I think I might like the way his mind works.   So…I wonder what I should read next?

Score:  Meh.

Birdman (Mo Hayder):  This is a recent Nook Free Friday selection that I decided to read while sitting at a bar drinking a lovely Belgian farmhouse ale.   I don’t read a lot of crime fiction but I thought that having just finished a sort-of detective story it might be fun to try another.   I used to like mysteries, Agatha Christie and John D. McDonald mysteries in particular (as I have mentioned before).  This book is not like those.  In those books the mystery took center stage and the fun came in watching the detective solve the crime, the delicate maneuvering around class and money and protocol, the gentle unceasing questioning, the sudden insights, the befuddled police, the occasional philosophizing, the denouement at the end of the book where it all suddenly makes sense.  In this book it is all about the killing.   We get to read about a lot of killing, sometimes in very fine detail.

I guess mostly this book just seemed formulaic.  I’m not even sure what the formula is for these things anymore but the handful of mysteries I’ve read as an adult all seemed rather like this.   Originally published about ten years ago it concerns the gruesome torture and murder of several women.  The book introduces Hayder’s chain detective Jack Caffery, a police detective in his mid thirties who has spent most of his life trying to come to terms with the disappearance of his brother when he was a kid.  The women are found by accident, in a construction field.   They are all the sort of women that aren’t missed right away when they disappear, drug users, prostitutes.  All are heavily made-up and have odd stitch-like wounds on their heads.  All have had their breasts mutilated.  All of them have a small dead bird sewn into their chests.  The detectives get down to detecting and it seems to be going OK; the plot moves at a swift pace and bits and pieces of the puzzle fall into place.  And then the narrative suddenly shifts to the mind of the killer and the best thing about a whodunnit is gone.  We know whodunnit and yes, he’s not right in the head (duh), but so what?  The mystery is gone.  Past this point, past the point where the book shifts to the mind of a second killer, and then to the mind of another victim, and then to the thoughts of a dying policeman, it is no longer a mystery.  It is just more entirely gratuitous scenes of bizarre torture and death and a race to get to the killer before he finishes off Caffery’s love interest.

This might not be fair but it seems to me that a big part of the draw of these books is the suffering of the victims, who are almost always vulnerable (women, children), almost always killed in horrific ways, almost always sexually violated (not always while alive), almost always conscious during their ordeal, and usually not alone (serial killers are big these days).  The reader is invited to watch living people cut, stabbed, tied up, taped up, beaten, mutilated, raped, taunted by their captor, tortured in whatever novel way the author can dream up to get the killer off, and finally killed and dumped.  The switch to the killer’s perspective is so that we can vicariously participate in the crime, maybe get a safe little frisson of insanity.  I’m not squeamish.  It doesn’t bother me to read gruesome things if it serves the narrative.  But here it doesn’t.  It’s not clever or smart or engaging.  It’s voyeurism.  Apparently some people find it entertaining.  I however am completely uninterested as a rule in this sort of thing.   Birdman did not change my mind.

Score:  Meh.


~ by gun street girl on July 1, 2012.

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