China Miéville – The City and the City (2009)


As I read and write and think a lot about detective and crime fiction, I’m starting to put together quick, bite-size reviews of the books in these genres. Sadly, capacity is too limited to cover all the films and TV series I watch too, but these might be added in the future

The ‘see also’ section below gives you a hint of the story, its themes, and its style, and is spoiler-free, but reviews themselves aren’t guaranteed to be thus!

If you’re interested in reading my academic work about detective and crime fiction (free PDFs available), check it out here.

See also

These lists capture other detective/crime stories and characters that I thought of as I was reading this piece. I won’t explain why, to avoid spoilers, but they’re associations and not ‘if you liked this, then you’ll love…’ recommendations!

  • Émile Zola’s Germinal
  • Jonathan Creek
  • Gabriel Gatehouse’s The Coming Storm podcast
  • R.F. Kuang’s Babel

Review (4.5 out of 5)

I think of The City and the City as a sort of midpoint in Miéville’s authorial arc, although he is of course still active. I first started reading his work with Kraken, which followed The City and the City in 2010, and then made by way back to begin at the beginning of the New Crobuzon novels. I was interested in Miéville’s excavations of imagined possibilities of urban life, but after Railsea (2012), he has largely left the novel genre in favour of non-fiction and short fiction. For better or worse, then, to me The City and the City, with its 2018 TV adaptation starring David Morrissey, feel like high-tide marks for Miéville’s predominance in this particular segment of the literary world.

I did not watch all of that TV adaptation, although I did watch the first episode. David Morrissey’s niche is not really my niche, as an audience member, and I suspect the decision not to keep watching the adaptation kept me away from The City and the City for a little while. But I was glad to come back to this novel after a while away from Miéville’s work.

As a detective story, how does The City and the City compare? The detective figure(s) and the crime they investigate are in some ways standards of the police procedural. Plenty of detective figures share Inspector Borlú’s willingness to bend the rules, commitment to solving a young woman’s murder, and general apathy towards his own life. An incalculable number of detective stories involve an idealistic but duped young woman going to her death, or corrupt officials dressing up their tawdry greed in something esoteric or high-minded to draw in unwitting collaborators. But it is the use to which Miéville puts the tropes and stock figures that is so enjoyable.

As an extended metaphor for the self-deceptions—and other-deceptions!—that are required from us daily to maintain an ‘orderly’ society, often at the expense of someone, somewhere, out of sight and mind, The City and the City shines more brightly now, in the wake of Brexit and Donald Trump, in the grips of a cost-of-living crisis (in Britain, at least), and in the context of more persistently and intransigently fractured political landscapes internationally. What is the cost of our continued blindness, our continued acts of ‘unseeing’? Who will come to get us if we ‘breach’ the social fictions and look directly at what lies on the margin of the everyday?

Detective fiction, and more especially crime fiction, teach us that policing is a hard job, that it requires one to look, again and again, at things that other people only ever see once, and then on the worst day of their lives. That is the message of shows like Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, where the police who specialise in the most ‘heinous’ of crimes rail against and steel themselves for continuing to see. It is perfectly natural, then, that this is quite naturally the genre to which Miéville turns for this tale. But there is an irony in that choice. Regular consumers of detective stories will be used to glossing over the crimes themselves, taking the declarations of horror as read, as requisite but not entirely meaningful tropes. A reader reading for the puzzle can easily miss the full sense of the novel, catch it out of the corner of their eye and ‘unsee’ it as they hurry onwards down the narrative street. The City and the City thus acts out its own cautionary tale.

China Miéville’s The City and the City was Book 35 of my 2022 reading adventure. You can see the whole thread for 2022, and look back to 2021, on Twitter.

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