China Miéville’s The City & The City feels like a modern version of Through the Looking Glass, and I think that stands after a re-read. In Beszel, Inspector Tyador Borlú is investigating a murder with some unique complications.
As with most Miéville books, there is an active political element to the story. With the divided cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma, the politics are brought down to a local, tangible level. These things are happening for a reason, and it could be that this unfortunate young woman was brought into the crossfire.
Between Beszel and Ul Qoma is Breach, the area that drives the story. Breach is known by many names, and it has its own secret shadowy police force, themselves simply known as “Breach.” Borlú is forced to go around Breach – both the physical place and the investigating force – to investigate the woman’s murder.
Borlú’s work is his life, and this case demonstrates that. He and Corwi, the young subordinate he drafts in to help, work together to determine who this woman was, and come to some astonishing conclusions.
To take those conclusions to their next logical step, Borlú must go to Ul Qoma. Together with Senior Detective Quatt of Ul Qoma, Borlú reaches some incredible conclusions. Who is Breach? What is the nature of (a) Breach? What, when it comes down to it, is between the city and the city?
As a commentary on the nature of the cities, it is interesting to note that there is very little visible light in this book. There are no sunny days; there is no really pleasant weather to discuss. In fact, “Holy Light!” is used as an expletive. It wasn’t something I noticed on the first reading, but on the second, it seemed an apt summation of the state of the cities and the people in them.
What drew me to a re-read on The City & The City is that the story works on so many levels. It works as a police procedural. It works as an examination of class distinctions. It works as a biting statement on the things that we, as a society, choose to see and to unsee on a daily basis.