Sometimes the only thing to be done about life’s circus is to ponder implausible and ingenious murders. This April, flush with agonising deadlines, I spent most of my spare time with detective novels. I picked my way between discarded and dismembered bodies, chased the red herring, and mocked the witless criminal. The deaths were as various as they were gruesome, ranging from garrottes to guillotines. Long exposure, however, renders most things mundane and, by now, my memory of the Perfect Crime is more catalogue than chronicle. How many times have I seen the passionately bludgeoned blonde, the coldly poisoned patient, and the attic painted in blood?
Bodies popped up in most unexpected places, and I accompanied my devious detectives into dingy theatres and aboard dubious dinghies. I explored the seedy side of San Francisco with Sam Spade and the bowels of dastardly London with Sherlock Holmes and Inspector Dalgleish. Colin Dexter’s donnish Oxford lent itself easily to the erudite Inspector Morse’s investigations; Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn was never more comfortable as in a country manor. With Brother William, in Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, I boldly re-entered the fiendish Finis Africae. It was a long way, thus, that I traversed to meet Inspector Borlù, of the Bész Extreme Crime Squad. Together, we spliced together the superimposed cities of Bészel. Together, we Breached.
Lord Peter Wimsey (who ought to know) observed that in crime novels virtue is ever triumphant. However wretched the wrongdoing, however unlikely its redressal, one can rest assured that the wily sleuth will unlock its machinations, blame the guilty, and avenge the innocent. They use assorted methods to achieve this: the famed Holmesian deduction, Poirot’s ‘grey cells’, Morse’s eye for lexical oddities. Wimsey himself, that ‘chattering icicle in an eyeglass’, deploys buffoonery and the brilliant Bunter. There are, of course, moral ambiguities aplenty—remember the harrowing finale in Dorothy Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon? Otherwise an impeccably genteel book, so full of good humour and romance, it ends on a sombre note, with the execution of Wimsey’s cleverly caught criminal.
There are fewer legal ambiguities in the solving of fictional crimes: the police are benevolent, if not always competent; laws are reasonably evident and neither obscure nor vague nor contradictory. Humanity is generally forthcoming with information. Illegality is known, understood, and noted. To be sure, there are the bad districts, where crime is rife upon the land. There are the border professions—prostitution, drug possession, and smuggling—illegal, not always ‘criminal’. By and large, however, crime novels are stable ecosystems, and the people within them share a consensus on what is punishable, and to what degree.
China Miéville at a reading of one of his books.
Image above is from Loz Flowers’ photostream on Flickr.
In China Miéville’s The City & The City, it is this categorisation of ‘crime’ that comes under the scanner. The novel begins conventionally enough, with a young woman found murdered on the mean streets. Rapidly, however, we find that her environs are as bizarre as her body is banal. She inhabits a city-state split down the middle by the cities of Bészel and Ul Qoma: separated by the vicissitudes of history and conjoined by those of geography. The Bész and Qomans studiously ignore one another, despite living, as they do, on top of each other.
The consequences, for the fan of the crime novel, are farcical: all that perfectly good evidence lying about with no one to notice! Millions of potential witnesses to any crime erased out of time and memory! Neighbours governed by entirely different laws and procedures! The inhabitants of Bészel take our very human tendency to ignore the unsavoury to resplendent heights, to the point where it could almost be a crime novel set in the Real World. This entire active unseeing and unhearing is policed by a liminal, horrifying entity known only as Breach, which ensures that imaginary barriers are respected.
In Borlù’s world, it is not murder but Breach that is the ultimate crime, and it lies outside his jurisdiction. He discovers that his victim—whose name is the subject of many obscure puns, so perhaps we could just call her Bait—has been murdered with the aid of such trespassing, and is determined to ‘invoke Breach’ to see her avenged. Ultimately, Borlù joins Breach, committing what only days earlier would’ve seemed to him fell heresy. The cities (to his vision, anyway) blur. Along the way, he chases what starts off a mystery and tails off into a conspiracy, neither of them particularly convincing. Indeed, plot-wise, this is Miéville’s weakest novel, with none of the grand flourishes and quirky characters that make his worlds such vital places. There are no pirates, no garudas, not even a giant cephalopod. The City & The City is a pure idea novel, with the breathtaking genius of its device overtaking all its (many) defects.
The City & The City is an uneven enterprise, though it is to Miéville’s credit as a writer that he makes the basic premise—the alter-cities—so accessible. After the first part of the book—where the fantastic topology of the cities is laid out—one drifts at ease between Bészel and Ul Qoma, almost as puzzled as Borlù whenever their boundaries are at risk. At the mention of a possible third city, Orciny, this reader was as convinced as any other citizen of the twin cities that it had to be a phantasm bred from superstition.
Yet, if superstition, custom, and language can breed one set of blind divides within a population, why not another one? Why not millions of them? Why not proclaim that each city has multitudes hidden within it, with fragile alleys connecting that which can be known from that which can’t, won’t, or shouldn’t be known? If a society can construct its own worst crime – leaching the criminal law of all justifications as a ‘natural’ or ‘moral’ law – what does that imply for our own system of values? Why is it murder that we fear most, not torture or rape or impoverishment? It is because such a death can seemingly strike at random, while most violence visits those already ‘othered’ by the law?
Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose is the urtext of the detective novel.
Image above is from Ross Angus’ photostream on Flickr.
To be fair, this is not a question unique to Miéville. Great novels destabilise their genre, and crime fiction is no exception. The urtext of the detective novel, Eco’s Rose, asks the same questions The City & The City does, if with far more subtlety and depth. Rose, Eco’s first novel, is set in a medieval abbey, and contains all the great controversies of its age and locale: the distinction between blasphemy and heresy; the limits of ‘secular’ force; the mushrooming of Popes; the defiance of the Divine Order implied by human laughter and the use of human reason. It also ponders the social origins of crime, and agrees that we punish only that which we legislate in the first place. This it does in the midst of a plot so devious, conversations so learned, and circumstances so historic, to make the book an education each time one reads it.
The difference between the two books, and where Mieville unquestionably ‘wins’, is the potency of his breach (if one can be forgiven the pun) into our world. The City & The City veritably screams the question of how Bészel/Ul Qoma are so different from the bustling metros of our world. Our cities might not be shattered as unequivocally, yet they possess deeper instincts for demarcation than we admit. We all observe ‘crimes’- eve teasing, theft, exploitation, child labour- as we go about our daily life, yet we so rarely remember or report them. It is the plentiful clues and helpful witnesses of crime novels that make them such elegant whodunits; in real life, as in Miéville’s book, the more noticeable a particular crime, the less punished it is.
(Nandini Ramachandran is a graduate of the N.L.S.I.U., Bangalore and blogs at Chaosbogey.)