China Miéville’s new novel The City & The City hits the stores today, and it’s a novel that simultaneously fulfills Miéville fan expectatation and is something that they never would have seen coming. Fans of the author almost certainly expected a complex and satisfying tale of a fantastic city real enough that you get the genuinely tactile sense of the place, given the author’s long association with New Crobuzon, in Perdido Street Station and Iron Council. If there’s anything Mieville knows (and to be clear, he knows lots), it’s how to put his reader into a city with all senses firing.
What they couldn’t have expected were Beszel and Ul Qoma, the cities of the book’s title, or their intimate relationship as sisters and rivals — or the fact that Mieville would give them their view of these cities through the lens of a murder procedural — or that Mieville both supports and subverts the crime novel form exploring the cities he’s made. He’s doing a lot of fascinating stuff here, and makes it look easy, which it’s not. Expect The City & The City to be an awards front runner, and not necessarily just in the genre of science fiction and fantasy.
Having now written his own crime novel, China Mieville has some thoughts on the nature of the form, and why it’s so hard for whodunnits to stick the dismount, as it were. I’m delighted to give him the floor here at Whatever to explain it to you.
Crime novels never end well. We’re talking here about the whodunnits. There’s a body in the library. Seven people hated him. A cantankerous cop plays by her or his own rules, or a small-town librarian charmingly uncovers sordid truths. There are other paradigms, of course — the alt-crime formulas perfected by geniuses like Patricia Highsmith, the youalreadyknowwhodunnits, the whodunwhats, the doesitreallymatterwhodunnits. But the centre of gravity of the genre, the pull against which such brilliant dissidence chafes, is the whodunnit. Be it cozy, police procedural, noir, the problematic is shared. And these novels – which I like many passionately love – always end badly. Even the brilliant ones. I don’t mean for those still alive within the books’ worlds, necessarily, but for those of us beyond the text.
Reviews of crime novels repeatedly refer to this or that book’s slightly disappointing conclusion. This is the case even where reviewers are otherwise hugely admiring. Sometimes you can almost sense their bewilderment when, looking closely at the way threads are wrapped up and plots and sub-plots knotted, they acknowledge that nothing could be done to improve an ending, that it works, that it is ‘fair’ (a very important quality for the crime aficionado – no last-minute suspects, no evidence the reader hasn’t seen), that it is well-written, that it surprises… and yet that it disappoints.
The reason, I think, is that crime novels are impossible. Specifically, impossible to end.
Obviously there’s a danger here of exoneration, of using this argument to evade responsibility for all manner of bullshit and bad writing. So let’s insist that one of the reasons for any crime novel’s – sometimes nebulous but in my opinion inevitable – failure may very well be authorial inadequacy. Nonetheless. Even absent that, such books always leave the reader feeling, even if just a bit, let down.
Because crime novels are not what they say they are. They are not, for a start, realist novels. Holmes’s intoxicating and ludicrous taxonomies derived from scuffs on a walking stick are not acts of ratiocination but of bravura magical thinking. (Not that they, or other ‘deductions’, are necessarily ‘illogical’, or don’t make sense of the evidence, but that they precisely do so: they make it into sense. The sense follows the detection, in these stories, not, whatever the claim, vice versa.) The various manly Virgils who appear ex nihilo to escort Marlowe through his oneiric purgatories are not characters, but eloquent opacities in man-shape: much more interesting. Dalgliesh’s irresistibility to hyperrealised moral panics du jour – the poor man manages to contract SARS – is an elegiac opera of Holland Park angst, rather than any quotidian gazette of a policeman’s unhappy lot. Detective fiction is a fiction of dreams. Not only is this no bad thing, it is precisely what makes it so indispensable.
Secondly, detective novels are not novels of detection, still less of revelation, still less of solution. Those are all necessary, but not only are they insufficient, but they are in certain ways regrettable. These are novels of potentiality. Quantum narratives. Their power isn’t in their final acts, but in the profusion of superpositions before them, the could-bes, what-ifs and never-knows. Until that final chapter, each of those is as real and true as all the others, jostling realities all dreamed up by the crime, none trapped in vulgar facticity. That’s why the most important sentence in a murder mystery isn’t the one starting ‘The murderer is…’ – which no matter how necessary and fabulously executed is an act of unspeakable narrative winnowing - but is the snarled expostulation halfway through: ‘Everyone’s a suspect.’ Quite. When all those suspects become one certainty, it’s a collapse, and a let-down. How can it not be? We’ve been banished from an Eden of oscillation.
It’s no cause for despair. Even if these stories fail, we still love them, and can’t do without them. And they’re only one of countless phenomena which can, in this here-and-now where we live, only always fail. But Beckett’s advice is good: fail again, and fail better. Some detective stories, after all, fail very well indeed.
(And for the lit-geek, there is one, just once, in the history of the genre, that succeeded in the impossible, and defeated this narrative kobayashi maru. It’s its brilliant solution to this impossible narrative conundrum that makes Darcy Sarto’s Lady Don’t Fall Backwards the only flawless crime novel ever completed.)