China Miéville on Crime Novels

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.)


The City & The City: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read an excerpt from the first chapter of the novel. Read a Q&A with Miéville on The City & The City. China Miéville’s book tour itinerary.

42 Comments on “China Miéville on Crime Novels”

  1. The resolution in a whodunnit novel as the collapse of quantum state vectors… what a wonderful insight. Going to have to let this one roll around for a while so I can look at it from many different directions.

  2. I’m probably not the only one who didn’t recognize “Darcy Sarto’s Lady Don’t Fall Backwards” and was inclined to search for it on Amazon. Perhaps all who are likewise confused will do the same googling I did, but it probably bears noting this explanation of that hard-to-acquire book:

    The title refers to Lady Don’t Fall Backwards by Darcy Sarto, a whodunnit that Tony Hancock was reading in an episode of Hancock’s Half Hour called “The Missing Page” (first shown around March 1960). The book features detective Johnny Oxford and the murder of twenty five United Nations Organisation typists. Hancock arrives at the end of the book and, as the murderer is about to be revealed, realises that some previous reader has torn the last page from the book. The rest of the episode follows Hancock’s attempt to turn sleuth himself and deduce the identity of the murderer from the clues in the novel.

  3. I love the crime genre, but am perpetually dissatisfied with some aspect of the novels. I am very much looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of this book to see it done right.

  4. I think that the The Murder of Roger Ackroyd nicely subverted the crime novel in an effective way.

  5. There seems to be a pronounced divide, in genre fiction, betweem the writers who promise everything but frank duplication of traditional favorites — I am thinking of SF writers who, shyly or proudly acknowledge reviewers’ comparisons to Tolkien, Asimov, Heinlein, Joss Whedon, whoever wrote that episode of Jonny Quest that everyone likes — and the writers who preface each work with an essay or interview or two about their predecessors’ mistakes. To bring it back to the contingency that Mieville is so enamored of, a story without mistakes might not be all that interesting.

  6. Hmm, I too love the thought of crime solving as quantum collapse; an end of possibility. What’s also interesting is that with it is a concurrent end of implication; as you say, from everyone being implicated in the crime, to one person being implicated and then punished. The moral stain has been excised, and with it moral complexity / ambiguity – from ‘we’re all potential murderers’, to ‘here’s an actual murderer and everyone else is good again’. That kind of unsatisfying end-of-tragedy reset button being pushed (is Fortinbras the end-of-play tidier an ur-detective?)

    For me, the way round the problem is to extend the moral ambiguity beyond the solution of the crime; so either the crime itself remains morally troubling even when solved (as in Raymond Chandler’s superb ‘The King in Yellow’), or even the innocent are all implicated (I wonder if ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ came from or parodies a similar perception?)

  7. I also adore the quantum narrative metaphor. Therein lies the problem of trying to write a good one — making all the endings equally probable; all the red herrings equally succulent.

  8. So considering that “Darcy Sarto’s Lady Don’t Fall Backwards” seems to be an old radio play from the UK, anyone know if this is available for purchase somewhere? I am now desperately intrigued.


  9. The subgenre of crime fiction I know best, hardboiled, is certainly not ‘realist,’ in spite of the gritty flavor. All detective fiction, like SF/F and most hist-fic, really belongs in the great super-genre of Romance. (As does romance in the usual modern sense.)

    It has been said that SF novels often fail in the final third, and I’d suggest for the same meta-reason that crime novels do, because strictly speaking they aren’t *novels*. Novels evolved out of the comedy of manners, never a subgenre of Romance. At least in hardboiled, what is ultimately memorable is rarely the crime or the solution, indeed not the story itself, but the archetypal figure of the detective.

  10. silbey, I’m with you. By happenstance that was the first Agatha Christie I ever read, and it took me a while to recover from it!

  11. As someone who reads crime novels, it’s almost never the revelation of whodunnit that’s the exciting part. It’s no the crime, it’s the cover up that makes the story go, and it’s frequently the idea of justice, who’s meting it out, and what effect it has on them to do so that really ends a book in a satisfying way. Detective fiction is different than police procedural, though.

  12. Mark @ 14:

    Couldn’t disagree with you more on the Bas-Lag universe, but no, The City & The City is set (more or less) in “the real world.”

  13. OK, a tangent, because I tend to be obsessive about this kind of thing: What’s the correct pronunciation of “Mieville” (with the acute accent on the “e” that I can’t seem to get the comment form to recognize)? I’m guessing from the accent it’s supposed to be something like “Mee-EH-vill?”

  14. Perdido Street Station was good, if unpolished; The Scar remains one of my favourite fantasy novels. Iron Council I found too strident, and the Parliament too much a straw man. I haven’t read Un Lun Dun … it will be interesting to see how this one compares, but I think I’ll wait to read it in the library before I go out and buy it.

  15. If I had to point to one “perfect” crime novel that I think satisfies on every level possible, it would be the late James Crumley’s THE LAST GOOD KISS.

  16. I always thought Ten Little Indians was meant to be the perfect crime novel in that way – or maybe the perfect inversion of it. Every character is guilty until the moment he dies, and then it seems that everybody is going to die. You start to fear that you will find your murderer through the process of elimination, an entirely boring prospect. Then you start to fear that the detective is a killer who’s been gaining your sympathy the whole time, like in Psycho , when – *Boo!!*

  17. I tried to read Mieville’s “Perdido Street Station” and found that not only was the city a character, but it was one that would not shut up. I couldn’t get through it.

    I can’t say as hearing Mieville spew about how detective stories aren’t REALLY detective stories and how everyone fails to write them but oh, it’s OK because they’re impossible to actually write but hey my book is pretty swell even though they’re actually quantum singularities and blah blah blah.

    Sorry, but I find Mieville both arrogant and insulting, here. He’s just not for me, as a writer.

  18. I read an ARC of The City and The City a while back. I’ve always found China Mieville’s writing to be gorgeous but frustrating. This is the first of his books that I want to reread! And the first time I’ve seen him make his characters as compelling as his cities.

  19. If “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is the first true detective story (a fairly big if, but still arguable), then the second true detective story is an explicit exercise in failing to collapse the quantum possibilities of the crime. “The Mystery of Marie Roget” doesn’t name a killer, but simply narrows down to the possible killers to all the single individuals, as opposed to groups.

    It even begins, after the epigraph, like so:

    There are few persons, even among the calmest thinkers, who have not occasionally been startled into a vague yet thrilling half-credence in the supernatural, by coincidences of so seemingly marvellous a character that, as mere coincidences, the intellect has been unable to receive them. Such sentiments –for the half-credences of which I speak have never the full force of thought — such sentiments are seldom thoroughly stifled unless by reference to the doctrine of chance, or, as it is technically termed, the Calculus of Probabilities. Now this Calculus is, in its essence, purely mathematical; and thus we have the anomaly of the most rigidly exact in science applied to the shadow and spirituality of the most intangible in speculation.

  20. By happenstance that was the first Agatha Christie I ever read, and it took me a while to recover from it!

    Yeah, it would. Ouch. You read it right after seeing The Crying Game, right?

  21. Dammit, this one might actually manage to distract me from the Robert Jordan I’m trying to re-read.

    DG Lewis @17> Yeah, basically. More ‘ey’ than ‘eh’, but I’m not too good at transcribing sounds I’m afraid.

  22. Mr Mieville has quite a way with sentence structure. I’m about half way through and am finding it quite enjoyable, but it takes a few paragraphs to get back into the story (after a break) due to the weird cadence he uses. I really struggle to explain the book to my wife. That’s how I know its good :)

  23. I tried to read Mieville’s “Perdido Street Station” and found that not only was the city a character, but it was one that would not shut up

    Just like a major metropolis. (Which is not to say that you “should have” liked it, btw.)

    I’d be interested to see Mieville’s take on Terry Pratchett’s crime novels – and yes, they’re Discworld novels so genre’d as fantasy, but don’t tell me Night Watch or Feet of Clay aren’t really crime novels.

  24. after reading china m’s post, i promise NOT to read this book…quotidian gazzette…blech

  25. Have anyone tried Julius Falconer? He is developing the whodunnit as an intellectual challenge in which the reader is given exactly the same information as the detective and can therefore solve the mystery before him – if he or she is clever enough, of course!

  26. I think I’ve worked out why none of China Mieville’s characters talk like actual human beings. It’s because he doesn’t either. His editor calls him in and says “Look, you have to rewrite this bit, the conversation sounds incredibly stilted and the vocabulary’s really weird” and he just looks at her and goes “Really? You think so? As the idiolect’s inspiration led, torrent of uncertain nuance, so I related this cromulent interphrasis” and then she sighs to herself and wonders if it’s too late for a nice job in children’s publishing or something.

  27. I think Perdido Street Station and The Scar are brilliant but I could not get through Iron Council.

    I do love mystery/crime procedurals (Ian Rankin’s Inspector John Rebus anyone?) so I will give The City & The City a try…

  28. by Mieville’s own reckoning (i.e., based on what he says here), The City & the City doesn’t subvert the crime genre at all–not structurally, at least. there’s the same structure of collapsing superpositions; the disappointing collapse of possibilities at the end remains disappointing after the final reveal. or maybe you mean to say that C&C is thematically subversive, in that the book isn’t really ‘about’ the crime at its heart but about the mystery of the cities themselves? (in that sense i’d argue that writers like Ellroy and Peace make more interesting ‘thematic subversions’ with their books.) at any rate, it seems to me that with his (admittedly brilliant) deconstruction, he’s also given us an excuse for his book’s failings–like, he didn’t even try…(don’t get me wrong, i enjoyed C&C–it’s definitely Mieville’s best work to date. i just think that, in spite of being a great read, it’s still vastly overrated and didn’t quite achieve its ambitions.)

    meanwhile, following Mieville’s thinking, then i’d say Roberto Bolaño hit the nail on the head with his approach to ‘subverting the genre’ in The Skating Rink.

  29. How does Priestley’s An Inspector Calls – complete with time loops, retroactive/pre-emptive guilt of all concerned , and the crime recurring for real after the deduction has been staged and found everyone guilty/complicit for something yet to happen?

    But in some ways it isn’t really a detective story at all, since the conclusion one draws is the guilt of the suspects insofar as members of an indifferent society.

  30. I will be searching for the book in a downloadable format for my dads Kindle, crime novels are his favourite but I like the fantasty world of Sherlock Holmes.