Mieville takes a stab and grab at both the detective mystery genre and the allegorical locale by creating the twin cities of Ul Qoma and Beszel, located somewhere in central or eastern Europe and sitting literally on top of each other but with more strict and terrifying border control than the US/Mexican border. The cities are crosshatched — a building might be half in Ul Qoma and half in Beszel and construction crews would have to work specifically on their side without acknowledging the other. Pedestrians are trained to ‘unsee’ the opposing city, motorists to casually drive around their counterparts while actively not noticing them.
Why all this? The most general, cosmic ‘why’ is never answered but the personal ‘why’ is that if you’re a citizen of one of these city-countries and break the rules, cross over to the other side, then you’re at the mercy of a shadowy organization known only as Breach. People who breach the invisible line are nabbed by Breach and don’t tend to be seen again.
A woman from Ul Qoma turns up dead in an alley in Beszel. And the Extreme Crime Squad is on the case.
Our first-person protagonist, Detective Tyador Borlu, is a pastiche of gruff cop stereotypes. His clinical, largely unemotional demeanor even while the truly baffling is occurring is an anchor or counter to the setting and maybe-magical murder that is afoot. The book has an odd flow as it’s intriguing while we’re introduced to the mechanics of The City and The City, though a bit dry. The middle bits start to drag a bit, but then halfway through, the action picks up and the tale accelerates, not stopping until the murder is solved, the killer unmasked, the supernatural mystery explained.
The premise is excellent and not enough can be said about it. Usually I scoff at setting or ‘systems’ within sci-fi/fantasy as the reason to read it, while pining for great prose or character work. The City and The City has serviceable prose and forgettable characters but the setting is seriously compelling and fun. Mieville gets you to believe, really earnestly accept, something completely ridiculous. I think we’re supposed to laugh at the political drama of the ultra-nationalists or punky, idealistic unificationists of each city, since the boundary between them is so absurd, but it doesn’t take much thought to apply the same analysis on real life versions of the same. The political allegory is present but never laid on thick, and Mieville leaves you to make your conclusions on how these nonsense cities are reflected in the real world.
The actual identity of the killer is disappointing by way of his totally weak and unbelievable motive, but that’s almost a staple of detective fiction itself. The journey, not the destination. That’s what’s important. And for this particular book, the city you’re presently in. Whichever it is.