A stand-alone speculative fiction detective story.
Finnish name: Toiset (the others)
Publication year: 2009
Publication year of the Finnish translation: 2011
Translator: J. Pekka Mäkelä
Page count: 367
Publisher of the Finnish translation: Karisto
Beszel is a divided city but not in a physical way. Inside and beside it is another city, Ul Qoma, which is different legally, culturally, and especially in the minds of the citizens of both city states. Daily, they see the buildings and people of the other city but must ignore and unsee them. If they don’t, they are guilty of a breach which the most heinous crime either city has. Breaches are governed by the mysterious organization called the Breach. They are the bogie men making sure that the citizens of two cities keep apart from each other. This book is really a hard-broiled detective story but in fantastical cities.
Detective Inspector Tyador Borlú works for the Beszel Extreme Crime Squad and the story begins when he’s called to a murder scene. A young woman has been found dead. At first, the police suspect that she’s a prostitute. But soon Borlú gets a mysterious phone call which tells him otherwise. The call comes from Ul Qoma which is, of course, almost a breach.
Borlú recruits a young constable to help him. Lizbyet Corwi knows the streets better than the inspector and acts as a back-up and a sounding boards too. Together they suspect the unificationists, who want to unite the two cities, and nationalists who want to keep the cities apart. But their investigation leads inexorably towards the other city Ul Qoma.
The two cities’ relationship is fascinating and Miéville spends a lot of time clarifying it to us. In the end, the book is about how people’s perceptions and thoughts shape our reality. How what we’ve been taught (from birth) shapes the way we see other people and buildings around us. In this story, if the house next door to you belongs to the other city, you aren’t allowed to see it, or the people walking beside you if you think that they belong to the other city.
Borlú is a pretty typical detective. He’s a good cop and very soon he starts to care about the dead woman and her life, putting even his own career in jeopardy in order to find out what happened to her. Corwi trusts him and backs him up all the way, even though they don’t seem to have any special relationship before the story. There’s very little character development and the vast majority of the story is Borlú and his companion interviewing people and making deductions.
While Miéville follows many of the definitions for a hard-boiled detective story, one refreshing element for me was the lack of misogyny. Yes, some of the women are victims but Corwi is a fellow police officer and Borlú clearly needs and depends on her. However, personally I could have done without the constant swearing.
The story doesn’t have fantasy or science fiction elements beyond the two cities. It’s set during our time with people using cell phones and email. But Beszel is a poor city so the cops don’t have newest equipment, the streets have litter and run-down houses, cars are old. Ul Qoma is more modern with newer buildings and richer people. They seem to be somewhere in Eastern Europe which was a pleasant surprise because a lot of fantasy/sci-fi books which aren’t set in a secondary world or off planet are set in USA.
The concept of the two cities was far more fascinating to me than the plot or the characters.
I read the Finnish translation and for a while I thought Ul Qoma was the translator’s choice, translating whatever the English word had been for the other city. That’s because a Finn pronounces the city’s name close to what in Finnish would mean “Foreign land” (ulkomaat). But I see that Ul Qoma is the city’s original name. Funny coincidence.