The Mystery of Speculative Fiction: THE HEALER and THE CITY AND THE CITY
Murder mysteries and speculative fiction are two very different genres. But what would happen if Hercule Poirot had an excursion into Twilight, or Detective Inspector Rebus found himself stranded in The Hunger Games? To what extent can each genre enrich and enliven the reader’s experience of the other? Can the combination be more than the sum of its parts?
China Mieville’s The City and The City is a police procedural murder mystery that starts with the first person protagonist Inspector Tyador Borlu attending the discovery of a body and then going on to navigate a most complex environment of fantastically entangled jurisdictions. Mieville is a fantasy author of some distinction, known for Perdido Street Station yet with many other fictional works to his credit. He came to The City and The City with a deliberate intent to write a fantasy mystery – indeed, to stretch his creative muscles by writing in as many different genres and cross-overs as possible. He also brings to The City and The City a perspective on society, borders, and global capitalism.
Antti Tuomainen’s The Healer (translated by Lola Rogers) follows a concerned and poetic husband – another first-person protagonist – Tapani Lehntinen, in pursuit of his missing wife through the streets of a future Helsinki as systems of polite society are crumbling in the face of global climate change. In Tuomainen’s collapsing society the chaos of climate change has fractured the norms of police work and journalism. People work through the motions of everyday life while dreaming of an escape to “the North,” away from flooding and deprivation. The impact of climate change pervades not just the investigative processes but the crimes themselves.
Mieville has an interest in international law – indeed, has written an academic text on the subject (“Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law”) – and the cities Borlu inhabits comprise the ultimate test of international legalities. In a world that is essentially our own, Mieville throws up a fantastic split city somewhere in Eastern Europe – a conjoined twin that has existed for centuries. Borlu and his partner Corwi speak scornfully of having been invited to a conference on policing split cities like Jerusalem or Berlin or Budapest, as though those splits could have any relevance for the complexity of Beszel and Ul Qoma.
In contemplating Mieville’s mind-stretching urban vista, I found myself thinking of a calzone pizza, as if East Berlin had been folded along the boundary of the Berlin Wall and superimposed on top of West Berlin. The boundary along the wall is the obvious point of connection between the cities in my analogy. However, Mieville compresses this line into a point, like the neck of an hourglass, at a place common to both cities called Copula Hall. This is the only legitimate border or point of crossing between the two city states. However, to stretch my pizza analogy some more, there are places where the toppings of one city/half-pizza have mingled with those of the other city. Here the cities are “cross-hatched;” citizens of one can see into the parallel city that shares their space, and one can even cross illegitimately from one city to the other.
When it appears the murder was committed in Ul Qoma but that the body was dumped in Beszel there is an immediate international dimension to the crime. Even more so, when it appears that the body must have been moved illegally between the cities making Borlu eager to invoke the enigmatic supranational authority of “Breach” who police the interstitiality between the cities.
Mieville plays with these jurisdictional conflicts, dividing his story into sections corresponding to which city Borlu is in. An engaging mis-matched partner dynamic drives the story along. It’s not quite like Schwarzenegger and Belushi in “Red Heat,” or Tucker and Chan in “Rush Hour” but nonetheless an interesting and fluid conflict of systems, styles and personalities that Borlu has to tiptoe his way around.
Bazsel and Ul Qoman have a difficult history – they’ve even gone to war in the past – and their hidden archaeological depths are of worldwide interest. Though twinned, they are far from identical, with differences in style, taste and governance. Not quite a city of dog lovers nested with a city of cat lovers, but certainly tea drinkers versus coffee drinkers. At this point in the twinned city cycle, Ul Qoma is in a commercial ascendancy something like the economic growth that catapulted China up the world GDP league tables and Beszel is very much the poor relation. However, the complexities of intermingled city life present challenges for visitors from the normal beyond, who must go through training and acclimatisation way beyond the still complex visa requirements those travelling beyond the EU are used to.
The differences of design and architecture, even legally permissible colour, between the cities are essential to aid citizens in avoiding the crime of breach, the crime of demonstrably noticing someone or something from the other co-located city. Borlu is forever having to “unsee” or “unhear” people or events that are happening beside him yet in a different city. Along the way Mieville invents some delightful new words such as topolganger for buildings inhabiting the same co-ordinates but in different cities.
I realise I am waxing somewhat lyrical about the worldbuilding which is utterly unique, without saying too much about the characters, but then as others have noted setting is a character, locations are actors in an unfolding drama, few more powerfully than the urban beast that is Beszel and Ul Qoma.
However, the team of police officers, Borlu, Corwi and Dhatt make for a skilfully painted yet also totally discrete trio.
Borlu appeals particularly to those calligraphically challenged like me as he notes “I made and read notes that would be illegible to anyone else and to me in an hour’s time.”
He observes of his Ul Quoman counterpart Dhatt: “While we sat there he did a gracious job, in truth, of obscuring the fact that he did not like me.”
Mieville’s concern with international law and the pursuit of international crimes permeates the story and he uses the complex boundaries of his two cities to make a drama more compelling even than a Le Carre tale set in and around the simple linear shadow of the Berlin Wall. The theme of crimes initiated in one place but brought to fruition in another challenges the expectations of traditional crime fiction. Agatha Christie’s crimes are constrained within a single national boundary, maybe even with a single country-house estate. With his interlocked cities, Mieville can not only tell a great story but play with our concepts of borders and justice in ways that only speculative fiction can. This pair of the closest of neighbouring states does provoke thoughts about international and intranational relations and authorities. However, Mieville is very careful to tease out, without trampling all over them, the subtleties of the legal positions the police officers and criminals find themselves in.
There are plenty of lovely lines and images, such as when Borlu’s exasperated but lightly comic superior “pointed the remote control at me, as if he could stop me or rewind me;” or when Borlu and Corwi happen upon some hardened thugs: “Their efforts to claim the street were so overt they might as well have been pissing musk.”
Tuomainen’s takes the mystery genre into a setting that again is recognisably our own world – a near future vision when the bite of climate change has reached as far North as Helsinki. Our first world protagonist is a poet whose wife – an investigative journalist – has gone missing. That opening discombobulation reminded me of Josiah Bancroft’s Senlin Ascends – the tortured spousal anxiety of the separated couple very much in love. We fear Lehntien may experience a separation as bitter as Ricky Gervais’ bereaved husband in Afterlife. Another story with which this resonated for me was the tale of the Danish Journalist Kim Wall, horrifically murdered when on assignment making a story about the owner of a midget submarine.
Lehntien’s wife, Johanna, has been investigating a serial killer calling himself the Healer. He has been on a murdering spree of individuals he holds accountable, through their greed or inaction, for contributing to the now irreversible climate crisis. The Healer’s brutality extends to murdering his victims’ families and he has picked out Johanna for emails of eager self-justification.
The story’s speculative element derives from the chaotic impacts of climate change, a backdrop of worldwide refugees and increasing severe weather events that compromise the city infrastructure. In a slowly disintegrating society – like a sandcastle succumbing in stages to a rising tide – the offices of the police and the press are full of vacant desks. The police lack the resources to pursue a serial killer let alone a missing journalist, and the papers are concerned more with the latest indiscretions of a rockstar and her horse than crime or politics. The sad hit of serotonin from a vicarious experience of celebrity disgrace is all the readership seek in a bid to dampen their awareness of a world gone mad. Rotting buildings and brutal private security firms abound as all who can afford to have fled North to the expensive and transient safety in new towns on higher ground in Lapland.
The action unfolds in a couple of days before Christmas as Lehntien, who has never been out of contact with his wife for more than a few hours, grows anxious at the ominous twenty-four hour silence that has followed a call saying she was chasing up a lead on the Healer. The plot is a hybrid of amateur sleuth and police procedural as Lehntien draws on his own resources and those of the over-stretched authorities in trying to track down his missing spouse. There is a touching tenderness in the reveries he has of his life with Johanna – reminiscent again of Thomas Senlin thinking of his absent Marya – but unsurprisingly Lehntien’s investigations bring him into plenty of danger.
Tuomainen’s work suffers only occasionally from the perils of translation. Language is a strange thing and converting idiom as well as meaning is a task I know I am utterly unequal to. Friends who are bilingual tell me there is a huge difference in reading books in the original language or in translation, yet it is testament to Tuomainen’s work and Lola Rogers’ skill as translator that I found plenty of lines to smile at.
“It occurred to me that when we repeat things, it isn’t always for the purpose of convincing other people.”
Or, when describing the fallout between his missing wife and her boss, Lehntien observes “the ripples from those clashes had come ashore even at home.”
The plot has moments of weakness, the kind of potholes (or plot holes) that might upset a more discerning reader, but I was happy to skate over them, sustained by the central dramatic tension of man seeking wife. Along the way he and we find out he did not know his wife as well as he thought.
Like Mieville, Toumainen exploits his speculative setting both to engineer a different kind of investigation – an amateur-police hybrid, and also to drive the motivation behind the crime. The apocalyptic collapse that Toumainen is charting may stray towards the extreme ends of the shared socio-economic pathways that Geographers have envisaged for the second half of the twenty-first century. However, the recent history (near future for us) that he describes is all too credible – every effort to mobilise opinion and action to address climate change stymied by the weight of big business and their monetary muscle. The transnational corporations that mere national governments must bow down to.
We assume regulation and common sense will ultimately prevail. However, the reaction we have seen of entrenched interests to dismiss a simple plea from a schoolgirl to “listen to the scientists” make that optimism seem bleakly unfounded. That narrative drives both Tounaimen’s setting and his antagonist.
However, ironically with Tounaimen’s tale (as with Mieville’s) the answer to the crime lies in money. If you want to know the truth in speculative crime fiction, as much as in electoral shenanigans, follow the money!