I don’t remember how I first found out about Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy – it just sort of stumbled onto my reading list. Which is appropriate, because this is one of the most mysterious and baffling books I ever read.
There’s no easy way to describe the Trilogy, which is sort-of-but-not-really a spoof of detective novels overlaid with a navel-gazing exploration of identity and what fiction is and how it intersects with reality. Sort of. But not really. The first instalment, City of Glass, follows a writer who assumes the identity of a private detective named Paul Auster (yeah) and becomes obsessed with tracking a creepy client’s even creepier father. Book two, Ghosts, is about another private eye, Blue, who also becomes obsessed with a case – watching a man called Black. And part three, The Locked Room, is about a writer who unwittingly takes over the life of a friend.
Reading the trilogy is kind of like watching Lost – for all that TV drama’s (many, many) flaws, at its best it summoned up a sense of foreboding mystery, that something dark and deep and important lurked below its surface. The Trilogy evokes that same feeling of ominous, “What the fuck is going here?” wonder. As everyone in the world knows, Lost failed (terribly, horribly failed) at tying it all up into something at the end. But The New York Trilogy succeeds, and it probably succeeds because it doesn’t attempt to boil everything down into a straight-forward explanation*. (“They’re all in the afterlife!”) It just presents a conclusion that is as oblique and utterly batshit as everything that came before it. You either buy it or you don’t; I bought it.
*In fairness to Lost, though, the Trilogy doesn’t have reams of characters who each need their own semblance of a farewell – which probably makes its opaque ending more palatable.
Really I guess that title should be “The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith”, except we all know how that whole attempted pseudonym thing work out, so I’ll just stick with “J.K. Rowling”.
There’s been talk of Rowling penning a crime novel for years, since even before she wrote those little-known books about that magic kid whose name escapes me. It turns out she’s as deft at detectives as she is at wizards and witches: Rowling’s prose is rarely that remarkable, but her stories are always captivating, hard to step away from.
Cuckoo’s Calling starts with the suicide of supermodel Lula Landry, who leaps from the balcony of her London penthouse on a snowy, silent night. The rabid British press feasts on her death for a while, till she’s swept aside into the heap of forgotten celebrity carcasses. That’s when Lula’s adopted brother John approaches private detective Cormoran Strike, convinced Lula was murdered. Strike starts poking around in the case, and – what do you know – finds that the circumstances of Lula’s death are darker and more complicated than they seem.
I don’t know how Rowling does it, but she’s terrific at constructing fictional worlds that are believable and organic. Her mythologies never feel forced. Strike’s London is as alive as Hogwarts, rich with secrets and shadows and intriguing characters – especially Lula, who’s vividly realised even though she never speaks and dies on pretty much the first page, but especially Strike, a wounded war veteran struggling to hold his personal and professional lives together. He’s such a big, striking (no pun intended) character I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s been knocking around in Rowling’s head for almost as long as Harry Potter has.
Like all good detective fiction, Rowling throws out scores of seemingly innocent details. If you’ve played the crime game before you know most of them are red herrings, but a tantalising few are clues to the identity of Lula’s killer/s. The conclusion is satisfying and melodramatic and expertly tied up, but it’s still disappointing to come to the end and have the mystery all laid out for you – because it means your time spent mulling over those clues is over.
Previously: The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling
The City and the City pretty much boils down to “the old versus the new”. First, the old: this is, at heart, a detective novel of the hardbitten classic variety, wherein world-weary investigator probes violent death of seemingly mundane woman and stumbles into much larger mystery which shadowy forces conspire to stop him solving.
China Mieville’s detective here is Inspector Tyador Borlu – a rather affable chap, especially by the hard-drinking, hardboiled standards of the genre – a life-long resident of Beszel, a history-rich Eastern-European city that’s falling to pieces as it absorbs bits of the modern world. Borlu speaks on his mobile phone while dodging trams and street vendors, struggles to fire up the internet in his crumbling apartment block. (Mieville’s descriptions of Beszel are marvellous, evoking dark blues and concrete greys; the place feels so vivid.)
The old in The City and the City would, on its own, add up to a great-if-not-especially-memorable read. But it’s the new that is so dazzlingly clever and effortlessly complex: Borlu occupies the same physical space as another city, Ul Qoma. One location, two cities. They overlap, blurring into one another while maintaining separate identities: Ul Qoma’s culture is different, its economy wealthier, its skyline punctured with shiny skyscrapers.
Here’s where it gets interesting (well, more interesting): the respective citizens of Beszel and Ul Qoma can see each other, but they’ve learned to “unsee” each other. Acknowledging the other city, or crossing between the two, is a srious crime that invokes Breach – the shady agency that comes down hard on rule-breakers.
This makes Borlu’s investigation tricky. It’s unclear which city the victim was actually murdered in. He believes the whole case should be handed to Breach – though someone is refusing to move it up the chain, forcing Berlu to stick with an increasingly perilous investigation. In the hands of a less capable writer the unfolding plot of The City and the City would have become hopelessly byzantine, but Mieville keeps the details nailed to the page. I admire his creativity – the book has one hell of a premise – but his plotting and style are just as admirable.
Now I gotta go read The Windup Girl, which tied with The City and the City for best novel at the recent Hugo Awards. If it’s as absorbing and impressive as City it’s a must-read.
I bought Finch off the back of a very enthusiastic review, not realising it’s the third book in a sort-of-series – while each book stands alone, together they form the Ambergris Cycle.
Kinda wish I’d known that before picking it up (a quick spot of Googling does wonders, kids), because there’s a lot about Finch that was difficult to wrap my head around – stuff I’m sure would’ve made a lot more sense if I’d had a fuller understanding of the backstory.
That said: I enjoyed Finch a lot. It’s the second noirish-detective novel I’ve read in as many months, but it could not be more different to The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. The premise is eye-poppingly original (synopsis here; the book’s set in a bleak, crumbling city where super-creepy mushroom people oppress humanity), and while the plot meanders into confusing territory, Vandermeer’s writing is stark and powerful.
The titular Finch, a detective “tasked with solving an impossible double murder”, is an appropriately gloomy protag, and the world he inhabits is appropriately apocalyptic – Ambergris is a compelling place, but one I’d stay faaaaar away from if it actually existed.
But it’s also one I’d like to visit again via the safety of books. Will definitely add earlier entries in the Ambergris Cycle to my ever-expanding to-read list…