The City and the City by China Mieville (2009) 373 p.

Beszel and Ul Qoma are twin cities. Beszel is a decaying former communist city similar to Sofia or Bucharest; Ul Qoma is a secular Islamic city similar to Istanbul, which has recently undergone an economic revival. The residents of the two cities have different cultures, languages, ethnic attributes and politics. They are not twin cities in the sense that they neighbour each other: they occupy the same physical space, with citizens learning from birth to “unsee” those buildings and citizens which are not a part of their world. The City and the City is a detective novel taking place within this strange world, in which a resident of Ul Qoma is found dead in Beszel, meaning that either she or her killer committed the gravest crime possible: that of “breach,” unauthorised passage between the two cities. The case develops further unsettling implications when the protagonist, investigating detective Inspector Borlu, receives a phone call with information from Ul Qoma – not an act of breach, because it’s properly routed through international lines, but problematic because the informant claims to have seen a poster of the murder victim that Borlu put up in Beszel.

Cities have always been at the heart of China Mieville’s work, but it’s safe to say that Beszel and Ul Qoma are his boldest and most creative fictional cities yet. The concept, which seems so implausible as to be unworkable even as a fantasy concept, is made real and convincing through Mieville’s details. Beszel and Ul Qoma exist in the modern day, in real Europe: Beszel has connecting flights to Athens and Budapest, the US government has a trade embargo on Ul Qoma, Chuck Palahniuk wrote a novel set in the cities, Inspector Borlu once attended a policing conference called “Policing Split Cities” which dealt with Berlin, Jerusalem, and Beszel and Ul Qoma. (“Totally missing the point,” he says.)

The concept of “unseeing” – of studiously avoiding looking at citizens of the other city, of pretending you do not see them – seems ridiculous, but it does not hold perfectly. “Breach” is the name of both the act of breaking this legal and moral code, and the name of the powerful (and possibly inhuman) agency which punishes such errors. Besz and Ul Qomans alike view Breach with fear and awe, and by the culmination of the novel, so does the reader – leading to a very neat police chase with Borlu in one city and his quarry in another, which ends in a shocking way.

I naturally expected this to be a political book – Mieville is a political writer, and the concept of two cities (and of “unseeing”) brings to mind a whole range of themes. Consider London, where I live now, which has billionaires living in penthouse suites and mansions in Chelsea, and immigrants living ten to a room in Tower Hamlets. Consider the various ethnic ghettoes, or the way we avoid eye contact with homeless people, or the way nobody speaks to or looks at each other on a crowded train. The concept of “unseeing” becomes much less silly when you consider that everyone in a big city does it every day – Mieville has simply taken it to its extreme.

The City and the City is the best of Mieville’s books I’ve yet read, not just for the originality and execution of its concept, but because – unlike the Bas-Lag trilogy – it’s tightly edited and far less flowery and rambling Mieville used to be. Perhaps this is because he was trying to emulate the Raymond Chandler detective novel style, but I hope it’s because he’s also developing as a writer. Even if you have been underwhelmed by Mieville in the past – as I was – I can strongly recommend The City and the City.