Inspector Tyador Borlu works for the police in Besźel, an ancient city in Eastern Europe. He’s assigned to investigate the death of an American female student found brutally murdered in a skate park. His investigation soon leads to the conclusion that the woman had been dabbling in dubious political thinking and mixing with the wrong groups, and that she was killed in the twin city of Ul Qomo, an entirely different jurisdiction. In order to solve the case he crosses the border where he is assigned to work as an observer with the Ul Qomo police force. Borlu though doesn’t take orders well and is soon making a nuisance of himself and is back conducting his own investigation. The nearer he moves towards uncovering the truth, however, the more he realizes he is putting himself and others in danger.
The City, The City is in many ways a straight up and down police procedural that is political inflected by trans-jurisdictional and office machinations. The plotting is solid and the writing nicely expressive. The characterisation is a little thin in places, especially with respect to personal lives and back story of the principal characters. It took me quite a while to get into the book, but once I was, I was hooked and it turned into a nice page turner, though I thought the ending with respect to the murder faltered a little, but not with respect to the personal outcomes and wider city politics. The key distinguishing feature of the book is its geographical imagination, which reminded me of the work of Philip K Dick and William Gibson. The twin cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma, the architecture, the complex geometry and the densely woven sense of place play a heightened role in the narrative. The two cities are literally entwined in and through each other in complex ways to produce a unique spatiality that bought to mind the complex geographies of contested cities such as Jerusalem, Belfast and Quebec. Besźel and Ul Qoma operate as a separate jurisdiction (with separate governments, cultures, languages, institutions, currency, fashions and so on), with some parts of the city being territorially ‘total’ (that is wholly Besźel or Ul Qoma) or ‘cross-hatched’ where the city space is notionally shared. Citizens are trained to ‘unsee’ and ignore the other city, even though it is clearly visible to them, and in the cross-hatched spaces that they share they have to avoid contact whilst continuing to ‘unsee’ who or what they might collide with. Failing to stay within a jurisdiction and to unsee the other city is to breach, a terrible crime policed by the shadowy organization known as Breach that has extended powers to punish those that transgress (those that breach are never seen again, which acts as a strong deterrent). Copula Hall is a key location which exists in both cities and acts as a border; effectively the only location through with citizens can officially pass from one city to the other. The geography of the city then very explicitly shapes everyday life and how citizens understand and interact with the landscape they live in. Overall, a fascinating read that does something different and interesting with the police procedural format.