Follow TV Tropes


Literature / The City & the City

Go To
The City & the City is a 2009 New Weird crime novel by China Miéville.

Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad of the decaying Ruritanian city-state of Besźel is tasked to investigate the murder of an apparent prostitute. However, things are (obviously) more complicated than they initially appear, and his investigation turns international when he is forced to cross over to the sister-city of Ul Qoma to continue his work. What makes this more than your average Murder Mystery is the fact that Ul Qoma happens to be geographically - grosstopically, to use the local phrase - in the same location as Besźel.

No, not just "next to", but literally the same place as Besźel.

In this unique double-city, streets and buildings are regarded as being either part of Besźel or part of Ul Qoma, sometimes with the location changing for individual rooms within buildings or tiny patches of ground. There are neighborhoods of Ul Qoma that are exclusively Ul Qoman, and neighborhoods of Besźel that are exclusively Besź, but when people go to locations that are 'cross-hatched' (part Besź, part Ul Qoman), they must "unsee" what is in the other city-state unless they formally cross borders. To travel between the cities includes the full process of national travel, requiring visas, passports and customs agents. If they ever allow themselves to recognize that there is a person or building in front of them that—legally speaking—is in another city, they draw the attention of Breach, the dreaded power that enforces the separation.

As Borlú goes deeper into his initial murder investigation, he likewise gets drawn into whispered rumors of a third city, Orciny, that exists between the two cities everybody else can see.

In April 2018, a four-part miniseries adaptation premiered on BBC Two, with David Morrissey as Borlú.

This novel provides examples of:

  • Agent Provocateur: The Unificationists are heavily infiltrated by the police so that they can be kept in line and controlled. There are so many cops that everybody, including the unifs, say that there are more cops than honest members.
  • Alien Geometries: To the perspective of people in one city, people and places of the other city are not there. In order to travel between buildings that are grosstopically side-by-side you need to travel to the legal border between the cities (Which might be miles away), legally emigrate, and then come back. Trash and rain are the only objects which travel freely between the cities. For everything else it does not matter where you are, all that matters is which city you are in.
  • Ancient Conspiracy: Orciny is hinted to be this throughout the novel. It's a lie put forward by a self-aggrandising academic, sick of being put down for his Old Shame.
  • Bad Cop/Incompetent Cop: In the introductory chapters, Borlú and Corwi discuss how the Besźel police have "come a long way". The murder of an apparent prostitute is getting more attention than it would have even a few years ago, and Inspector Naustin is not complaining about being assigned to question the local streetwalkers despite the fact that he must resent the duty. However, Borlú still expects a lot of the support to disappear once it becomes official that the victim was a prostitute, and not even the good cops can keep the bad ones from roughing up suspects and witnesses.
  • Bilingual Bonus: Because of Besźel and Ul Qoma's influence from many different people, many words of Besź and Illitan are the same as (Or similar to) words in real-world languages. "Besźel" itself could be a corruption of the Hungarian word "beszél", meaning "(he/she) talks".
  • Bittersweet Ending: Borlú solved the crime of Mahalia's murder and shut down the artefact smuggling operation, but Yolanda died during the investigation, both cities have suffered extensive damage and deaths due to the unification riots, and Borlú has been forcibly recruited into Breach.
  • Black-and-Grey Morality: Borlú works in a police department that is lax with civil rights in a generally corrupt government, and when he teams up with Dhatt in Ul Qoma he sees that their police are even more brutal in their treatment of citizens and abuses of power (Dhatt in particular is implied to be extorting money and services from businesses with the "police discounts" he receives, and he beats up a potential informant/witness in order to get a different informant/witness to talk). However, despite their methods they both want to catch Mahalia's killer, and when it comes down to it they would rather risk their careers—and their lives—than abandon innocent people to death.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: Dhatt, oh Dhatt. "Even though of course those fuckers, those fuckers more than any other fuckers — and we have our share of fuckers." Also see his paragraph-long Cluster F-Bomb during his interrogation.
  • Culture Chop Suey: Both Besźel and Ul Qoma are a blend of cultures and languages from Eastern Europe and Western Asia. The city's name "Besźel" is a nod to the Hungarian expression for "he/she talks" (beszél), with the demonym/language name "Besź" meaning "speech" or (by extension) "people who speak [the language]". "Ul Qoma" seems to be an altered transliteration of the Arabic Al Iqama, which is the second call to prayer in Islam. Besź is written with an alphabet that is visually similar to Cyrillic (But is emphatically not actually that alphabet), while Illitan is written using the Latin alphabet after a cultural revolution early in the twentieth century and is described as a mix between Arabic and Sanskrit. Despite these influences from many sources, both countries have sharply xenophobic tendencies, and restrict the immigration of Africans, Arabs and Asians.
  • Culture Equals Costume: Besźel and Ul Qoma have different styles of dress and national colors used for buildings and decoration, which make it easy to tell who is in your city and who isn't. These different styles are rigidly enforced to prevent breaching. It becomes tricky when dealing with the small enclaves in each city composed of immigrants from the other city, since their restaurants selling 'home' food need to be decorated to match their ancestry as part of the tourist experience, but not so much that they actually look like they're still in their old city.
  • Damned by Faint Praise: Borlú deliberately places these barbs at the climax. Borlú tells Bowden that Yolanda and her boyfriend had truly believed in the myth of Orciny that he had invented, and which Mahalia had seen through. Since Bowden had earlier in the novel dismissed Yolanda as not the brightest student, and her boyfriend was an outright stupid pretty-boy security guard at the dig, Borlú knows this point is like a knife in Bowden's already badly damaged ego.
  • Decade Dissonance: For a long time, Besźel was the more technologically advanced city because Ul Qoma was under economic embargo by the United States, and the roads were filled with Qoman donkey traps alongside Besź motor cars. Now the situation is reversed, and Besźel is stuck with late-80s infrastructure - dial-up internet and rickety cars - while Ul Qoma is awash with skyscrapers and broadband due to a technological and archeological boom. It's implied this is necessary for the separation to keep working - without being able to tell at a glance what city a building or vehicle belongs to, a citizen is perpetually at risk of Breaching.
  • Disposable Sex Worker: The killer slaps a thick coating of makeup on Mahalia's face before her body is dumped in the hopes that she will be mistaken for a prostitute when discovered. Conversation indicates that the Besźel police do not historically have a solid track record in investigating crimes against prostitutes, and even after noting that they have "come a long way" Borlú still expects a lot of his support to disappear once it is official that the body is a sex worker. It turns out that the victim isn't a sex worker, and things get significantly more complicated.
  • Don't You Dare Pity Me!: Borlú theorizes that what finally drove Bowden to murder Mahalia was that she did not come to him to accuse him or harangue him, but instead to warn him. When he realized that she thought he had been tricked, that she never even considered that he was behind everything, it drove him over the edge after so many decades of being scoffed at by the public.
  • Evil Is Petty: Towards the middle of the book, Borlú begins to suspect that Orciny really does exist, and that there really is some sort of Ancient Conspiracy surrounding the cities that is working towards some ultimate end. Eventually, he discovers that the entire affair was just a theft and smuggling ring working for a few thousand dollars, bankrolled by the idle curiosity of a foreign CEO and "masterminded" by a corrupt city councilman and discredited academic. There is no Ancient Conspiracy, it was just personal greed and arrogance.
  • Felony Misdemeanor: Breaching is a much worse crime than anything else that could be committed in either Besź or Ul Qoma. The police invoke the omnipotent Breach to deal with the murder case not because of how heinous the murder was, but because she was murdered in Ul Qoma but dumped in Besźel. When her American parents fly in to Besźel, they are outraged that the police are not investigating the case more thoroughly. They just don't understand that calling in Breach to deal with a case is akin to summoning God to enact divine retribution upon a wrongdoer - or, at least, that's how the two cities see it.
  • First-Name Basis: When Borlú introduces himself to the teenage witnesses in the first chapter, he internally considers how he should refer to himself. If they were younger he would have introduced himself as "I'm Tyador", but he thinks that they are too old now for euphemisms and first names so he sticks to professionalism and introduces himself as "Inspector Borlú".
  • Flock of Wolves: Nearly every mention of the Unificationists from the very beginning of the book has people commenting that most of their members are actually cops undercover. Even the unifs make the same comments themselves. This is used to emphasize that the unifs are not actually a threat in either city.
  • For Want of a Nail: Bowden had intended to dispose of Mahalia's body in a canal, weighing the corpse down with junk metal, but ironically enough, Bowden's map was out-of-date, and so Mahalia's body ended up being disposed of in a skate park that had been built in the meantime.
  • Good Cop/Bad Cop: Ramira Yaszek sits in on Inspector Naustin questioning some witnesses because Borlú knows that he is liable to get violent if left alone, but not even her presence can stop him from roughing them up when one starts talking back. Afterwards she manages to morph it into her playing "good cop" after they had seen Naustin as "bad cop".
  • Hidden Agenda Villain: Yolanda explains that Orciny is not "stealing" artefacts, they are taking them back because they had buried them for their own reasons and are going to use them for their own purpose, which nobody in the Cities have figured out. It turns out this was just the cover story used to fool Mahalia into working for 'Orciny'. The real thieves are actually just selling them to foreign corporations that are researching them to see if they really are somehow technologically or supernaturally advanced.
  • I Choose to Stay: Borlú, realizing that he will not be able to unsee the cities after his stint with Breach, decides to join them and see both cities freely. Breach had not given him much of a choice, though.
  • I Just Want to Be Special: Borlú theorizes that Bowden was not so much interested in the money of the artefact-theft scheme as he just desperately wanted to be respected for his work after so many years of ridicule. When Mahalia, brilliant PhD student, comes to him talking about how true his work is, he plays along to keep that sensation going.
  • Insult to Rocks: Variation. Borlú tells Corwi about one time he was sent abroad to a law enforcement conference about policing "split cities" (Berlin, Jerusalem, etc.), with the conference clearly viewing Besźel and Ul Qoma as another example of the type. Both he and Corwi are insulted (He at the time, her now when he is telling the story) at the implication that Besźel and Ul Qoma belong in the same grouping as these other cities, since they believe they are two independent cities in close proximity, not the same city divided in two.
  • Jaywalking Will Ruin Your Life: Breach (The act of acknowledging the existence of the other city as well as crossing over into it illegally, but is also the name of the secret police) is treated as a crime worse than murder in Besźel and Ul Qoma. Adult citizens who cross over into the other city through unofficial venues are taken away by Breach and are never seen again. It is stated that children are treated more leniently than adults, and tourists are merely exiled from both cities.
  • Karma Houdini: Sear and Core's CEO manages to avoid any criminal charges or personal repercussions for bankrolling the theft and smuggling scheme that spurred he entire plot. There is talk of a lower-level manager being punished, and maybe a subsidiary company being sold, but nothing sticks to the prime movers.
  • The Man Behind the Curtain: Breach. After being played up as a mighty, possibly-supernatural force of municipal vengeance for most of the book, they turn out to be little more than a small, moderately high-tech, and very human group who draw their 'powers' from the citizens' psychological blind spots and their recruits from the breachers they abduct. They only exist because Besźel and Ul Qoma allow them to, and the foreign Mega-Corp running the artefact smuggling ring holds them in contempt because to the rest of the world they are functionally just a local law enforcement agency.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: The artefacts, which are ahistorical, deeply weird, and hinted to have functions and abilities of a decidedly alien sort... but never actually do anything explicitly supernatural on-screen. In accordance with the book's themes, no explanation is ever given, and the matter is not dwelt upon.
  • Mind Screw: So it's a crime thriller set in two cities that happen to occupy the exact same geographic location and are culturally mandated to be unaware of it? Go on... It only gets worse when you realize that the story contains no significant supernatural elements.
  • Misplaced Wildlife: Wolves live in the streets of both Besźel and Ul Qoma, but the scruffier and scrawnier variety is tacitly native to Besźel, while the larger and better-groomed wolves are supposedly native to Ul Qoma. When the (Besź) narrator shoos away a clean-looking wolf from his garbage, his neighbors act as shocked as if he had breached.
  • Mistaken for Profound: When Borlú finds Mahalia's copy of Between the City and the City, he tries hard to decipher what all the notes she has scribbled in the margins mean. Particularly as they become more frantic and the handwriting is almost visibly angry/frightened. It is only at the end that he realizes that Mahalia has not been discovering the hidden history of Orciny or the way it controls the cities, but instead that she has discovered that there isn't an Ancient Conspiracy. Her notes are just academic references to the other scholars that have already researched and published refutations of the book.
  • New Weird: With hints of Magical Realism - there's something definitely off about Breach and characters often report them seeming supernatural, and the artefacts dug up in Ul Qoma are also thought to be somehow magical. It's later revealed that Breach really isn't magical - their seemingly supernatural abilities actually come from their exploitation of the characters' blind spots, much as Orciny is rumoured to do. That said, Breach are still quite strange and alien, but that can be put down to what occupying both cities simultaneously does to a person's psyche. The artefacts, however, are unaccounted for.
  • The Not-Love Interest: Borlú is casually seeing two different women in Besźel, but his closest bond is actually with Constable Corwi, a beat cop that he has worked with in the past and who he dragoons into a role as his assistant for the initial investigation. The two of them spend hours together working the case and debating its merits, and when Borlú is sent to Ul Qoma it is Corwi that he most desperately wants to be able to speak to again. When he is conscripted into Breach at the end of the novel he writes farewell letters to his girlfriends, but visits Corwi—and Dhatt—for a final goodbye.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Borlú finds convincing evidence towards the beginning of the investigation that Mahalia's murder was a breach, and presents the argument that the case should be given to Breach to resolve. Everybody expects it to go through, but then the Oversight Committee—as part of its "routine follow-up"—finds evidence to prove that no breach was actually committed. Since the Oversight Committee has never before seemed to do any follow-up at all, let alone something as in-depth as this, Borlú, Corwi and even Borlú's boss recognize that somebody on the Committee must have wanted to deliberately torpedo the attempt to get Breach involved, either because they did not like Borlú personally or because they were somehow involved in the crime itself. They all suspect it to be Major Yorj Seydr, a leader of the National Bloc and a right-wing group bully. It is actually Mikhel Buric, a member of the Social Democrats, who had helped cover up the murder and did not want Breach involved.
  • Old Shame:
    • In-universe, Bowden's book, Between the City and the City, ruffled a lot of feathers in its time and is banned in both Besźel and Ul Qoma. Even though he has publicly disavowed the book and admitted the theories are all crap, he still can't get any decent work, and he still gets accosted by obsessed fans.
    • Ul Qoma apparently sided with the Axis in WWII, which is a blemish on their current efforts to present a modern, cosmopolitan face to the world.
  • The Only Believer: Mahalia Geary is the only person to really believe in the existence of Orciny. Most people never believe in it at all except for the conspiracy theorists and nuts, and Doctor Bowden—who used to believe in it and cannot escape that association—has since realized Orciny itself is a myth and his research into it was mainly a product of young, over-imaginative mind. In the end, not even Mahalia was a believer, realizing that she was being deliberately fooled by Bowden. She had, however, convinced Yolanda Rodriguez that it existed and never got around to explaining the truth before her death. To Bowden, having the only believer be the less-intelligent friend of the girl who had figured him out was almost worse than having nobody believe him at all.
  • Overlaid Societies: The book is about two cities that exist in the same place, whose inhabitants have trained themselves to "unsee" whichever city they're not currently in.
  • Police Brutality:
    • Conversation indicates that the Besźel police is getting better (They could be held accountable for their actions if their victims were to make an effort), but there is still a lot of 'old school' police-work that goes on. Borlú knows that Inspector Naustin is liable to get rough with witnesses if left to his own devices, so he arranges to have Ramira Yaszek sit in on the interrogation with him. Naustin still hits one of the witnesses, but Yaszek was able to intercede and morph it into her playing Good Cop.
    • The Ul Qoman Militsya is apparently much rougher than even the Besźel forces. Dhatt is honestly confused and surprised at Borlú reaction to him knocking around a witness/potential suspect, and there seems to be no thought at all of any repercussions.
  • Precursors: There are rumors, legends and myths about the people who lived in this territory before the rise of Besźel and Ul Qoma. The Schizo Tech found in the archaeological digs has lead some to believe that they possessed advanced technology or magic, and there are now-discredited theories that there have been multiple different civilizations in the same territory. Ultimately we learn nothing more about these people than what the characters knew at the beginning, as none of them have learned anything new, either. It is never established if they did or did not have any special technology.
  • Pride: Borlú ultimately realizes that what drove Bowden to take part in the conspiracy was not the money he would get, but instead his anger at the way his professional career has been a laughingstock for decades. By joining up, he could make his ridiculous mistakes true and vindicate himself, even if only in his own eyes.
  • Properly Paranoid: Yolanda Rodriguez believes that her life is in danger from unknown forces controlling the cities. She is right that her life is in danger, but it is not Orciny after her, but instead the local criminals and government officials cleaning up.
  • Right for the Wrong Reasons: Yolanda Rodriguez believes that her life is in danger from unknown forces controlling the cities. She is right that her life is in danger, but it is not Orciny after her, but instead the local criminals and government officials cleaning up.
  • Ruritania: Besźel is a poverty-stricken, technologically backward city-state somewhere in southeast Europe. Ul Qoma is in the same region, of course, but its booming economy gives it a much better infrastructure and connections with the First World.
  • Save Both Worlds: Borlú does not care for Ul Qoma any more than any other Besź, and Dhatt feels the same way in reverse, but they both work to save both cities.
  • Schizo Tech: The artefacts found beneath the two cities, causing the archaeological teams investigating them no end of headaches. Complicated gears and clockwork of sophisticated metalwork are buried along with crude stone tools and primitive clay pots. A now-discredited theory that somebody came up with to explain how it all fits together is that there was a yet-unidentified civilization that lived in the region before the two cities emerged, this civilization originally dug up the artefacts, and then for some unfathomable reason buried it all again. Modern archeologists no longer believe this, but they use it as an example of the way the situation does not make sense.
  • Secret Police: Breach... Sort of. It's a faceless omnipotent magical/alien/divine law-enforcement thing that stops unauthorized crossing over between Besźel and Ul Qoma. It is ultimately revealed to just be a normal secret police organization who draw their 'powers' from the citizens' psychological blind spots.
  • Selective Obliviousness: Citizens of Ul Qoma and Besźel are obligated to employ a kind of Selective Obliviousness at all times to avoid noticing the other city. Failure to do so results in Breach, a crime punishable by recruitment. Despite this, it's implied that the two cities' mutual selective obliviousness developed independently, and were responsible for the creation of Breach as a power in the city rather than the other way round.
  • Sherlock Scan: Downplayed in the first chapter, after Naustin and Borlú have first looked over the body. The obvious conclusion is that she was a prostitute murdered while working, but after Naustin walks off Borlú asks Corwi for her take, since she is clearly unconvinced. She points out that the victim's makeup, though thick, is in earth and brown colors, not the bright colors used to emphasize sexuality or attract attention. Her hair is also un-dyed when most of the working girls are blonde and the rest are black or bloodred. To cap it off, her hair—though dirty—is in good condition, even better than Corwi's, and for the streetwalkers in Besźel the priority is food for their kids first, then drugs for themselves, then food for themselves, with luxuries like conditioner way down the list. None of it is definitive, but Borlú takes it as an indication that there's something more going on than just a crime of passion from a john.
  • Staged Populist Uprising: Towards the end of the novel, a citywide—both cities—uprising is started by the Unificationists, the people who believe that Besźel and Ul Qoma should be one city. Since nearly every mention of the unifs from the very start of the book has had people talking about how most of their members are actually cops, it takes Borlú very little time to realize the entire event is a cover for Buric to make his escape.
  • Stupid Crooks: If Bowden had had an up-to-date map or a henchman who could think on his feet, Mahalia's murder would have gone undiscovered for days (Perhaps weeks) and likely never been solved. Instead, her body was dumped haphazardly, quickly discovered, and the entire event unraveled from there.
  • The Summation: There's a long one at the end.
  • Title Drop: Bowden's book Between the City and the City, but also the closing line.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Borlú, thanks to his culturally-imbued prejudices and blind spots. There are things that he does not see, or rather does not allow himself to see, that the audience therefore also misses.
  • Where the Hell Is Springfield?: The precise location of the cities is not specified any more than "southeast Europe". References are made to Hungary, Turkey and other countries, but none are specifically said to be direct neighbors. The closest we can get is to say that it is somewhere in the Balkans/Black Sea region.