“Death Is The Currency of Power”: Adam Roberts’s “Jack Glass”

The reader will indulge me if I begin this post with the confession that, over the last few years, I had begun to think of Adam Roberts as the Jean-Luc Picard to Christopher Priest’s Captain Kirk: not only has the older man oddly more hair than the younger; in missing out on prizes, in seeing genre less as a mode of literature and more as a kit to retool, and increasingly in the kind of cold affect his novels have demonstrated, Roberts seemed to be evolving into a kind of reiteration of the Chris Priest story. (We await the movie of Swiftly with baited breath.) Imagine my discombobulation, then, when Priest wrote in a review of Roberts’s latest novel, Jack Glass, that Royal Holloway’s Professor of 19th Century Literature “is in general rather odd”.

This is a bit rich in a review which compares the novel’s Iago, who acts as tutor to a scion of one of the few families in an intermediate future who administer the Sol system on behalf of the shadowy Ullanovs, with the comedy mechanoid from Red Dwarf, Kryten. Jack Glass, like all of Roberts’s novels, may be intensely ironised – but Iago resembles in far greater detail Dune‘s Thufir Hawat, the similarly subservient and selfless tutor of Paul Atreides, the likewise obliviously privileged scion etc. etc. This sort of recursiveness is par for the course with Roberts, and when Iago’s true identity is revealed – Jack Glass, the notorious criminal of the title, “the father of lawlessness” [pg. 171], is naturally also a master of disguise – he comes also to resemble Alan Moore’s V, another impossibly mythic agent of revolution and instability, who also takes a blinkered and uncertain young girl under his caped wing etc. etc.

Jack Glass is in this way and many others intensely aware of itself as fiction – not so very different from Priest’s modus operandi, most recently of course in The Islanders – and the reader of this review should rest assured that any spoilers in this review are echoed early on in the novel’s own prologue: “One of these mysteries is a prison story. One is a regular whodunit. One is a locked-room mystery. […] In each case the murderer is the same individual – of course, Jack Glass himself.” [pp. 1-2]  In his afterword, Roberts confides that his project was to fuse the Golden Age mystery story with the Golden Age sf saga (finding a screwdriver in the toolkit and seeing how it works as a hammer), and yet his task is made doubly hard by his own decision to rob the reader of the principle pleasure of detective fiction: the anonymity of the criminal. Where a crime novel concerns itself with the who, however, SF might be said to be more interested by the how.

“There are problems that are trivial, and problems that are profoud,” insists Eva Argent, the “MOHsister” of Iago’s charge, Diana, in the second of Jack Glass‘s three parts [pg. 117]. The duelling genres at the centre of the novel, and the world Roberts dresses as the stage for his mysteries, allow Jack Glass to ask at some length how we come to identify which problems are which. Eva and Diana, genetically engineered using Modulated Ova Haptoid technology, are at the top of a viciously stratified society, in which billions of impoverished humans live in barely-habitable bubbles of plastic floating in rough orbit around the sun; the ‘sumpolloi’, as they are known, are subject to the Lex Ullanova, the law codes imposed upon the solar system by the clan which emerged victorious from a period of sustained war. Earth is now the playground of the Ullanovs and the five families who serve them; beneath them are the Gongsi, corporate monopolies which fulfil a variety of functions. There is no state – in the first (and in many ways best) part of the novel, we see prisoners transported by a Gongsi to a barren asteroid, abandoned with the bare essentials of survival, and left with the solitary hope that at the end of eleven years the Gongsi ship will return to collect them and sell the now-habitable asteroid for a profit.

In this future, then, there is a pathological emphasis on the importance of policing and rewarding order and hierarchy: even the convicts understand that “if we keep a lid on our tempers, and keep good order, then we can last the time. […] But if we give way to anarchy we’ll all be dead in a week. Die like beasts, or survive as men? Is that really a choice?” [pg. 80]  The future of Jack Glass is struggling to contain and provision the teeming billions – the sumpolloi live a life of subsistence, and the Lex Ullanova is so all-powerful, so over-powering, that “it even regulates the bounds of illegality” (the Lex assumes 30% of economic activity is illegal, and so taxes lawful producers at 143% of their gross, rather than 100%) [pg. 283] . We see much of Roberts’s last novel of inequality, By Light Alone, in all this – and where that book ended with a revolution, this one is focused on how the elite might maintain order in such straitened circumstances. The answer, of course, is exploitation: Iago characterises the philosophy of this future as “seeing those trillions as a resource, and not as a congregation of humanity.” [pg. 197]

The ethical questions which revolve around this set-up are signified in the generic conventions of crime and science fiction, and personified in Diana and Eva: the former has been bred to understand and analyse human behaviour (her favourite reading is, of course, the country house mystery, and she prizes “the moral knowledge that life is lived individually” [pg. 239]), the latter to analyse data and phenemonology (not yet in her 20s, she has six PhDs and is working on a seventh, on Champagne Supernovae). When a servant is murdered in their Terran mansion – a surprising aberration since all the staff are drugged to assure supine loyalty – Eva dismisses Diana’s enthusiasm for cracking the case: “Even if you limited yourself to the population of the island (though, since the whole Argent group had only just landed, and had not yet interacted with any island natives, the murderer was massively unlikely to be found outside the group – but for the sake of argument), we were talking about 19 out of 102,530, which was the 99.998+th percentile. Eva had never reached such levels of near-certainty in any of her PhDs!” [pg. 124]   That is, it doesn’t matter who murdered the servant, because the solution is so statistically insignificant – simply convict all the suspects and you’re still ahead by the numbers.

This is very much the logic behind the system Jack Glass rails against: “It’s a system where raw materials are costly, and energy is costly, and the only thing that isn’t costly is human life.” [pp. 61-62]  The Gongsi are simply concerned with “extracting the maximum productivity” out of the prisoners [pg. 28]; the Lex is concerned only with preventing insurrection, rather than improving the lives of the sumpolloi; and, as John Clute has observed in his review of the novel, even Jack Glass is a husbandman, for whom “killing is enclosure” [pg. 248] – he, too, treats human life as subordinate to his own rebel’s goals. With an eye to contemporary predicaments, Roberts makes explicit this complicity: “Of course it is not comfortable to think that human beings, who breathe and feel and hope as we do, are a resource we exploit,” Iago admits in an exchange with Diana. “It is a very terrible thing. But the alternative is: to live a hermit life.” [pg. 242]

This is the same ambivalence which forms part of the appeal of crime fiction – Diana rejects the idea that she has a morbid fascination with death, but Iago challenges her to name a single mystery she enjoyed which did not involve one. In the Jack’s world, everyone is exploiting someone else – and the conceptual breakthrough which might transform the system that makes this inevitable is held at bay not just by the Ullanovs but by Glass himself. The whole solar system is abuzz with rumours of the discovery of a Faster Than Light drive, but the consequences of such a technology put their apparent benefits in the balance. It would have been easy to make Jack Glass a dystopian warning, set in an obviously evil future without cross-current or complication. In the event, it is something more important – and Glass’s supposed guilt, for the murders we both do and don’t see, becomes a more difficult thing, less open to Holmesian deduction or moralising.

An argument of this sophistication, on the other hand, is a difficult thing to weave into a generic labradoodle of a novel, and at times Roberts falls back on dialogue more than he has done in some of his other novels. The writing is never less than engaging, however, and Jack Glass is a page-turner in a way that, for instance, New Model Army (perhaps still his best work) wasn’t: Niall Alexander is right to argue that this narrative momentum is, for a mystery novel in which there is a no mystery (save for the identity of the narrator), a significant achievement. In addition, there are also some lovely images – Diana’s party arriving on Earth, unused to gravity “like newly-born calves” [pg. 104] – and some fine asides at the expense of both genres – “since [the evidence] suggests the murderer is a person of great physical strength, the murderer will actually be a very weak individual,” eureekas Diana [pg. 109]. There are, admittedly, rather too many expository conversations – “My understanding, Miss,” Iago opines before telling the reader something important; “So. Would it make sense … ” responds Diana in an attempt at showing her working [pg. 147] – but this can be seen as a means merely of apeing the hokey characteristics of ‘real’ detective fiction. In the final furlong of the novel, this wry generic aptness might go too far – there are a few unsatisfied groans to be had in the resolution of character arcs and motivations – but it may nevertheless be a failure central to Roberts’s project.

China Miéville has infamously pledged to write a novel in every genre. He has since half-disowned his promise, but Roberts has taken up the baton and is going one better – it is increasingly his aim, it would seem, to write a single novel which encompasses every genre. If this is an odd goal, and if Chris Priest is ‘coming around’ to the idea that oddness may be a factor in Roberts’s favour, some of us saw the light rather earlier. Indeed, the serious purpose of Jack Glass’s puckishness is not so much odd as adventurous – not so much peculiar as potent. Roberts himself may or may not, without a tantrum as entertaining as Priest’s, have given up hope of being named a recipient of the Clarke Award; but there must surely still be a judge out there who will make it so.


“Hating Smart and Hating Dumb”: James Ellroy’s “The Cold Six Thousand”

I read The Cold Six Thousand. I thought about The Cold Six Thousand. I figured The Cold Six Thousand was fucked up. It was rough.

James Ellroy wrote a novel. He’s written a bunch. The Cold Six Thousand is the sequel to American Tabloid but it isn’t a repeat. It sometimes reads like one. But it isn’t.

American Tabloid was sharp and taught. The Cold Six Thousand is fat and deranged. It’s about fear and control. One goes up/one goes down. Only the Mob notice.

That’s the problem Ellroy sees. The Mob worry about America losing control. As if all control is fascistic. As if all control is corrupt. Ideals just get you dead. There’s always a corrupting power at work.

DOCUMENT INSERT: 5/7/2009. Extract transcript. Publication: Voodoo Histories. Writing: David Aaronovitch.

The American scholar and author of two books about conspiracy theories, Daniel Pipes, argues that, in essence, a conspiracy theory is simply a conspiracy that never happened, that it is ‘the nonexistent version of a conspiracy’. For the US historian Richard Hofstadter, on the other hand, writing in the early 1960s, what distinguished the true ‘paranoid’ conspiracy theory was its scale, not that ‘its exponents see conspiracies or plots here and there in history, but that they regard a “vast” or “gigantic” conspiracy as the motive force of historical events.

[Non-applicable conversation follows]

I think a better definition of a conspiracy theory might be: the attribution of deliberate agency to something that is more likely to be accidental or unintended.

DOCUMENT INSERT: 26/1/2012. Extract transcript, ‘Diary about North Korea’. Publication: London Review of Books. Writing: Tariq Ali, known subversive.

Growing popular anger in the South and an overwhelming desire for reunification triggered the invasion of the South by the North in 1950. Lacking popular support, the Rhee government collapsed and had to be rescued by US troops. The Soviet Union boycotted a Security Council session at which they could have vetoed America’s war, conducted under the UN flag. The Chinese revolution had panicked Washington. It couldn’t be allowed to spread.

US troops and their allies (including the Japanese navy) pushed the North Korean army back. The Chinese revolution was less than a year old and its leaders saw the war in Korea as an attempt to reverse events in China. A Politburo meeting determined to save the Koreans. Chinese troops under the command of General Peng Dehuai crossed the Yalu River in droves. The Americans and their allies were driven back to the 38th parallel. General MacArthur declared that it might be necessary to nuke Chinese air bases; Truman sacked him. In 1953 a truce was signed at Panmunjom on the 38th parallel. Around a million soldiers and two million civilians had died (there are many different estimates). One of them was Mao’s oldest and favourite son.

Conspiracy theories lie. They ask too much. Ellroy’s Chuck Rogers seems to be everywhere America fucks up. It’s not possible.

But conspiracy theories don’t lie.  They stand for venality. They stand for lies. The people at the top lie. The people at the top have agendas. The people at the top invade Korea/Vietnam/Iraq.

James Ellroy was a crime writer. Ellroy wanted something more. Ellroy wrote a trilogy. It was counter-factual. It was conspiracy-driven. It was about America. It was about the underbelly of America.

He called it the USA Trilogy. Its characters aimed for a better life. They aimed for the American Dream. Millions in the bank. Big houses. Swimming pools. They got it through murder and extortion.

The USA Trilogy got Ellroy reviewed in the mainstream press.

But his characters were still investigators/hoodlums/mob men. They were still killers and stiffs. They were just running the country now. In LA Confidential they were eking a living. In American Tabloid they made the world tick like a timebomb.

No one stays top of the pile forever. Old orders break. Hoover is past his best. The Mob notice. Ward Littell/Pete Bondurant from the first book get confused. They get lost.

The new character is Wayne Tedrow Junior.  He saved a drug dealer. The drug dealer murders his wife. He learns hate. He knows hate is senseless. He winds up on top.

The conspiracies in American Tabloid maintained control. The conspiracies in The Cold Six Thousand are unwieldy. They proliferate. Vietnam/ MLK/RFK/Nixon. They bend back on each other. They pollute each other. They have no clear purpose. Except hate. Ellroy’s world gets even darker.

DOCUMENT INSERT: 5/8/2001. Extract transcript. Publication: The Cold Six Thousand. Writing: James Ellroy. Speaking: Wayne Tedrow Sr., Las Vegas Casino proprietor, Mormon, racist; Wayne Tedrow Junior, former LAPD officer, current CIA heroin manufacturer, widow.

“I’ve relinquished my hate-tract business, in order to serve the cause of changing times at a higher level.”

Wayne smiled. “I see Mr. Hoover’s hand.”

“You see twenty-twenty, which tells me the years have no dulled your – “

“Come on, tell me.”

Wayne senior twirled his cane. “I’ve been working with your old chums Bob Relyea and Dwight Holly. We’ve derailed some of the most outlandish overhaters in the whole of Dixie.”

Wayne slugged bourbon. Wayne sucked dregs. Wayne killed the jug.

“Keep going. I like the ‘overhaters’ part.”

Wayne Senior smiled. “You should. There’s hating smart and hating dumb, and you’ve never learned the difference.”

Wayne smiled. “Maybe I’ve been waiting for you to explain it.”

Wayne Senior lit a cigarette – gold-filigreed.

“I fully believe that coloreds should be allowed to vote and have equal rites, which will serve to increase their collective intelligence and inure them to deamgogues like Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. Your pharmaceutical endeavour gives them the sedation that most of them want and insulates them from the fatuous rhetoric of our era. My policemen friends tell me that colored crime in white Las Vegas has not increased appreciably since your operation began, and your operation serves to isolate coloreds on their side of town, where they would rather be anyway.”

Wayne stretched. Wayne looked north. Wayne checked the Strip view.

Wayne Senior blew smoke rings. “You’re looking pensive. I was gearing up for a smart answer.”

“I’m all out.”

Wayne Senior is Ellroy’s villain-amongst-villains. Wayne Senior schemes. Wayne Senior is a ranting hobgoblin.

He’s what’s wrong with the book. Look at the dialogue. It metastasizes just to fit everything in.

The document inserts multiply. The telegraphic prose over-compensates. The book works too hard.

But the book impresses. It is 670 pages of text like this. It is controlled. It is super-human.

Its characters are always doing. The verb predominates. Their inner life is locked out.

Their world doesn’t allow reflection. It is determined. It is joyless. It is hopeless. It is too much.

The hate. The rage. The offensive language. It revels in the muck of conspiracy. It’s not that muck does not exist. It’s that there’s something else.

The Cold Six Thousand has hope in Pete Bondurant and his wife/in the speeches of MLK and RFK/in the senescence of Hoover. It is carefully composed. It is not stupid. It is not dumb. But does it hate smart? Uncertain.

The book impresses. But it is cold.

“Full Of The Most Interesting Associations”

From the years 1894 to 1901 inclusive, Mr. Sherlock Holmes was a very busy man.

"She looked back at him and slowed her pace..."
"She looked back at him and slowed her pace..."

The Solitary Cyclist is happy home to one of the most memorable images in the canon: Miss Violet Smith, statuesque governess of Farnham, Surrey, cycling along a deserted mile of road pursued at a distance by a unrecognised, black-clad stalker. It’s an image echoed for more motorised times by Steven Spielberg in Duel, and it works in the same way there: there is something very eerie about being chased down silent roads by an inscrutable foe who matches your movements and always stays at arm’s length.

The story coasts a good way on the strength of this image, and Miss Smith is presented as a capable individual who recalls the similarly proactive Mrs St. Clair in The Man with the Twisted Lip. Yet her beauty, not her brains, drive the plot – and appears even to sway Holmes, who overcomes the irritation of her interupting more pressing business in order to consult on her case. Watson, ever the ladies’ man, is even more taken, and perhaps partly as a result the mystery’s hinge swings on Smith’s charms. Nevertheless, she is strong enough to spurn advances (admittedly largely because she is already betrothed), and though by the story’s close she is a damsel in distress, in large part the rest of the tale is driven solely by her strength of mind.

Again the mystery’s solution is found in exotic climes – South Africa this time – but as with The Dancing Men, The Solitary Cyclist manages to supercede the similar stories which have come before. The importance in this of its central vignette has already been noted; in addition, the number of scenes the story has gives it a satsifying breadth. Watson’s trip to Surrey in particular gives the story some colour (and Holmes’s most withering dressing down of his friend in the canon), and Holmes’s account of his own trip adds a splash of action picked up in the chase sequence near the stories’ end. If there is less visible intellectual movement than in last week’s story, this is more than made up for by this physical to-ing and fro-ing.

Watson promises, in a fair definition of the difference between his own detective fiction and the crime fiction of others, a case which derives its interest “not so much from the brutality of the crime as from the ingenuity and dramatic quality of the solution”, but its hard to see the “unexpected tragedy” he trails: ultimately, the story has a happy ending and a solution-by-exposition. Still, memorable and quick-witted as it is, The Solitary Cyclist adds to the other stories since Holmes’s return to create one of Conan Doyle’s most consistent runs in the canon. The holiday had its effect.

Mr H and Mr H Discuss The City & The City: Part Two

China Mieville’s The City and The City has just been published by Macmillan. It’s been getting some good press, yet I didn’t feel entirely convinced by it. Nor did Torque Control’s Niall Harrison, so we’ve been talking over the book and trying to get at why we weren’t as impressed as other reviewers. The first part of this conversation can be found over at Torque Control. The second starts here, though those intending to read it should avoid both these installments – unlike other reviews of the book, we couldn’t contrive in this format to avoid discussing the central conceit of the novel, which Mieville has been quietly encouraging critics to obscure. Anyway … onwards.

"The City and The City", UK cover
"The City and The City" in the UK


Thanks for that Encyclopedia quote — I think it’s clear that the uncomfortable slush of elements is part of the point, then. That makes the book interesting as a lark, but winds up being integral to its failure. Mieville’s love of the neologism and pun isn’t new to this book, though, is it? He’s used termplay to do some heavy lifting in each of his novels, and in fact I’d say it’s central to his technique. It seems to me that one of the ways he inspires that ol’ sensawunda is by keeping things so vague: his characters, his cities, his political structures very often seem to be at one remove from the reader. We never quite understand them, and that deliberate inscrutability is key to his art. It’s on show here, too — those clever wordplays hint at without expositing different ways of thinking and being, whilst all of the characters, even Borlu, remain just in one way or another undrawn, unknowable.

And, again, this is where the ‘In Our World’ stuff intrudes. You can’t make a world so similar to ours as to be exactly that unknowable, you can’t hold it at one remove from us for a long enough period of time for us to begin to believe in its impossibility. As we’re agreed, it is very difficult to imagine the ways in which the Cleavage was enacted and sustain because we do know how the world works, and the author cannot succeed in dangling that knowledge just a little out of reach. I think you summarise the ambivalence of the book’s political position well — the complexity of the issues are not underplayed, and the book allows even hardline nationalists to be simulatneously both right and wrong — but, again, much of it is too familiar to us to fit this radically different way of living. I know exactly what you mean about thinking Borlu a dolt, but as I said I can believe he has been conditioned — or as you put it, believe he believes — but despite that the concept, too, remains doltish. This is fatal: it makes the complex politics fall down, because the ‘nationalism’ on show is so obviously a false iteration, and the depiction of culture so gratingly artificial. The book tries hard to depict a difficult world which must be inter-connected to survive, but in which borders are crucial and cannot be ignored; yet that conceptual failure undermines the whole edifice.

So, sure, globalised business exists apart from both unity and division, of course, which is why the businessman appears hypocritical from both perspectives — but whether the nationalists criticise the ‘false consciousness’ of the twin cities, their nationalism is in turn equally false because of the novel’s own weaknesses. I’d like to think that all this falseness is some clever piece of cultural criticism, but I fear the novel is in fact just poorly conceived. The mystery stuff is a case in point: undoubtedly, this is an homage to noir and suchlike, and in particular its first chapter is very strained in its attempt to read like Chandler (a much harder effect to achieve than is often allowed). The twists and turns of the story are quintessential mystery novel, and the nearly comedic summary by the detective at the end a study in the form. But none of that part of the novel ever felt to me remotely as inventive as Mieville’s fantasy stuff — imagine the mystery without the fantasy setting, and you get something close to the masterfully over-cooked genre parody in Cloud Atlas.

Over on his blog, MJH is saying ‘read that book whatever you do’. I don’t get it.


Without wanting to put words in that other Mr Harrison’s mouth, my guess is that what he values about the book is that it challenges us to think about what we mean by “fantasy”: not in the taxonomic/lexicographic literary sense we’ve just been discussing, but in the real-world sense. Why do we choose to believe the narratives by which our day-to-day real-world lives are shaped — narratives, in the end, as virtual as any “fantasy novel”? What do we gain and lose by it? That sort of thing. You say that wordplay is not a new feature of Mieville’s works, and that’s true, but I’d say that in The City & The City the way in which words actively shape reality, rather than merely reflecting it, is more foregrounded than in anything else he’s written, precisely because it is a version of our world being shaped.

Of course, if you read it and remain un-shaped, it’s less impressive. Your point that we already know how the world works, and Mieville can’t hide it from us, is an excellent one, I think. I appreciated the extent to which Mieville added more and more exceptions to the rules, ultimately making it clear that everyone who believes in the separation does so because they choose to do so. I thought the Ul-Qoma ex-pat community in Beszel was really very well handled, nicely disorienting; and I appreciated that he acknowledged that unsmelling or unhearing would be rather more difficult than unseeing, to the point of it sometimes being impossible to know whether to un-sense something or not. But again, ultimately these are portrayed as temporary, resolvable confusions, whereas it seems to me they would quickly become catastrophic, peoples’ choice or no.

"The City and The City" US Cover
"The City and The City" in the US

As to the book’s other advocates … I’m waiting on a review from Clute at the moment, and I gather he liked it; I’ll let you know what his arguments are. Gary Wolfe, in the April Locus, feels that it is Mieville’s “most disciplined and sharply focused novel to date” (I suppose it is), that “what’s most impressive … is not what amazes us about these imaginary cities, but what is familiar about them” (which I take to mean he bought into the conceit more than I did), that it’s “quite unlike anything [he’s] seen before” (to an extent, although there are books like Hav); and he’s pleased by “the manner in which [Mieville] respects and maintains the integrity of the police procedural”, even while unpacking the book’s mysteries. That last one I thought was a bit of a problem, actually. Borlu’s job requires him to be highly observant; but his life requires him to be highly selectively observant. Surely a deliberate contradiction, but also one that handicaps the novel a bit, since Mieville resolves it by having Borlu’s narrative be basically un-visual (until near the end, when he really does see both cities at once). Points for impressive technical achievement, somewhat fewer points for a believable detective protagonist.


I’m still not sure I was as impressed as you by the wordplay stuff: sure, the way the residents of the cities use language shapes their reality, but this isn’t restricted to fantasy novels, or even very good ones. That Mieville finds some useful ways to depict this common process is power to him, but I don’t find it that noteworthy, within his oeuvre or outside it. As for what we think might be MJH’s reasons for liking it … well, OK. The book certainly does that, but for all the reasons we’ve been discussing it does not manage to do it very well. Again, why give a book a pass because it merely tries to something? Likewise, Wolfe is right on all his counts in terms of what the book does but, as you say, whether it does those things well is a trickier question. I don’t at all find the detective fiction stuff particularly clever — in fact, I kept thinking that Martin Cruz Smith should have been in Mieville’s acknowledgements. At times, The City & the City reads so much like Gorky Park that I find it hard to believe Mieville is unfamiliar with it (though he may be). Gorky Park was a bestseller, but in terms of the genre of police procedural it is as by the numbers as Mieville.

This is less maintaining the integrity of a form to my mind, and more using it as a crutch as everything else falls down around you. What keeps the novel together is its tight crime focus — it could not work as a straight fantasy novel, because its elements do not cohere. Yes, the tension between the two forms (as personified in Borlu) is deliberate: but it sets up something for us to watch, to focus on, so that we pay attention to the world largely as background to the mystery. Canny. Mieville says here that he’s always seen something of the fantastic in detective novels, that they pretend to exist in our world but in truth do not. Going through all those Sherlock Holmes stories, it’s not difficult to accept what he’s saying. But if he’s right, then what detective fiction manages better than The City & the City is to convince us that the world of its fiction is very much ours, and that what happens in the story could happen in our lives. MJH may like the central questions of the novel, but Mieville’s attempt to write them large is to my mind what dooms the book to failure in this key generic regard.

I agree that Mieville is as clever as he can be with the conceit — I too enjoyed watching, as the book went on, all the imperfect ways in which unseeing and unsensing were at times negotiated — but ultimately you come back to that failure to hold our world in this world together. I’m glad others have been more convinced by the book — but I think we can agree that we weren’t, and that there are serious problems with the book that tell us why.

“The Value of Imagination”

“I am afraid, Watson, that I shall have to go,” said Holmes as we sat down together to our breakfast one morning.

"What the devil do you want here?"
"What the devil do you want here?"

Silver Blaze famously sees Holmes prove something with a negative. ‘The curious incident of the dog in the night-time’ is the mystery’s pivot, that fact so trival as to be beneath the notice of anyone but Holmes, but from which flows the entire mystery. The dog guarding Colonel Ross’s Silver Blaze, the favourite for the Wessex Cup, fails to bark on the night the horse is kidnapped and its trainer murdered; Holmes, of course, deduces from this overlooked truth that the kidnapper must have been known to the dog.

Holmes’s entire solution is based upon such conjecture, and here more than in many stories his leaps of logic seems ones of faith rather than reason. “My final shot was, I confess, a very long one,” he admits about his examination of Ross’s flock of sheep, but in truth Holmes is here following his instincts more than the trail of evidence. Perhaps tellingly, when at one point our heroes are following tracks in the mud, it is Watson, not Holmes, who spots that they double back on themselves. Holmes is far more wrapped up in his theses.

The story is characterised by this kind of basic competence in those surrounding Holmes: Watson makes several observations of importance, and the policeman in charge of the investigation, Inspector Gregory, is picked out regularly for praise from Holmes. (“My dear Inspector, you surpass yourself!”) Only Colonel Ross is given the role of Holmes’s foil, and the owner of the horse is punished a little by Holmes for his dismissive temperament, kept in the dark until the very close of a mystery on which much of his money rests. Yet ultimately all three share a lack of imagination. Competenece is not quite enough to solve so curious a mystery. Something more unconventional, more inspirational, is required.

“I follow my own methods and tell as much or as little as I choose. That is the advantage of being unofficial.” The joy of following Holmes lies in how readily he applies his idiosyncrasies not just to detection but also to justice: every player in a mystery investigated by Holmes is liable to be judged, whether they have committed a crime or not. Holmes’s superiority complex leads him regularly to act as the arbiter of moral imperatives. In those stories, such as this, when he leaves the city for the country there are too hints of the class-based society in which he moves, and of which he is a part and product: there is always some distaste that he hails from the capital (“I must say I am rather disappointed in our London consultant,” Colonel Ross remarks, emphasising Holmes’s metropolitan origin); yet at the same time Holmes’s gentrified manners (“Surely I met you in Plymouth at a garden-party some little time ago, Mrs Straker?”), and his patronising approach to the lower echelons of society, (he refers to Ross’s largess as being “liberal” with the servants) place him very much in the mould of a country squire, rather than upstart bourgeois. There’s a depth of reference in all this which is not always present in a Conan Doyle caper.

Silver Blaze is, then, a particularly well formed and well characterised story with a welcome new kind of premise. If the dots of the mystery itself are a little far apart in the joining, we must, as we are often called upon to do, simply place faith in Sherlock Holmes. He does not guess, however it may appear to a lesser sleuth. The story, fittingly for one so well conceived, is perfectly armoured against their accusations, and Holmes is given the defense: “We imagined what might have happened, acted upon the supposition, and find ourselves justified. Let us proceed.” There is a little madness in his method, but that’s what makes it so compelling to watch.

“These Are Very Deep Waters”

"He lashed furiously with his cane at the bell pull"
"He lashed furiously with his cane at the bell pull"

“In glancing over my notes of the seventy odd cases in which I during the last eight years studied the methods of my friend Sherlock Holmes, I find many tragic, some comic, a large number merely strange, but none commonplace…”

The Speckled Band (I skip The Blue Carbuncle, of course, until next Christmas Eve) is not quite a retcon, but it does at the very least go back in time – indeed, chronologically it’s the fourth recorded Holmes adventure. Going back to 1883, when Holmes and Watson still shared rooms at Baker Street, it is a dynamic story with a classic scene in which Watson professes ignorance of the finer points of Holmes’s method. This shifting back in time thus gives Conan Doyle an easy way to startle both Watson and by extension the reader with Holmes’s unusual knack for finding reason in the absurd.

Indeed, like a cheating Cluedo player, Holmes claims at the end of the story, once the mystery’s solution has been revealed to us all, that he knew all along how it would end. The entirety of the investigation is framed (in something which is not quite a retcon) as Holmes confirming his own suspicions: “I had come to these conclusions before I had ever entered his room,” Holmes declares of his search of the perpetrator’s study. And the reader, too, might have a sense of the familiar.

As the BBC recently noted, mystery fans have much to thank Edgar Allen Poe for. In 1841, he wrote the famous short story The Murders In The Rue Morgue, featuring his celebrated French detective, Dupin. As the BBC story notes, Dupin is undeniably the model for Sherlock Holmes – undeniably not just because they are so similar, but because Conan Doyle admitted as much, The Speckled Band, as much as any story he ever wrote, is the Scotsman’s homage to his forebear.

Famously, The Murders In The Rue Morgue has as its ‘criminal’ an orangutan belonging to a sailor who has allowed it to escape. In The Speckled Band, Holmes encounters a doctor with a collection of animals from India (including a baboon, briefly seen roaming across the doctor’s grounds at Stoke Moran near Leatherhead). Unlike its sister story, however, The Speckled Band at least plays fair – all the details are there up front, although it must be said that to join the dots is not easy without, like Holmes, first seeing the picture they form.

The Speckled Band, then, is a homage. But it’s also more interesting than that, a stately home murder (the House of Stoke Moran belongs to one of the oldest families in England) which features no gathering of the suspects and a faint dose of the surreal. Admirably, Conan Doyle acknowledges his debt without being slavish, and even by improving upon his inspiration. It is curious that Conan Doyle cited it as his favourite of the stories, since The Speckled Band is not one of his tightest or best researched mysteries. But it is, in all fairness, one of his most memorable.