One of the most tried and true forms of modern narrative is the detective story. It’s been used so often that audiences interested in the art of storytelling can often determine who the criminal is based on plot lines and character appearances rather than using the evidence provided by the story. Two of the guilty pleasures of the Speculator household are Castle and Bones, television programs that follow the basic premise and structure of most mystery stories. And generally, we’ve solved the crime (usually murder) of the week after about ten minutes of viewing, based totally on metafiction. We eliminate suspects based on their being too prominent in the storyline (“that would be too obvious”) or because it’s too soon in the hour time slot for the criminal to be revealed. There are rules to these stories, you see, and if those rules are broken, you lose the audience’s trust and eventually patience. For instance, it’s not fair to have the villain be someone that has never been introduced in the story; if that happens, the audience has no chance to solve the crime. Disguising the villain, putting them on the fringe of the action but not so far on the fringe that they are not relevant is an art—see the recent movie Poe for a master class in disguising the villain (the movie Seven comes to mind also, but it’s not really about solving the crimes after all). But Mrs. Speculator and I are not really watching these specific shows because of the mysteries the characters are solving; in fact, we watch despite those crimes. Instead, we watch Castle and Bones for the character interaction and development, including season- and series-long arcs for the characters. Characters are one of the methods by which storytellers push mundane and often-used plots into a new place. And if the characters and their stories are really good (or really consuming), then the mystery part gets a pass.
Another method of disguising timeworn narrative is setting. In the past I’ve reviewed some of Alex Bledsoe’s Eddie Lacrosse books; while Bledsoe is also interested in developing good characters (with some success, I should add), his bigger twist is on the detective format since his books are set in a medieval world. Part of the success of the Dresden series by Jim Butcher is the ongoing development of his characters, but on a novel-by-novel basis, especially as the series started, a lot of the strength lay in the exotic setting of a modern Chicago where magic works. Exotic setting also allows the writer to add wrinkles to the mystery that make it somewhat more difficult for the reader to solve.
Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City follows the traditional mystery plotline using a number of the tropes associated with noir, but it succeeds despite the relatively obvious mystery component because of the strength of its characters and setting. The novel is set in a contemporary Johannesburg that I suspect most South Africans would recognize but which is somewhat exotic to Western readers. Beyond the unfamiliar setting, Beukes has added a twist that goes beyond the kinds of bumps that are traditionally used to enliven detective stories: the main character, Zinzi December is a “zoo”, that is she has a sloth that is emotionally and mentally attuned to her and provides her with a psychic ability to find lost things. Oh, and if the sloth dies, December dies a horrible death within a mysterious black cloud called the Undertow. She has been “animalled”, mystically attached to a suddenly appearing creature that seems to be called by a tremendous amount of guilt. In December’s case, she did something that led to her brother’s death and is a recovering drug addict. Beukes does a tremendous job of explaining being animalled by example and by the technique of interspersing the early chapters of Zoo City with reports and accounts of others who have been animalled and the history of the plague. Zoos suffer nearly instant prejudice upon the arrival of their animals and are often treated as secondary citizens despite having perhaps lived exemplary lives. They live in slums and tenements and have to rely on their own underground community to survive on the fringes of a society that does not understand the source of their plague and thus shuns them.
December was a journalist before her brother’s death and the arrival of Sloth, as she calls her animal, and her psychic ability seems tied to her former life. But other zoos have animals and abilities that are nearly random, and while the journalistic chapters of the book offer scientific analysis, the condition defies logical study. In the course of her job, finding lost items for people who see her fliers in stores and on public bulletin boards, she is approached by a couple of unsavory characters with animals of their own. The Marabou and the Maltese as she calls them (perhaps another allusion to classic noir) invite her to take a job for a reclusive music mogul. Despite her suspicions, December meets with Odi Huron and takes his job, to find one of his stars who has gone missing. The mystery plot generally goes as you would expect, including false leads and fake endings, but it is also interwoven with the zoos, evolving them and highlighting them in exciting ways.
As we’ve come to expect with most noir, there is as much attention, if not more, paid to the development of the main character and her supporting cast. December has the checkered past of all noir detectives and continues to feel the effects of her past transgressions. She also has street smarts and has friends who are willing to use their resources on her behalf. It’s these interactions that help to expand the concept of the zoos, and we grow to be fond of December despite her wisecracks, just for her sheer pluck. Underneath all that dross, as is always the case in these kinds of novels, is a Good Person.
When we discover that the plague has been around since the 80s, it seems obvious that it is a metaphor for AIDS. But if that was the intent, it is never explored. I think such a reading puts too fine a granularity on the device—it seems to represent just the next in the list of reasons society has used to repress those that are different. Zoo City could be cynical in this observation, but it’s more ironic since becoming animalled gives the zoo abilities that normal people don’t have. And of course, having special abilities further ghettoizes the recipients. Beukes also avoids the trap of explaining away the plague, describing the selection process that causes individuals to get which animals and which abilities. And while it could almost be taken as comedic to have to carry around a stork or an anteater, Beukes makes it clear that there is a cost as well when we watch a gang fight that targets members's animals and evokes the malignant Undertow, sweeping away the zoos that survive. The plague and the Undertow cry out to be metaphors but resist simple categorization.
Zoo City is grim and gritty, a real throwback to noir. Beukes has created a strong female lead in December, and her supporting cast and setting are fascinating. If there is any complaint about the story, it’s that it ends too soon—just as the reader begins to get a grasp on all that is going on, the mystery is resolved and the denouement closes out the novel. I hope that there is more story to tell, but even if there is not, Beukes is an engaging and thoughtful writer to look out for down the road.
(I have to add one note, not about the story but about the ebook experience. The publisher, Angry Robot, is a relatively new undertaking and is aggressively pursuing strong new voices, which I applaud. However, the formatting of the ebook was error-prone and often got in the way of enjoying the story, confounding attempts even to parse the paragraphs. I look forward to more books from Angry Robot and hope that they can overcome these issues in the future.)