The City by S.C. Mendes follows Max, a detective sinking himself into oblivion after the murder of his wife and disappearance of his daughter. With his family gone, he reaches rock bottom, wasting his days away in a haze of drugs and booze. Until one day his old Lieutenant asks for help solving a gruesome murder, just like the old days. A family has been skinned alive, and all their bones are missing. This horrid mystery offers Max a chance to get answers about the location of his daughter, by investigating a powerful narcotic spoken about only in hushed whispers. The drug and its creators – the Mara – are a total unknown to Max, but soon he finds both below the streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown, in a hidden city, which houses hundreds more terrible secrets.
The idea of an underground city has been used by a lot of successful stories over the years, from Hellboy 2‘s troll market to Fraggle Rock, and it’s an alluring idea. Just being hidden sparks that childish desire in us all, the weird magnetic pull towards something you shouldn’t be looking at. Mendes uses this to great effect, building up the idea of a hidden locale in the minds of the characters before introducing us to it.
Up until the city itself is revealed, you could read this more like a regular thriller, with Max in his trenchcoat and fedora stumbling in and out of addiction as he tries to get back into the investigator’s mindset. He’s a man obsessed with puzzles too, and there’s a great metaphor at play here as he tries to snap the pieces of his life back together as deftly as the box puzzles he manipulates to clear his head. The other, just as powerful metaphor is that of the Oroborous, stamped throughout the book as a page break, a constant reminder of the cyclical nature of self-made destruction.
Wearing these ideas proudly, the book takes you on a pacey journey through Max’s regrets, past a gruesome murder scene, with a quick detour into the criminal world of Chinatown before the story takes a quick swing into the fantastic. And what a swing, from procedural drama to a David Icke wet dream in a few short paragraphs.
The drug at the centre of Max’s case is one produced by the Mara, a shadowy group which Max assumes to be just another gang amongst the triads and bully boys. They’re much nastier – and if you’ve watched V then you’ll have an idea of who they really are. Unlike the lizard folk in V, they have no apparent desire to rule the surface world. Instead, they’ve carved out a pit stop between earth and hell, deep in the rock below Chinatown.
In this cavernous place, everything’s for sale, and nothing is off limits. It’s a well realised world, one where you can almost feel the filth beneath your feet as you tread alongside Max. But unlike a lot of mysterious cities, it’s not a place you’d want to visit. Back alley stabbings are probably the most pleasant thing you’ll encounter here, not exactly one for the Lonely Planet guide…
Slave shows expose their audience to all kinds of death and sex, brothels offer the most foul of temptations, and medicines are ripped from unspeakable places. It’s a city that uses people in the most literal sense, one where it’s easy to lose yourself. And in reading about it, feeling what Max feels – mostly disgust – you start wondering just how bad things can get. And that’s the beauty of this novel – you don’t want to see what the city has next. Its nightmare peep shows and horrific misuses of the human body are extreme in the same way as the degrading scenes in Salo. But you have to watch to solve the mystery, and so does Max.
Tragically, more people are brought into the terror as Max delves deeper into the hell of the City. His guide, the savvy and streetwise Ming, her guardian Arthur, and others from the police force above ground are all affected by the choices he makes, whether they visit the City or not. That’s the third major theme of the story, how each choice is key in the City. Each move Max makes has to be carefully calculated to ensure the right outcome – but the puzzle he makes his quest into isn’t so easily solved.
On top of this is addiction. Max can’t stop sniffing, smoking or drinking his cares away. In the same way addiction can feed into your everyday life and consume it, the city also infects and ruins those who choose to visit or live there, and pulls in those they love.
Beyond the neat dovetailing from murder mystery into dirty fantasy, there’s a lot to be said for the way each act concludes. Act One leads to a devastating climax that will have you questioning everything you thought, with tragedy and bad decisions, using the old Flash Gordon trick – leave them desperate to come back and see how that blond idiot gets out of another jam.
Act Two takes you further down the lizard hole, winds in a few more characters, and there’s a little slowdown as one of Max’s police associates deals with matters above ground. This might make you impatient for more of Max’s story whenever those segments pop up, but they feed into the wider story so you can’t really skip past them.
Act Three leaves you ready for Max’s redemption, only again, things are not that easy, and the story suddenly wraps up, only Mendes pulls a brilliant move in giving you an ending that leaves you wanting more – while still wrapping up the narrative – and opening the way for more stories of The City.
Hopefully, there’s enough demand to warrant more, because I have a feeling there’s a lot more to be seen in the darker corners of this despicable place. Thanks to Blood Bound Books for the review copy, check the links below to swag a copy for yourself.
Amazon UK – amazon.co.uk/dp/B07258CZLX
Amazon US – amazon.com/dp/B07258CZLX
Check out more from Blood Bound Books at bloodboundbooks.net
And why not look at my video review of this title, too?