One of the most alluring incarnations of San Francisco in fiction is the detective/noir urban landscape: Crime and glamour side by side, a femme fatale with a gun behind her back or a stylish fog-enshrouded bridge that’s the scene of a fatal leap (or was it murder?). In Dashiel Hammet’s Sam Spade stories, and then in the radio adaptations and eventually in films like Dark Passage and The Maltese Falcon, San Francisco modernized its wild Barbary Coast image with a dash of urban style. Hitchcock and others continued the tradition, and detective stories set in the city have flourished ever since.
Which is were 9Tail Fox comes in. John Courtenay Grimwood is not a San Franciscan, although you wouldn’t know it from reading this novel. Set mainly in the heart of downtown, around Chinatown and Financial, it uses the city and its characters as the setting for a supernatural noir that shows a clear love and understanding of its illustrious pulp predecessors.
The story takes place in what is described as a near-future but appears to be essentially a present- day San Francisco except that Chinatown has its own SFPD subdistrict rather than being part of Central, as it is in reality. Bobby Zha is a hard-boiled antihero police sergeant, except he’s more boiled than hard when we meet him. Disliked by his fellow officers, and in fact not terribly popular with most folks except the homeless on his beat, he’s a mess when you meet him, and no better when he dies, shot in the back under suspicious circumstances.
Being a cynical and not particularly spiritual guy, Zha’s sudden murder is far less shocking to him than his dying vision; the celestial nine-tailed fox Jinwei Hu, which brings a whole slew of new questions to his rapidly fading consciousness.
Of course, this being a genre book, Zha doesn’t stay dead. Rather, he wakes up in a hospital in New York in the body of another man — a long-term coma patient, to be precise. He returns to San Francisco to find out who killed him, if and how his own murder is related to the case he was investigating when he died, and while he’s at it, to take his last chance at redeeming a life poorly lived, full of entanglements and unanswered questions.
He succeeds and fails in equal measures in realistic and very satisfying ways to the reader, and without the clichés that are tempting in this sort of story. Seeing himself from the outside for the first time, we discover along with Zha that it’s not a pretty sight. It’s compelling to see him reflect on the effects that his choices in life and his sudden death have had on the people around him. His quest for revenge is dampened a little when he realizes he might have had it coming.
Although the mystery is a tad too convoluted and doesn’t quite tie up as nicely as a detective story should, the characters and settings are vivid and enough answers are given to satisfy.
San Francisco is portrayed very credibly with the spectrum of the city’s people and settings explored and a realistic cast of characters. (There is one typo that was significant enough near the beginning of the book to make me wonder if I was reading alternate history.) Chinatown, the homeless, and just the general feel are captured well enough that I checked to see if Grimwood had lived here or written other San Francisco books, and was surprised to find out that although he has visited the city, the author is in fact British.
And as if all that local goodness wasn’t enough, there’s another local angle. Although originally published by Gollancz in the UK, the US edition was published by local small press Night Shade Books. As with most of their books the cover is gorgeous, sporting Spectrum Award-winning art by Jon Foster, who also paints the covers for Night Shade’s Liz Williams novels. In this case the cover design deserves a lot of credit as well; Claudia Noble and Jeremy Lassen cooked up a classic pulp-fiction inspired concept that fits the book to a tee.
SF/SF Issue #50, September 2007