Finch, By Jeff VanderMeer
Gumshoe sniffs around a fungal city
Sunday 27 March 2011
Jeff VanderMeer's Finch is the third of his novels to be set in Ambergris, a vast, ruined metropolis. It is the most accessible of the series to date: where the previous instalments, City of Saints & Madmen (2001) and Shriek: An Afterword (2006), experimented with modernist literary techniques, this one cleaves to the conventions of the traditional noir thriller.
At its centre is John Finch, a detective investigating a grisly murder. An ineffectual gumshoe with a weakness for whiskey and women, Finch is the kind of protagonist we meet often in detective fiction, and VanderMeer's muscular prose recalls the hard-boiled style of the genre's giants, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.
The setting, however, has more in common with the apocalyptic visions of J G Ballard or William Burroughs: Ambergris is flooded and rotting, its buildings eaten away by malignant lichens and replaced by vast "fungal cathedrals ... whose shade snuffed out the sky". It is a deliciously strange backdrop to a finely honed narrative of crime and political intrigue. As Finch works on the case, he is drawn into the battle between Ambergris' monstrous rulers and the rebels who exhort him to join their cause.
VanderMeer's characterisation can be pasteboard-thin and his dialogue tends to the banal. But Finch is nevertheless a wonderfully bold and imaginative work, and a welcome antidote to the anaemic fare that passes for much contemporary fiction.
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