The best thing I can say about The Buried Life, Carrie Patel’s debut novel from Angry Robot Books, is that it’s an interesting mess of a book. In its favour, it’s not a boring mess, but structurally and in terms of its approach to exposition, it feels more like a treatment for a videogame than a novel proper.
In the underground city of Recoletta, Inspector Liesl Malone finds herself called to the scene of a murder. The victim is a historian, one of the few at work within the city: for in Recoletta the study of history, especially history that predates the Catastrophe that resulted in the city’s founding, is tightly controlled by the secretive Directorate of Preservation. Before her investigation gets very far, a second, connected murder among Recoletta’s elite sees Malone pulled off the case. But this second murder has left a potential witness: the laundress Jane Lin. And Malone doesn’t appreciate being sidelined while Recoletta’s ruling council sends its own investigators after the murderer. She’s determined to get to the truth, even when Recoletta’s elite don’t want it uncovered.
Finding that truth means crossing paths with Roman Arnault, who makes the problems of Recoletta’s elite go away, and who’s taken a surprising interest in Jane Lin. Finding the truth also means investigating a conspiracy that’s been in motion for over a decade. A conspiracy that goes to the heart of the city’s government, the city’s history, and the city’s future, and that will provoke bloody revolution before it ends.
This would probably have been a stronger novel if it had stayed a murder mystery. A whodunnit at least has a tight structure, and in the sinister gaslit streets of Recoletta, riven by class divisions and hierarchies and secrets, Patel has a setting worthy of noir. (It briefly put me in mind of Fallen London, before I realised Patel wasn’t writing fantasy, but rather a strange version of post-apocalypse gaslight-punk.*) Instead, we follow two main characters who feel as though they belong in different genres. There’s the hardbitten detective Liesl Malone, who we first meet in pursuit that ends in a shoot-out. And then there’s youthful laundress Jane Lin, whose journalist friend Freddie introduces her to high society and whose curiosity—and worry, after not-quite-witnessing a murder—feeds a fascination with society bad-boy Roman Arnault that leads to mutual attraction.
*Doesn’t qualify as steampunk. No airships, and no steam.
(Although there are several misunderstandings and obstacles to that attraction. Not least of which is a revolution led by a member of Recoletta society long thought dead.)
One strand of narrative feels as though it takes its inspirations more from Philip Marlowe than Miss Marple. The other, tonally, feels more like Agatha Christie meets the 19th-century romance. It is an odd juxtaposition, made odder by Patel’s decision to switch genres entirely sixty pages from the end. The secret for which men have died is an excavation of a long-buried Library of Congress; and together with this revelation, both Jane and Malone have it separately explained to them that Revolution Is Coming—in fact, is already here.
Which is a revelation to the reader, too. There is very little earlier indication that this is the climax we’ve been building towards, and that makes the shift in gears both startling and unsatisfying. Such a change needs a foundation to carry the reader along, otherwise it’s not playing fair. One is left with an impression not of authorial innovation, but of lack of control.
The tonal difference of the two viewpoint narratives—Jane’s, and Malone’s—and their interplay, means that The Buried Life’s pacing at times feels rather uneven. This unevenness isn’t helped by Patel’s tendency to have her characters discover important information through coincidentally overhearing it (or handed them through stilted dialogue), a choice which acts to drain these discoveries of interest and tension.* Too often, Malone and Jane are handed pieces of the puzzle that concerns them both, rather than truly having to work for it. And yet in the end neither of them are permitted to figure the puzzle out for themselves. Instead, there have been men behind the curtain pulling the strings all along. The end result is that one feels cheated of resolution: one rather feels, in fact, that neither Malone nor Jane have actually been the protagonists of their own stories.
*And which strikes me as a choice better suited to film or to videogames than to a novel.
There are pieces of a good novel here, in the setting and the characters and in Patel’s occasional ability to turn a phrase. But it never comes together as a satisfying, coherent whole. The Buried Life’s untidy narrative muddle is attractive in its own way. On the whole, though, I’d have preferred less mess, and more interesting.
The Buried Life is available from Angry Robot.