Forget it Jake, it’s quantum-town: A critical review of “String City” (2019)

We took an unexpected break, but this blog had been poking around contemporary popular literature, attempting to pin down (or pigeonhole) genres like cosmic horror, speculative fiction and psychological thriller. This required effort, obviously, which is why it’s nice that Graham Edwards’s novel “String City” saved us some time and by sticking genre right on the cover. It’s “an interdimensional thriller” according to its tagline or possibly subtitle. So now you know.

What “String City” is, genre-wise, is a mash-up of hard-boiled detective and realm-trotting fantasy. Its hero is a nameless private investigator–called, when he’s called anything, the gumshoe–who interacts with various gods, mostly Greek, and monsters.

For his first case in the book, the gumshoe is hired by the titan Hyperion to help him investigate a mysterious explosion at his casino. It’s simple enough, until the corpse of a cyclops complicates matters. New cases piles up, and the gumshoe learns that the various residents of String City–ranging from shipping magnates with shark teeth and robots from rival detective agencies to reanimated cops and a sentiment sewer system–are all in the middle of a conspiracy that could threaten reality itself.

Edwards splits his big narrative among a lot of little ones, and the book reads less like a novel and more like a collection of interlocking short stories. Ultimately, this makes navigating the book pretty easy. A little hard-boiled high fantasy can go a long way, and dividing the narrative up allows the novel to be more accessible in the long run.

There are a couple of hiccups. Over the course of his investigations, the gumshoe got a resourceful gal pal and a comically straight robot sidekick. It’s hard to say why this happens. If it’s to grease the plot along, it might not have been necessary, as formatting the book like a collection of short stories felt like it was enough to pace the novel.

If it’s to give the detective someone to talk to, we already have that twice over. First, in the form of a doppelganger, a hastily made copy with a limited lifespan the gumshoe creates of himself. Making a second, identical gumshoe the sidekick would have opened the book up for some Phillip K. Dickery, or at least some sci-fi comedy. Either way, it would have stopped the book from veering dangerously close to becoming Scooby-Doo. A lone wolf is cliché, but a Great Dane is worse.

The second is slightly more esoteric. The detective is talking to us, ala Phillip Marlowe. So by adding sidekicks, is Edwards telling us that we’re not enough? In “String City,” the gumshoe is telling the story, but there’s no sense of who he’s telling it to or why. As soon as you add the girl and the robot, the book gets extra dimensions–the girl dealing with her troubled past; the robot is awakening to his future potential–but one can start to wonder why the detective would include these voyages of discovery in his case files.

Honestly, the gumshoe has his own troubled past, as if one weren’t enough, and some disappointments to keep him up at night. It probably would have been plenty to hint at these, giving the gumshoe enough depth to make him interesting while focusing the majority of the book on the fantastic elements, because some of them are pretty entertaining.

The world building is intense, and some of really works well. The aforementioned sentient sewer is a standout, as are the spatially unstable titans, the gumshoe’s reality-breaking coat and ancient deities running wind farms. There’s even a Schrodinger’s cat reference–something that can seem kind of stale at this point–that is very nicely played. And the book never quite turns into a game of “spot the reference,” which is good because that can get tired very quickly.

All in all, that’s the best description of the book. It’s always threatening to go a little too far stylistically, but it’s perfectly adequate and entertaining. Are you getting overloaded on Greek gods? Don’t worry, they won’t be in the next section. Are you getting too much of the world-wise gumshoe routine? That’s OK, the next chapter is only three pages long. Did that description seem a little too disconnected or that last plot point require a little too much knowledge of events we never heard about before? No problem, fight scene.

I should add that this is probably entertainment for fans. I don’t see this book making any converts to either of its parent genres. However, fans of Raymond Chandler who don’t mind Neil Gaiman–or, more likely, fans of Neil Gaiman who don’t mind Raymond Chandler–will have fun. Convoluted and over-the-top? Maybe. But, like any conspiracy, whether it’s Depression-era Los Angeles or beyond time and space, it’s probably best not too think about it too much.