Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s first four novels are pure cyberpunk thrillers. Edgy prose, fast action, and near-future galore, in a couple of ways they topped the pilot-light of the sub-genre, Mr. Gibson himself. Branching out yet remaining within sight, the next three books saw Grimwood adding alternate history and an associated cultural awareness to his palette of fictional tricks. The Arabesk trilogy tells the story of a young man trying to re-find his identity in a 21st century setting where the Ottoman Empire gained rather than lost power. Extending his oeuvre yet further still, this time far-future, the next novel Stamping Butterflies found Grimwood again exploring hitherto unknown territory, all the while continuing to mature his innate writing talents. At 9Tail Fox (2005), something of synthesis is achieved. Returning to the detective noir of the early years yet focusing much deeper on character and subtlety of style, Grimwood delivers his most satisfying, humane, and well-rounded novel to date.*
I think I can count on two fingers the number of times I’ve copied the publisher’s backcover synopsis into my reviews. But in the case of Night Shade Book’s 9Tail Fox it is so pitch perfect I cannot do otherwise:
“Bobby Zha is a sergeant in the San Francisco Police Department. His years on the force have made him numb to the world, and the people around him, including his wife and daughter. His sudden and unexplained murder leaves his family reeling, and the SFPD bewildered. But nobody is more bewildered then Sergeant Zha, when a nine-tailed celestial fox comes to him in the moment of his death, and tells him he has one chance to put things right. Now he’s trying to solve his own murder; trying to understand why he has been resurrected in another man’s body; and trying to repair the shattered pieces of his family’s life. But his time seems to be running out...”
With Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation, Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, and William Gibson’s Virtual Light whistling backup, 9Tail Fox sings a tune of existential detective noir, but with a melody of its own. Chinatown San Francisco the main setting, Grimwood transplants the neighborhood’s (modern) details into the reader’s mind with a deft, descriptive pen that fully complements atmosphere. The narrative voice is delivered in moodily direct terms, occasionally slipping into sly, cavorting commentary, playful to the point of buoying the story. And the glint-eyed nine-tailed fox is a delicious touch of fabulism that influences the narrative in every way without appearing directly on stage, save an absolute bare minimum of times (three, I think). Adding a delicious pique of fate to proceedings, the fox draws all the sub-layers of story together, arriving at a closing paragraph as touching as it is satisfying—and without resorting to melodrama.
But Bobby Zha is the centerpiece of 9Tail Fox. Rendered in human 3D, he is the first Grimwood character I’ve encountered the reader can truly develop an understanding of beyond plot relevance. The early novels had sharply but quickly sketched characters. The Arabesk trilogy expanded the character side, but was still very interested in maintaining strong plot. Kit, in End of the World Blues, comes damn close to full empathy but remains just that hair larger than life to effect a certain distance. In 9Tail Fox, Bobby Zha is full-on realia. This is not to say the storyline is given little attention (in fact it is worked out to a T), rather that Grimwood puts in the that little extra effort to survey the corners of Zha’s soul, fully exposing it to the reader. Developed tip-toe over the course of the narrative (save one breast-sucking scene), his faults and cares, will and reactions seep into the reader’s understanding in fully human terms. He has made mistakes: some he is aware of and wants to change, others he accepts. The gangster story he is a part of may be more conventional, but the man himself is singular. Fittingly, Zha’s redemption does not come about in hero’s terms, rather in a fashion more cathartic.
In the end, 9Tail Fox may be the best novel Grimwood has produced. An affective character study unraveling in a classic noir setup, he locates Bobby Zha within a tight loop spinning through plot and character—a loop expertly pierced by the mythic presence of the titular canine. An equally tightly written narrative, Grimwood is simply one of the best, most sophisticated stylists in the business, his books a pleasure to read for craft alone. The inside cover filled with praise from all corners of the science fiction reading world, Grimwood is worth every word. Now, to get readers States-side interested…
*Grimwood’s follow-up, End of the World Blues, is equally good as 9Tail Fox, and together the two form the peak of Grimwood’s genre output thus far.