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The City & the City is a novel by British author China Miéville that follows a wide-reaching murder investigation in two cities that occupy the same space simultaneously, combining weird fiction with the police procedural. It was written as a gift for Miéville's terminally ill mother, who was a fan of the latter genre. The novel was published by Macmillan on 15 May 2009.


In loving memory of my mother, Claudia Lightfoot


For all their help with this book I’m extremely grateful to Stefanie Bierwerth, Mark Bould, Christine Cabello, Mic Cheetham, Julie Crisp, Simon Kavanagh, Penny Haynes, Chloe Healy, Deanna Hoak, Peter Lavery, Farah Mendlesohn, Jemima Miéville, David Moench, Sue Moe, Sandy Rankin, Maria Rejt, Rebecca Saunders, Max Schaefer, Jane Soodalter, Jesse Soodalter, Dave Stevenson, Paul Taunton, and to my editors Chris Schluep and Jeremy Trevathan. My sincere thanks to all at Del Rey and Macmillan. Thanks to John Curran Davis for his wonderful translations of Bruno Schulz.

Among the countless writers to whom I’m indebted, those I’m particularly aware of and grateful to with regard to this book include Raymond Chandler, Franz Kafka, Alfred Kubin, Jan Morris, and Bruno Schulz.


"Deep inside the town there open up, so to speak, double streets, doppelganger streets, mendacious and delusive streets."
—Bruno Schulz, The Cinnamon Shops and Other Stories

Plot summary[]

Inspector Tyador Borlú, of the Extreme Crime Squad in the fictional East European city-state of Besźel, investigates the murder of Mahalia Geary, a foreign student found dead in a Besźel street with her face disfigured. He soon learns that Geary had been involved in the political and cultural turmoil involving Besźel and its "twin city" of Ul Qoma. His investigations start in his home city of Besźel, lead him to Ul Qoma to assist the Ul Qoman police in their work, and eventually result in an examination of the legend of Orciny, a rumoured third city existing in the spaces between Besźel and Ul Qoma.


The City & the City takes place in the fictional Eastern European twin city-states of Besźel and Ul Qoma.

A precise location is not confirmed, but they are close to the sea as Besźel is noted as having developed on a "curl of coastline" from "a port hiding a few kilometres up the river to shelter from the pirates of the shore." Other references in the novel remain vague, but indicate the cities are to the east of Hungary, north of Turkey and are within driving distance of Varna and Bucharest, suggesting a location in the Balkans near the Black Sea.

These two cities actually occupy much of the same geographical space, but via the volition of their citizens (and the threat of the secret power known as Breach), they are perceived as two different cities. A denizen of one city must dutifully "unsee" (that is, consciously erase from their mind or fade into the background) the denizens, buildings, and events taking place in the other city – even if they are an inch away. This separation is emphasised by the style of clothing, architecture, gait, and the way denizens of each city generally carry themselves. Residents of the cities are taught from childhood to recognise things belonging to the other city without actually seeing them. Ignoring the separation, even by accident, is called "breaching" – a terrible crime for the citizens of the two cities, even worse than murder. The origin of this odd situation is unclear, as it started at an uncertain time in the past, perhaps before recorded European history. Residents of the cities speak different languages that use distinct alphabets. Besź is written in a Greek-derived alphabet resembling Cyrillic while Illitan, the language of Ul Qoma, is written in a Latin alphabet. However, Besź and Illitan have a common root and share a degree of mutual intelligibility. The cities also have different religions: Besźel's state religion is the Besź Orthodox Church and there is a small Jewish and Muslim community, while Ul Qoma is officially secular, though religions other than the Temple of the Divine Light face discrimination.

The twin cities are composed of crosshatched, alter, and total areas. Total areas are entirely in one city, the city in which the observer currently resides. Alter areas are completely in the other city, and so must be completely avoided and ignored. Between these are areas of crosshatch. These might be streets, parks or squares where denizens of both cities walk alongside one another, albeit "unseen". Areas that exist in both cities usually go under different names in each one. There is also Copula Hall, "one of the very few" buildings to exist in both cities under the same name. Rather than being cross-hatched, it essentially functions as a border. It is the only way in which one can legally and officially pass from one city to another. Passing through the border passage takes travellers, geographically (or "grosstopically"), to the exact place they started from – only in a different city.

From a physical standpoint, little differentiates the two cities, other than slight differences of architecture, vehicles and styles of dress which citizens and visitors are trained to recognise. Those who do not know about the separation might naturally view the two cities as one. Because of this, an extra power is needed to keep the separation in place: this organisation is known as Breach. When a 'breach' takes place (used here in the sense of 'breaching' the barrier between the two cities), Breach comes to take care of it. Members of the Breach organisation use their powers to take the breacher captive, and bring them to an unknown punishment. "Breachers", as they are called, disappear and are never seen again. Children and tourists, however, are treated more leniently: children may be forgiven for a small breach; if tourists breach, they are bundled out and banned from both cities forever.

Most breaches are taken care of by Breach immediately, but its surveillance capabilities are not absolute. Sometimes Breach must be specifically invoked to investigate a crime that seems to be a clear-cut case of breach, such as a smuggling operation that involves breaching to transport the smuggled goods from one city to the other. To invoke Breach, the police must present their evidence to an Oversight Committee composed of 42 members, 21 from each city. If the evidence presented is convincing enough, the Committee performs whatever other investigation into the matter it deems appropriate to resolve any remaining doubts its members have. If its investigation concludes to its satisfaction that a breach has taken place, then and only then will it invoke Breach. Invoking Breach is a last resort because it is an alien power to which some consider that Besźel and Ul Qoma surrender their sovereignty at their peril.

China Miéville's novels and other works
The Bas-Lag Cycle

Perdido Street Station · The Scar · Iron council · "Jack"

Other novels

The City & the City · Embassytown · King Rat · Kraken · Railsea · Un Lun Dun


The Last Days of New Paris · This Census-Taker · The Tain

Short story collections

The Apology Chapbook · Looking for Jake · Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories


October: The Story of the Russian Revolution