9Tail Fox by Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Reviewed by Paul N. Billinger
Gollancz, London, 2005, 326pp, £12.99, h/b (reviewed in proof), ISBN 0-575-07615-1
Sergeant Bobby Zha of the San Francisco Police Department needs to solve a murder: his own.
Which will immediately bring to mind (for some of us at least) the opening of the 1950s film noir classic D.O.A., which is also set in San Francisco and starts with small-town accountant Frank Bigelow reporting his own murder, by poison, giving him a few days to solve the crime. The association of Grimwood's ninth novel with the crime genre is entirely appropriate as, at its heart, 9Tail Fox is a crime novel with only minor sf elements. This, I should point out, is a Good Thing, as it's done with Grimwood's customary style and panache, melding all the elements--crime, sf and Chinese myth--into a brilliant character study. Grimwood's novels, especially the Arabesk sequence, have always had a strong crime element, but here the sf elements move into the background, in a similar way to Paul McAuley's recent techno-thrillers, White Devils and Mind's Eye.
And this move away from the sf genre is not the only change. Whereas Grimwood is renowned for writing complex, interlocking, multi-streamed narratives, for example in his last novel Stamping Butterflies, 9Tail Fox is (very nearly) a linear, single-stranded work centred (almost) entirely on Bobby Zha. Okay, so we do have a flashback to 1942 and some sinister and morally dubious scientific experiments in Stalingrad, but most of the novel follows Bobby in present day San Francisco. Clearly, the novel will succeed or fail on the believability of this central viewpoint character and how the reader empathises with his decisions, his actions and emotions: a challenge that Grimwood surpasses with (apparent) ease. For all the convoluted structure and exotic locations of his Arabesk sequence it is the people--Raf, Hani, Zara--that make the books work, so the simpler structure of 9Tail Fox allows this to shine (although modern-day San Francisco is as convincing and well realised as El Iskandryia).
Bobby starts out as a none-too-successful or well-liked person, failing in both his career and his family, having more sympathy and understanding for Chinatown's street-people than for his wife, daughter or colleagues. It is only after his death--and unlike in D.O.A. he is dead, having been shot and had his head stoved in with a blunt instrument--that we start to learn the truth about what people really thought of Bobby. And as a consequence of the search for his killer Bobby is given a possibility for redemption and the chance to correct some of his mistakes. Bobby Zha is a classic Grimwood leading man: mysterious, tortured ... and with a liking for dark Armani suits, very much of the lineage of Ashraf Bey. The complex family relationships around Bobby, and the skilful way in which Grimwood reveals them, brings to mind Ian Rankin's Edinburgh-set crime books featuring DI John Rebus. That Grimwood's characterisation and plotting can be compared to Rankin is serious praise, showing just how far Grimwood has come since his debut novel, neoAddix, in 1997.
I've deliberately said little about the plot--which is complex, intricate and successful--as you should discover this for yourself, but it does involved the eponymous celestial fox (just what is the author's fascination with foxes?), the Russian mafia, a girl and a fun (well, if it was good enough for Jean-Luc Godard ...?), a fifteenth century icon and a pile of rotting, dead babies (just as unpleasant, but not as simple, as it sounds). Added to which are the already-mentioned medical experiments in Stalingrad, which give a very satisfying and well-resolved modern thriller. And, despite this being a crime novel, it can't exist without the sf twist (well, Bobby is dead--he knows, he saw his body being buried), just don't expect it to be the one you think it is (and it is very, very far removed from the real-world simplicity of D.O.A.'s poisoning).
Quite possibly Grimwood's most well-realised and successful novel to date, and one which, with its accessibility, characterisation and plotting, could well be a mainstream success.
This article first appeared in Vector 244. Back issues of Vector are available from