By Cheryl Morgan
Another fabulous Jon Foster cover; another of Liz Williamsí Inspector Chen novels. OK, so it is only the second, but it is evidence of the quality of Williamsí writing that I already feel that I know Chen and Singapore Three well. However, The Demon and the City is not just more of the same. Indeed, Chen hardly features in the book. As you might guess from the title, the star of the show this time is Zhu Irzh, the demon policeman from Snake Agent who is currently exiled to the mortal world after having upset his masters in Hell by helping Chen out. Zhu Irzh now works for Chen in Singapore Threeís police department, but while the Inspector, who has a demon for a wife, is happy to accept him, the rest of the precinct is much less happy.
It would have been easier in ways if he had been equally invisible to his human colleagues, but the police station was covered with revealing spells just in case something nasty decided to slip in and wreak havoc, and so Zhu Irzh stood out like a sore thumb once inside the walls of the precinct. The spells made him sneeze, to add insult to injury.
Fortunately all has been quiet in Singapore Three since Zhu Irzhís arrival, at least until now. Which perhaps makes it rather awkward that Chen chose to go on vacation just before a major murder case came in. The victim is Deveth Sardai: famously beautiful, famously wealthy, and famously lesbian. This is a crime that will be in all the papers, and which the police department cannot afford to fail to solve. Captain Sung would not have assigned Zhu Irzh to the case had he known in advance who the victim was, but her face had been savaged in the attack that killed her and it looked like a case of demon assault. As soon as he understood how high profile the case was, the Captain tried to take Zhu Irzh off it, but telling a demon what to do isnít always easy. Besides, Zhu Irzh has been picking up bad habits from Chen.
Not for the first time, Zhu Irzh had reason to deplore those unnerving elements within his own character that made him more human than demon, yet less than human. Conscience, and affection, and a desire for someone elseís respect. Perhaps he should look for a good therapist to eradicate these personal failings when he finally got back to Hell.
As the case develops it becomes clear that there is more to it than meets the eye. One of the obvious suspects is Robin Yuan, a mousy scientist who was Sardaiís most recent lover. A more likely suspect is Robinís boss, the wealthy and eccentric industrialist, Jhai Tserai, who is also rumored to have been one of Sardaiís lovers. But does the strange experiment that Robin is working on have anything to do with the case? Who is the young demon she is dosing with experimental drugs? And why does Jhai Tserai, an admittedly beautiful but human woman, exert such a strong sexual attraction on Zhu Irzh. He did, after all, work in the Vice Squad in Hell. There isnít much he hasnít seen.
At this point we discover that the book isnít really a murder mystery at all. About half way through we find out who done it. From then on the book turns into a roller coaster adventure as Zhu Irzh and a belatedly returned Chen (assisted as ever by his faithful badger) try to stop the bad guys from doing something truly awful; something that the Celestials really ought to have noticed, except that they are not paying attention.
"I donít think you understand how remote Heaven has become over the last century. As fewer and fewer people believe in it, so it withdraws itself. Celestials are starting to ask themselves why they bother with the affairs of the Human Realms, when they get so little thanks for it."
If Snake Agent was primarily about the cosmology of Hell, so The Demon and the City gives Williams an opportunity to explore the third realm. Heaven is a pretty dull place, filled with self-righteous and sanctimonious beings of such utter goodness and purity that you canít help but despise them. They do, after all, despise anyone less pure than themselves. For all the fun that Williams has with her demonic policeman, sheís just as happy making pointed comments about religion and human society by drawing satirical portraits of her Chinese otherworlds. Consequently the Inspector Chen novels have something for both fans of amusing pulp fiction and lovers of sociological SF&F. Which is, of course, why I like them.