Councillor Ruthers leaned forward. “Professor Cahill, you are aware of what this means?”
“And I trust that you’ve been discreet?”
“You’re the first person I’ve told, sir.” Perspiration condensed on the polished wood under his hands.
“Then you know the complications that would arise if this were to surface.” The words came out like the first sigh of snow in the autumn air, unexpected and chilling. Cahill took the councillor’s meaning and shivered.
Following some vaguely-described catastrophe in the distant past, most of life has moved underground, at least in ‘civilized’ cities like Recoletta. Surface dwellers produce the world’s food but they’re looked down on with suspicion and contempt. And while the people of Recoletta consider themselves cultured, history (and anything hinting at it) is fiercely suppressed by the governing elite. This, in brief, is the rather unusual world in which The Buried Life is set.
Liesl Malone is an inspector with the Municipal Police, who acquires a new partner at about the same time as a murder file hits her desk. Murder itself isn’t terribly unusual, but what makes this one special is that the victim is a professor, and one of the elite class of whitenails (a wonderfully evocative name for the ruling class), whose rarefied world is assumed to be safe. Malone’s new partner, Sundar, is a retired actor looking for a change of career; while she’s initially reluctant to work with him, she develops a grudging respect for his skills as they start to collaborate. I loved the juxtaposition of practical, down-to-earth police work against a setting that was by turns dystopian, post-apocalyptic, and just a little bit steampunk.
Meanwhile, as Malone and Sundar attempt to progress their investigations, a young laundress called Jane stumbles over a body and finds herself dragged into a web of complex machinations that she finds strangely fascinating. I was taken by Jane from the beginning: although it’s coincidence that hooks her into the plot, she’s got a great eye for detail and a meticulous nature that fit her well to a little freelance investigation. And as she gets to know the mysterious and alluring Roman, I was hoping the stars would align to bring them together (but I won’t spoil that one for you).
Other critics have noted the fact that the two investigative threads, belonging to Jane and Malone, are rather different in tone, having the feel of a cozy mystery and a hard-bitten detective novel respectively. Personally, I really liked this aspect: I’ve often wondered what would happen if an enthusiastic amateur became embroiled in a case with competent, determined officer in charge rather than the usual hopeless cases.
The history of Recoletta and its neighbouring settlements was sparsely furnished in this book, but it was realistic from the perspective of the main characters, most of whom have no access to history books or even historical fiction. I did find it took me a while to be able to imagine the underground city, and even so, I sometimes found myself imagining perfectly normal houses on daylit streets. I’m not one for pages of descriptive text, but in this case a few more details would have been very welcome. However, the societal structure felt a lot more developed: I very much enjoyed the stratified nature of society, with the grand balls and whispered schemes of the whitenails set in sharp contrast to ordinary citizens like Malone and Jane who just want to get on with their lives and their jobs.
If I have one complaint it’s that the ending came out of nowhere, and suddenly swung into the set-up for a much larger series-level plot arc that had barely been hinted at before. I’d been enjoying a straighforward murder mystery, and all of a sudden, characters were being co-opted into very different roles (more fitted to YA dystopian cliches, if I’m honest). The result was rather jarring. I’ll probably read the next one to see where it goes from here, but unfortunately I think it would be over-optimistic of me to imagine that the next instalment will remain within the mystery genre — which is a shame as, until the end, it was quite a good example.
Although I selected The Buried Life as a good fit for my current theme of mystery novels, it’s also a new release, having been published just last month.