The Buried Life is Carrie Patel’s debut novel – but frankly, it’s good enough that you might not believe that; it begins as a mystery novel, set within an underground city.
The text begins following two key narrative strands; one follows an Inspector Malone, part of the city police force, and her new partner, Rafe Sundar, as they begin investigating an unpleasant murder in the city’s high society. The other strand follows Jane, a laundress in the city, whose client list leaves her in a position to act as an undercover informant for the detectives. Whilst the investigation is the framing device for the story, as all good noir tales do, it quickly gets bound up in personal jealousies, politics and secrets.
It’s a relative rarity to see a mystery novel mixed with a fantasy setting, and rarer to see it done well. Here, Malone and Sundar’s investigations seem largely logical, their conclusions authentic, and the smattering of complications and red herrings keep the reader in the dark. Mixed in with the classical mystery are some of the classical noir elements – obstructive superiors, withheld information, payoffs, and protagonists who feel more like tarnished knights than heroes – and it’s all to the good. The plot never really lets up – there’s more investigation than gunfights and chases, but it keeps the reader chasing along, trying to figure out what’s going on – and adds enough reveals (and the odd gunfight or chase) to keep things interesting.
The characters are perhaps less well defined than they could be; even the leaders of those strands of the narrative are more defined by what they’re doing than who they are. We get a lot of focus on the thoughts of, for example, Malone as she chases along an investigative trail – but why she does this, the motivations, the underlying character, aren’t as well explored; it would have been nice to have had a bit more detail here. Still, what is provided is good work – the characters aren’t caricatures, or cutouts, they just don’t yet feel fully formed – possibly this will change in any later books.
The setting, as mentioned above, is an underground city, inferred to have come inot existence after some un-named calamity. It’s slightly claustrophobic, class-ridden, and heavily authoritarian (the government, for example, issues ‘contracts’ providing the detectives with authority to investigate a crime, on a case-by-case basis). The society is largely non-violent, but also feels inherently resistant to change; one of the cleverest premises of the text is that this is at least partially intentional – all pre-calamity texts are under the control of a ‘Bureau of Preservation’, whose members, Historians, control the study and dissemination of knowledge. The remainder of society has an inculcated aversion to ‘unauthorised’ knowledge, and this is very well presented; it also lets the reader think about broader issues around government control of information, the reasons behind historical revisionism and the way in which truth can be shaped and reshaped in the interests of power or in service to a cause; this starts as subtext, but suffice to say that it allows the reader to consider, which is always nice – it’s not just fantasy fiction, the prose demands something of the reader, and it’s all the better for that.
Overall, a very well written debut, which stands out in a growing market of dystopian fiction, not just for its mystery, and the quality of its prose, but in its unflinching desire to make the reader think, rather than (appropriately enough), telling them what they should think. Worth the read!