A good long while ago now, I interviewed Jeff Vandermeer who at the time was in the midst of publicising his majestic City of Saints & Madmen, a sort of House of Leaves-esque cornucopia centred on the fictional city of Ambergris, a city at once thrilling, unknowable, mysterious and utterly real, in which a century long internecine war was going on between the residents and creatures known as greycaps (who looked a bit mushroomy and had the ability to wield mushrooms and reduce flesh and blood to spores that blew in the wind) – and Jeff talked me through where he saw his envisioned Ambergris cycle going, touching on both Shriek: An Afterword and Finch, each of which have now appeared. From the beginning, Vandermeer has been the sort of writer who sees his books in terms of both narrative and genre. So, Shriek, for example, despite moving the Ambergris history on a little bit and being every bit as weird, wild and horrific at times as City of Saints & Madmen was his romance (it could even have been his historical romance) – and Finch? Finch is his hardboiled noir. Except of course in the world of Ambergris and the head of Jeff Vandermeer there can never be anything as straight forward as hardboiled noir.
Two bodies are found in an apartment, a human man and a greycap whose body has been sliced in half – the legs are nowhere to be found. Finch, who is a detective, first views the bodies in the company of Heretic (who is his boss and a greycap given to worrying fits of temper and threats to mysteriously disappear Finch off to the camps or worse) and a Partial – a Partial being a large-eyed creature the greycaps have fashioned from experimenting on humans whose eye records everything it sees. This double murder (if that is what it is) sets the ball rolling on city-changing events in Ambergris. The greycaps are building two enormous towers in the harbour, a project that – Finch thinks – is causing them to take their eye of the proverbial ball in terms of policing the city (if they even care about policing the city, it’s hard to know, they are utterly alien creatures). The dead man in the apartment is clutching a piece of paper with odd fragments of words, a bit of Latin and a curious icon – and this propels Finch into a mystery that stretches back a hundred years or more into Ambergris’ history and involves Duncan Shriek from the previous book, as well as new characters like Rathven (a sort of librarian who lives in a semi-flooded apartment and protects books she rescues from all over the city), Sintra (Finch’s lover who, of course, may not be all that she seems), Bliss (a shady figure from the past who knew Finch’s father), Stark (a gangster who thinks he knows all the angles) and Wyte (Finch’s partner who is gradually sickening of an ingestion of spores). Before we’re done we’ll have fleshy guns that leak (a la the weapon in Cronenberg’s Existenz), doorways that allow rebels to hop from place to place and time to time (which may be Vandermeer’s nod to Philip Pullman), enormous gunbattles featuring a man who eventually becomes a creature akin to Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing and the sort of pharmaceuticals that wouldn’t be out of place in Wonderland.
Regular visitors to Ambergris will need no encouragement to chase down Finch. If you read and delighted in either City of Saints & Madmen or Shriek, it’s likely you’ll find as much to be delighted in in Finch. In fact, I’d go further. If you read and delighted in either City of Saints & Madmen or Shriek, it’s possible you’ll get even more of a kick out of Finch because Finch provides answers to some of the mysteries set up in City of Saints & Madmen all those years ago (such as who the greycaps are, what do they want etc). At the same time, if you’ve yet to dabble with Vandermeer but find yourself intrigued by Lovecraftian tales in which terrible creatures weave otherworldly plots, Finch is a good point to enter. The short clipped Chandler-esque sentences keep things simple. As long as you’re not put off (as some readers are) by anything fantastical, you’ll be fine.For this reader, Finch was an enjoyable flight of fancy imbued with a modicum of sadness because, having long walked these Ambergrisian streets, I can’t find it in myself to bid them goodbye with a happy heart. Can this really be the end of Ambergris? I hold for comfort to the fact that, if Vandermeer can transport me to one place so wholly, he can just as easily transport me somewhere else. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next…
Any Cop?: A thrilling resolution to Vandermeer’s Ambergris cycle.