Finch, by Jeff VanderMeer, is an intricate, immersive fantasy novel with grace notes of detective noir and even espionage thriller. VanderMeer’s setting, the city of Ambergris, is one he is very familiar with and he uses specific detail to paint the city, decaying rapidly under the assault of its fungal overlords, vividly for the reader.
John Finch was not born with that name, nor is he a detective by training. Heretic, the “gray cap” or fungus-based life form to whom Finch reports, has given him the title of detective and, as the book opens, the assignment of solving a locked-room murder mystery. There are two dead victims, one human and one gray cap.
VanderMeer fully embraces the tropes of noir. There is the compromised partner, the corrupt government, the femme fatale, the brutal crime boss who resents the detective’s questions, and a man or woman of mystery (Finch has one of each). There is also a truly alien race, fully-realized and well-detailed, that has subjugated the human population of Ambergris. As the story develops, Finch must face some personal mysteries as well, specifically the truth about his father.
John Finch is a plausible character surviving a city occupied by conquerors. It seems as if the gray caps have only held the city for seven or eight years, but Ambergris has been the center of war for decades: the civil war among its great commercial Houses, and the war with the neighboring Kaliph. Finch is, by birth and training, a spy and a soldier. To some extent, he does not begin to understand his own role in what is how happening in Ambergris until he accepts that heritage.
This is the third book in a series that began with A City of Saints and Madmen, but it stands alone. I may have some of the details wrong, but I have read neither of the previous books and I had no trouble following the plot or understanding the significance of the dead man in the apartment.
This is a mature work, and after I surfaced from it, I began to wonder just how much research, especially in the area of mycology, VanderMeer had done — and how much on dictatorships. It’s possible that he did none at all — that he read an article about life in Iraq under Hussein, and then saw a recipe for ravioli al funghi and imagined the rest — but I don’t think so. It feels like VanderMeer gave a lot of thought to the concept of a race that exists underground and is completely networked and connected. Research is not “on display” in Finch, but small bits of action, description and the perfectly chosen facts that are delivered to the reader all build and cement the world that contains Ambergris.
VanderMeer’s choice to use fragmented sentences to depict Finch’s thought processes irritated me. This is supposed to hark back to detective noir. VanderMeer executes the technique very well; I just don’t care for it to this extent. Less can be more sometimes, and it should have been here.
After I finished Finch, I immediately ordered A City of Saints and Madmen. I may never look at a shitake mushroom the same way again, but I recommend Finch.