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9Tail Fox

by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

(Gollancz, £12.99, 326 pages, hardback, 20 October 2005.)

Review by John Toon

cover scanBobby Zha is bludgeoned across the back of the head while on a case in San Francisco, and wakes up inside the body of coma victim Robert Van Berg in New York. Van Berg is a blank identity thanks to the years spent in a coma, and very rich thanks to a settlement fund set up because of the crash that put him there, and Bobby wastes no time in abusing the facilities to set himself up with fake credentials and head back to San Francisco. Bobby's been murdered, and he's come back as Robert to find out why. How is a mystery, but he knows it won't last for long because he's seen the celestial nine-tailed fox, harbinger of death. He has perhaps a few weeks to wrap things up, and when the fox visits him again, that's it. He believes he knows who killed him, but the reason why is stranger than he thinks.

9Tail Fox continues the theme of reincarnation from Jon Courtenay Grimwood's previous novel, Stamping Butterflies, but returns to the earlier Arabesk realm of the police procedural. Once again Grimwood builds well on strong foundations, and I'd say that once again he's outdone himself. That self-avenging angel Bobby should land himself a body that's handsome, rich and the perfect would-be cover story for a government agent is absurdly convenient, but exactly the sort of faux karma that Hollywood loves; and among Grimwood's novels Fox is surely the one that most loudly demands to be filmed. Besides, it is -- as ever -- written with such fluid prose and cheeky knowing, and the ending is so surprising and so hard-won by Bobby, that it's easy to forgive that the book starts with a deus ex machina.

I don't want to give away too much about the SF element of the novel, which provides the key to the whole mystery, but once revealed it connects Bobby's murder with some or all of the following. The corrupt dealings of "perfect cop" Pete Sanchez. The death of a foreign millionaire who's just bought San Francisco's most eccentric property. A crack-addicted cat. The secret past of Dr Persikov (by my reckoning, the second reference to Mikhail Bulgakov in this book after the overt one) in Stalinist Russia. Dead babies. A burglar shot by an eleven-year-old girl. And of course, the nine-tailed fox. If that lot doesn't get your puzzlin' senses tingling, see a doctor.

Character is a little lighter than it has been in Grimwood's work, painted in broad strokes and yielding ground to the plot. Again, tastes like Hollywood. But there is still plenty of exploration of Bobby Zha's character, from the inside. Bobby has separated from his wife and teenage daughter and is an unorthodox loner among his fellow officers, but he still thinks he's making a reasonable go of it. Then he turns up at his own funeral, and starts to discover how wrong he was. And keeps discovering. At times the novel veers towards the psychological -- perhaps Bobby really was corrupt, ineffective, an airhole, he just deluded himself otherwise. When everyone else is so sure, can he alone really be right? Does it matter when he's someone else now? Meanwhile Bobby is learning all about other people's feelings, as he blunders through the life of Officer Flic Valdez, and has to spend the rest of his brief second life dealing with his blundering.

Fox is a tremendous read, which seemed to pass in no time at all. Grimwood just keeps working his way up my list of favourite authors.

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