There was a story making the rounds, back in the day, when I was working on a detective novel, that said the only way to get a mystery book published at that time was to have a gimmick. For instance: the locale was to be so obscure as to require an atlas to find, or the detective was to be a part of a heretofore unrepresented ethnic group. If the book was to be set in mundane America, then the detective needed to possess some psychological affliction which would be entertaining but not debilitating; if not a handicap, then a quirk, some affectation which would indelibly stamp him or her with a unique signature. In 9Tail Fox, Jon Courtenay Grimwood uses the Hero Is Already Dead conceit to tell the tale of how Sergeant Bobby Zha of the San Francisco Police Department comes to solve his own murder.
Zha, mysteriously gunned down during a routine call for Breaking & Entering, is returned to the realm of the living after a visitation from the celestial fox, the nine-tailed animal of Chinese mythology who stalks the edges of dreams and hints at the procession of souls. Zha wakes in the body of an accident victim who has been comatose for the last twenty-odd years. After a brief exploratory fling in his new body, he returns to San Francisco and tries to determine why details of his death have been altered by the police. Naturally, there's a bigger picture at stake, and, wading through the wake of his funeral, Zha sleuths his way towards a resolution of both crimes. Grimwood plots the course in a fairly linear fashion and, other than a hint of advanced technology which has just enough of a whiff of science fiction for the book to be marketed as such and the occasional appearance of the fox to remind us that Things May Not Be As They Seem, 9Tail Fox is essentially a mainstream police procedural (albeit one dealing with dead babies, Russian icons, secret experiments from World War II, and Chinese mythology).
Grimwood strays from the formula by laying bare his fascination with the question of identities: who we think we are and who we become. Zha is killed quickly enough that his initial acts in his new body (young and rich) seem to be straight out of the realm of wish fulfillment (money removes all obstacles and a man in a good suit and an expensive watch gets laid often), and it isn't until Zha inserts himself into his previous life that Grimwood begins to unravel Zha's character. Zha discovers that his perception of his identity has become largely irrelevant. Now that his previous physical self is gone, all that remains is how he is remembered by the still-living. "Zha was a shit," he is told by more than one person. Zha, while ostensibly solving his own murder, peers through the veils of identities worn by those he thought he knew: his wife (having an affair), his Lieutenant (secretly dying from cancer), his partner (hates him for reasons never clearly elucidated), his daughter (just wants his love and attention). The chance given to him by the fox really isn't about solving his murder but rather solving the question of who he was beneath the mask he wore in public. Anonymously, bereft of the baggage of his own life, what does Zha want to do for those he loves? He can't necessarily change their perception of him, but can he do something for the ruin he has left behind?
Police procedurals often revolve around the question of identity as the investigators strip away the layers of deceit and lies in order to ascertain the "truth" of the murder. Everyone has something to hide, and the progress of the mystery lies in uncovering the hidden facets of the characters. While Grimwood hits a few notes which feel like he's just ticking off check boxes on the formulaic worksheet—daughter disappears into Goth makeup in an effort to hide herself, partner fucks his wife behind Zha's back, crusty old Lieutenant does the right thing even though it violates eighteen municipal codes—he deftly layers in subtle quirks, such as the unanswered question of Colonel Billy's presence in Vietnam (when he was white as compared to the dark skin he wears in the novel), the ritual burning of paper ghosts which Zha does at his own graveside, and a crack-addicted cat named Lucifer. Given the supernatural basis for the hero's dilemma, these add a delightful spice to the text, a taste that hangs memorably on the tongue.
However, that taste goes sour in the end as the book boils away in a mélange of flavor which reveals an unsatisfying lack of substance underneath. There are two books here, really: the one in which the committed crime is solved and those responsible are punished, and the book in which metaphysical questions of reality—both perceived and actualized—are tantalizingly considered but are, ultimately, left unresolved. Grimwood, in one of his nicely handled asides, comments on modern society as a culture of copies, but 9Tail Fox feels like one of those copies which has been incompletely altered. It is on the way to becoming something memorable and unique, but is caught halfway, as if afraid of becoming what it wants to be, and still wanting to be loved for what it thinks it should be. As a police procedural, 9Tail Fox has its gimmick; as an exploration of the supernatural possibilities that linger after our deaths, it is a dry whispering which vanishes the moment you try to listen more closely to it.
Mark Teppo is a writer living in the Pacific Northwest, where he works on fiction while he is commuting and when people think he's gone off to the restroom. He has works in progress and is a member of the Misfit Library. You may find him on the web at www.markteppo.com.