I’m a total voyeur. I like to peer into the darkness, but only to watch others play within the abyss. I refuse to do more than dip my toes into the forbidden waters myself though. Like an undertow, the unseen pull of dark energies can easily carry you away and by the time you realize the shore is no longer in sight, it’s too late. This voyeuristic curiosity is probably a huge reason I loved THE CITY by S.C. Mendes. The main character Detective Max Elliot is invited to experience a bizarre world and by proxy, so is the reader. A world where anything is possible and the more depraved you are, the better you’ll survive.
This debut novel—which is so well done, it’s hard to believe it’s Mendes’s first book—begins as a crime noir set in San Francisco’s infamous Chinatown where a grisly murder has the PD baffled and disgusted. Three bodies are found in a flop house. They have been gutted and the bones stolen leaving behind only empty bags of skin—like a shed snake. Besides the flayed flesh, there is only one other clue: a baggie of mysterious gray powder. As our anti-hero Max Elliot searches the gritty streets of Chinatown for answers, the pieces he finds reveal a puzzle that is much stranger than anyone could have guessed.
If all this book turned out to be was a dark murder mystery set in the early 1900s, I would have still been excited to read more. But The City has more twists and turns than a Japanese puzzle box, and after a few chapters it becomes something that is being referred to a Gore Noir—a sub-genre containing elements of both extreme horror mixed in with classic crime mysteries.
We learn that the powder is a bizarre drug made through a process kept secret by an ancient lineage of chemists. These chemists can be found in just one place, and that place is known simply as the city. To enter, one must have the “mark”, and once inside, there is no going back. “Abandon all hope ye who enter” is inscribed on the passageway to hell and the cautious advice is valid for entrance to The City too. If you’re a voyeur like me though, I urge all of you to follow Max into the darkest depths of the human condition.
Many familiar tropes from the horror genre are present in The City. But after the first few chapters, like the genre, those tropes are turned on their heads. It’s like Clive Barker meets Nic Pizzolatto with plenty of depraved death, intense sex, occult imagery, and whatever the hell The Mara are!
Once we transition to this secret city, you can buy any experience you want and, more importantly for me, you can pay to watch anything you want. There are all sorts of peep shows and live executions Max must endure as he navigates the underworld to find not only the killers, but to lay to rest some of his own personal demons. That’s where this book really steps away from the tragic stereotype of extreme horror. This is not a book about sex and death for no reason other than to disgust you. The characters are deeply developed and by the end, I found myself pretty emotionally attached, especially to Ming a young girl living on her own in the wretched city.
There is a whole lot that can be done with the world and characters that S.C. Mendes has created. Now that I’ve been marked by the book, I can’t forget it and I really look forward to more tales from The City!