It was the action of a shit, and Bobby wasn’t that, except that he was and apparently always had been.

9Tail Fox by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Bobby Zha is a down-on-his-luck San Francisco cop, unpopular with his colleagues and the top brass but with a knack for the street which makes it just about worth their while keeping him in the job. He’s divorced and his teenage daughter barely talks to him. Doesn’t sound original does it?

Don’t worry though, because within about 30 pages Bobby Zha will be gunned down in a deserted alley with his partner suddenly nowhere to be seen. Bobby’s been set up. As he lies there dying he sees standing over him the Jinwei hu, the celestial fox of Chinese folklore that his grandfather used to tell him about:

The fox was pure white and carried its tale high and curled like flame over its back. Its eyes were red as coals, fierce with anger. White canines showed on either side of its mouth.

Bobby, an atheist who’s long since run out of good reasons for living, finds “the appearance of the celestial fox far more shocking than the thought of his death.” Getting killed in the line of duty is a risk of the job. Seeing a celestial fox though? That’s just plain strange.


Bobby wakes up, which he wasn’t expecting. Even more unexpected is that he doesn’t find himself recovering from being shot or in some undreamt of afterlife. Instead, he finds himself in the body of coma victim Robert Vanberg who’s spent the last twenty years a vegetable in a New York private clinic. Fortunately for Bobby, Vanberg has access to a substantial trust fund and before too long he’s on a plane back to San Francisco to investigate his own murder.

Grimwood sets up expectations of a science-fiction explanation early with an intercalary chapter set in 1942 Stalingrad (inserted between the early chapters where Bobby is Bobby and the later ones where Bobby’s come back as Vanberg). In that a boy assists a Russian scientist experimenting with keeping heads alive separate to their bodies, and before his death Bobby was investigating a shooting at the home of an aged Russian scientist. Could the technology have advanced over the intervening decades? Has someone for some reason has transplanted Bobby’s memories and personality from one body to another?

Perhaps, but none of that explains the fox, nor does any of it explain the faint psychic abilities Bobby seems to have picked up since his death. Now, when he touches someone, he gets a sense of their character and even some of their memories. Perhaps it’s just intuition, perhaps it’s something more.

We’re talking genre mashup, or perhaps it would be better to say genre fusion. 9Tail Fox has elements of police procedural and hardboiled detective story combined with science fiction or supernatural thriller (but the reader can’t be sure which). Cleverly, Bobby’s ignorance of how he ended up in Vanberg’s body is matched by the reader’s uncertainty as to whether the explanation will be technology or magic.

This isn’t my first Grimwood, though it is my first since starting this blog. I’m used to him being strong on description, on a very concrete sense of place (even where the place is one he’s made up), and this is no exception:

The building which gave the quay its name had been elegant and even beautiful, in a strict utilitarian sort of way, with half pillars flanking its doorways and art deco plaster work framing each window. But someone had kicked holds in a wall painted to look like stone, leaving a savage wound now colonised by pigeons, who cocked their heads and stared suspiciously at the three men stood in front of them.

More interesting though is the character study. Bobby starts out something of a cliché, but that’s in part because that’s the role he’s cast himself in. Now he’s been recast. Bobby was overweight, something of a slob, ethnically half-Chinese and not particularly attractive. Vanberg by contrast is younger (he went into the coma aged only eight), good-looking, white, and very rich. Bobby’s moved race, class and income bracket, and people treat him very differently as a result.

Not being dead is only Bobby’s first big surprise. His second is learning what people really thought about him.

Bobby put two fingers of whisky in a glass and splashed with water from a carafe. ‘Here.’
‘Pour one for yourself,’ said Bea. ‘While I deal with the curtains …’
She paused. ‘Did you really know Sergeant Zha?’
‘Yeah,’ said Bobby. ‘Pretty well.’
‘What did you think of him?’ Curtains done, Be a flopped into a chair to take off her shoes, flashing stocking as she did so.
‘He was okay,’ said Bobby finally.
Bea tossed her shoes onto a carved table. ‘No,’ she said, ‘Believe me, he was a shit.’ They sat in silence after that, Beatrice slowly sipped her whisky into ice and emptiness, while Bobby thought about what she’d said and the viciousness with which she said it.
‘What kind of shit?’ he asked eventually.

Bobby thought of himself as a man who bent the rules. He learns that others just thought he was corrupt. He thought he had a special knack for dealing with kids and the homeless. That bit’s true, but he didn’t know he was widely considered incompetent at pretty much everything else. He thought he’d caught some bad breaks over the years. He didn’t realise that for everyone around him he was the bad break. He thought his daughter hated him. It turns out she was about the only person who didn’t.

The investigation itself is classic crime novel stuff. Bobby pokes his nose where it’s not invited, asks unwelcome questions and uses his inside knowledge of his own death to suggest he knows more than he does. He knows for example that his partner was there when he died, but nobody else does as his partner’s report said that Bobby had gone out on his own. It’s not much, but it’s a start.

At the same time, Bobby enjoys his new body and sudden wealth. He sleeps with a variety of women who wouldn’t have looked twice at him before, including a policewoman assigned as his liaison officer who he realises (slightly too late to avoid hurting her) wants something more serious than a one-night-stand. Old Bobby, and for a while new Bobby, would have cared more about what he wanted than the consequences his actions have for others. New Bobby has a chance to be a better man and that may be more important than finding his own killer.

9TailFox raises some interesting questions about outsider status and social hierarchies, with people who should know better deferring to Bobby now he’s rich and white in a way they never would have back when he was just himself. Ultimately though, this is not a philosophical novel. It’s a hardboiled body-swapping murder mystery with enough depth to avoid it being disposable but not so much as to make it indigestible. I should probably read one of the five or so novels he’s written after this one…

Missed references

In the interests of full disclosure, I should probably mention that not having read Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and the Margherita (shameful I know) I completely missed the significance of a character being named Persikov and the inclusion of a black cat named Lucifer. There may well have been other references, but if there were and if they had any deeper significance I have no idea. I only picked up on the connection at all because Grimwood mentions it in the afterword, though possibly the book being dedicated to Bulgakov should have been a clue. So it goes.

Other reviews

None in the usual blogs I frequent, but there’s a good review at the Strange Horizons website here and one by Paul Kincaid here.


Filed under Crime, Grimwood, Jon Courtenay, Hardboiled, SF

19 responses to “It was the action of a shit, and Bobby wasn’t that, except that he was and apparently always had been.

  1. I think I might like this… I know I’ve heard this author’s name recently, but I can’t remember where.

  2. Looked at a preview on line and it’s all in italics. Is your copy in italics?

  3. You might, it depends in part on how happy you are with the non-crime genre elements, though there’s fair warning that they’re there (it’s the premise after all).

    My copy is not all italics. That would make it near unreadable I’d have thought, and sounds like a formatting error.

  4. It comes up as italics on a preview of the print copy. Reading an entire book in italics would be annoying.

  5. I thought this was a long,rambling novel when I read it some years ago.It was like being in a maze I think.It made no coherent sense.

  6. The Paul Kincaid review criticises it as overly complex, so I imagine he had a somewhat similar experience. I found it fairly straightforward though. Odd. Have you read any of his other fiction?

  7. Interesting review, Max. Grimwood is a completely new name to me – I’d never heard of him before. It sounds very inventive, something I might try if I were in the mood for something completely different. I know I’d like the hardboiled detective elements, but the sci-fi and supernatural thriller threads? I’m not so sure about those. I do like that quote about the building, though.

  8. He’s a well regarded post-cyberpunk (whatever that means) SF author, so I’m not surprised you don’t know him. The SF/supernatural elements are definitely here, it’s not allegory or something, he actually has transferred consciousness somehow from one body to another.

    I actually included it in my #tbr20 specifically because I wanted an SF title in the mix. I hadn’t realised how much it was also a crime novel when I did so, not that I regret it at all.

  9. I quite like crime fiction with a twist, though it is possible this may be one twist too far!
    I though I’d read Grimwood before in my SF days but don’t recognise any of his titles so I think it’s only that I’d heard of him.

  10. I haven’t read any of his other books.If the’re all like this one,I’ll stay away.It was quite forgetable.

  11. Tom

    I read this a while back. I found it quite enjoyable but the ethnocentrism and somewhat slapdash chinoiserie put me off. Getting the pinyin for “nine-tailed fox” wrong throughout was not great, for example.

    In “Stamping Butterflies” Grimwood also uses Chinese to vaguely lend things an air of oriental mystery. It’s… well, it’s annoying and disrespectful.

  12. 1st, it’s possible you’ve just heard of him. He’s been fairly widely discussed so you might well have come across reviews and such.

    Richard, this is quite similar in terms of tone and style to his Arabesk trilogy which he’s well known for and which I’ve read. I don’t know how later books compare, but based on that I’d guess you’re probably right to stay away.

    Tom, I hadn’t picked up that the Pinyin was wrong, but you’re right that is sloppy. I read the ethnocentrism as partly intentional, in that it’s no accident the character is treated differently after changing race, but I admit that’s tricky territory to walk along.

  13. From what I recall of my opinions of it,he seems to be one of those authors who’s only capable of writing lengthy,rambling novels,not compact,succinct works.Even reading your synopsis,I can’t recall myself what it was about,although I only read it about eight and a half years ago.It was instantly forgetable.

    A much better example of how to write a good novel,is George Martin’s “Ferve Dream”.It is a quite long but well sustained work of speculative fiction,that integrates a number of genre themes with some humanistic concerns very well.Perhaps the author of this other book could have learnt from it how to have written his book,but then again probably not.

  14. In fairness though Richard, I’d argue that Fevre Dream is Martin’s best novel. If we’re talking however lengthy, rambling novels, I think Martin has some form there on the later Game of Thrones books. If only he’d go back to compact, succinct works…

  15. I think you are very probably right,considering the high quality of it.The point is,the only other novel of his I’ve read,is “The Dying of the Light”,which might have been quite good if it hadn’t been such a hefty tome,but is barely reasonable,which is a shame,as it is quite poignant and haunting in parts.It was his first novel though.Also,I haven’t read any of his short fiction.

    The “Game of Thrones” books just seem to reek of commerciality.

  16. I read the first two or three of the GoT novels, I forget exactly how many. I think GRRM was trying to show how traditional “fat fantasy” could be done well, how you could subvert some of its assumptions and produce something within arguably one of the most moribund genres that still had literary merit.

    Unfortunately, I think as the series progressed he’s found himself simply writing fat fantasy.

    I stopped as I just lost interest. I realised I’d already read more pages than the complete Proust, on which note I think the current books (and the series isn’t finished) is two or three times the length of Proust. Frankly, if you’re writing that much, if you’re writing five times War and Peace, you need a good reason and I don’t think there is one.

  17. I’ve never heard of him and I’m surprised by the crime-harboiled/SF style, but what do I know about books with science-fiction elements, anyway.
    I think he’d loose me at soon at the fox arrives in the story.

    PS: you and me must be the only bloggers in our “circle” who are not currently reading German literature. 🙂

  18. That’s the first chapter or so, so it’s not one for you 🙂

    I know. There’s none on my #TRB20 though and I’ve no German lit books provided for review, so I don’t see myself taking part anytime soon. I’m hoping to catch up on my review backlog a bit next week, which would be something even if not German, but then I hoped that last week and I’ve not managed to get a single one up this week.

    Ah well.

    I would prefer sometime if instead of German literature month or Spanish literature month we did Indian literature month or Ghanaian literature month – somewhere where I don’t already have a good sense of what’s out there.

  19. I’m studying for an oral exam, and it’s nice to have these information.

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