Thursday, 20 November 2014

Ben Aaronovitch - Rivers Of London (2011)

   "'It's all real,' I said. 'Ghosts, magic, everything.'
   "'Then why doesn't everything seem different?' she asked.
   "'Because it was there in front of you all the time,' I said. 'Nothing's changed, so why should you notice anything?'"

"'I never worry about the theological questions,' said Nightingale. 'They exist, they have power and they can breach the Queen's peace - that makes them a police matter.'"

For all of Tolkein's fetishisation of the countryside, Fantasy lends itself particularly well to describing cities. Cities that have been around for any length and time develop their own mythology alongside their history, urban legends growing entangled around generations upon generations of memories. For a city as old and as rich in history as London, one can well imagine every street corner having stories to tell, every alleyway rich with secret histories. From there it's not hard to imagine a secret world of magic operating right under our noses.
   'Rivers Of London' is a supernatural police procedural. Peter Grant is a young police officer who winds up taking a witness statement from a ghost at the scene of a murder. As a result he finds himself working for the branch of the London Metropolitan Police that deals with supernatural crime, under the mysterious Inspector Thomas Nightingale. What follows is both an entertaining supernatural whodunit and a heartfelt and vivid evocation of the history and mythology of London.
   A lot of the appeal of the book is Peter Grant's narrative voice. Aaronovitch nails the instantly likable cockney charm of the character, whilst conveying that Grant is far more canny than he lets on. Grant's charm and deadpan humour make him instantly sympathetic and an effective audience viewpoint character as well as a compelling and well-drawn character in his own right. Aaronovitch's proficiency with Grant's voice makes the book a breezy and enjoyable read, despite the darkness and violence of much of its subject matter.
   The book is far from just the Peter Grant show, however. Inspector Thomas Nightingale, the last officially sanctioned wizard working for the police force, is a fascinating character whom we learn all too little about. He is openly gay, drives a jaguar, is considerably older than he looks, and lives in a Folly on Russel Square with his maid, Molly, a being of undisclosed origin with sharp teeth who practices haemodivination. There is also Lesley May, Grant's colleague and potential love interest. At the beginning of the book, Peter Grant and Lesley have just completed their probationary period for the police force, but whilst Grant is destined for a lifetime of paperwork before being rescued by Nightingale, Lesley is a promising, competent officer about to be assigned to active duty. She is a well-written and developed female character, and her friendship with Grant is very well done; although it never becomes romantic they have a solid and enjoyable friendship that you could imagine leading to something more.
   And so we embark on a journey into the heart of London, through its history from the Roman times to the establishment of the police force and the justice system and back to the present day, with a varied cast and a compelling re-imagining of supernatural lore. 'Rivers Of London' is very well researched; Aaronovitch's eye for historical and architectural detail made me regret not reading this book while I was still living in London. However he is also aware that most of his readers in the modern age will be coming to his books with an awareness of 21st Century popular culture, and doesn't try to ignore it or sweep it under the rug. Thus, Peter Grant can make snarky jokes about Twilight vampires and point out his own book's similarities of premise with Harry Potter. Aaronovitch gets away with it because his book is clearly its own beast, and he comes up with some interesting takes on vampires and ghosts, whilst hinting at other mysteries to be explored more fully in later books. Another part of what makes Aaronovitch's London so well-realised is that Aaronovitch manages to capture the city's teaming diversity, from Grant himself who is half Sierra Leonian on his mother's side to Mother Thames, a Nigerian immigrant, to Dr Abdul Haqq Walid, the Scottish cryptopathologist.
   Aaronovitch is also very good at laying out how the police force works. In order for a supernatural police procedural to work, it helps for the procedural part to be well grounded. While Aaronovitch has the excitement and affection for the puzzle-solving aspects of an investigation, as well as a way with dramatic and destructive action sequences, he also has a good sense of how the intricate bureaucracy that ties the whole police force together works. His descriptions of the modern workplace are dryly amusing, with Grant having to work around how much of the magical world he should be including in his paperwork. There is much wry humour in the hierarchy of the police force as well, with Chief Inspectors Seawoll and Stephanopoulos grudgingly letting Nightingale and Grant bring magic into their murder case whilst trying to hide the actual truth from their boss.
   The narrative glue holding the whole murder mystery together is Punch and Judy, with the murders fitting the pattern of those carried out by Punch in the original Punch and Judy script. The culprit is a revenant, a vengeful spirit comprised partly of Punch and partly of Henry Pyke, an actor whose murder by a successful colleague went unpunished. As well as clever way of providing structure to the narrative, this works because Punch is the spirit of chaos and disorder, the breakdown brought about by the high stress life of living in a big city. Aaronovitch realises that you can't evoke the city without also taking into account its downsides. The Punch side of Henry Pyke's personality goes beyond an angry spirit's desire for revenge; what makes him effective is that he is able to channel all our worst impulses brought about by living in confined spaces together. As well as the murders, Punch's presence causes ripples of violence throughout the city, resulting in a series of minor incidents in which normal people snap under pressure and commit disproportionate acts of anger or violence. I particularly like that the book doesn't stereotype the poorer or immigrant communities as being more prone to violence; many of the outbursts are perpetrated by respectable-seeming middle-class types, and the book wrings some wry humour out of the fact that the climactic riot is set off in Covent Garden by opera goers. There is an excellent scene where Punch manifests on the tube to an exhausted and down-heartened Peter Grant and tries to break him, but Grant sees Punch for what he is and is able to resist.

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