“… London is the pick ‘n mix cultural capital of the world.”
Peter Grant is coming to the end of his two-year probationary period as a Constable with the London Metropolitan Police Force. Unlike his perky best friend Lesley, who seems destined for a high-flying career, his tendency to get easily distracted means that rather than his desired position with CID, he is more likely to end up working shuffling paperwork than catching criminals. One night a man is decapitated in Covent Garden and the two PCs are posted to keep vigil overnight while the location is secured – while she goes off for coffee, Peter is accosted by a witness to the crime. The only ‘problem’ is that the witness is … well, undead. So opens the first in this new series of novels in which Grant is paired with Chief Inspector Nightingale, the jag-driving silver-topped cane-wielding officer in charge of investigating the supernatural.
“I never worry about the theological questions”, said Nightingale. “They exist, the have power, they can breach the Queen’s peace – that makes them a police matter.”
Ben Aaronovich, who incidentally is also the brother of journalist and TV / radio pundit David Aaronovitch, is probably best known for his important contribution to that brief renaissance in the fortunes of Doctor Who in the late 80s when, under the auspices of new script editor Andrew Cartmel, he helped reinvigorate the show, writing two serials and several spin-off novels. I recently reviewed an audio version of Earth Aid, an unmade serial from that era, by Cartmel and Aaronovich and you can read that over at my Audio Aficionado blog. With this new series he branches out into the urban fantasy genre, deftly combining a police procedural with magic thanks to a fast-moving plot and a strong sense of humour as Grant and Nightingale investigate several violent deaths that have no apparent motive, while the young apprentice also learns to harness his latent talents. This is the modern world (specifically London) largely as we know it, but a parallel iteration in which magic is real, as are trolls, ghosts and vampires and in which the river Thames is controlled by two opposing supernatural clans.
Aaronovich discusses his book here:
Grant makes for an appealing protagonist, a callow youth who has much to learn from the mysterious Nightingale (who is apparently not even of the twentieth century) but who is also bright, educated (he studied science) and reasonably well-adjusted, despite his unrequited lust for best friend Lesley – but as with any good bildungsroman, he sorely in need of experience. As he narrates the tale he describes himself as being mixed race (his mother is West African, his father a Caucasian Englishman) but this proves to have a wider meaning as he also straddles the mundane world, in which he sometimes struggles to fit in within the rigid hierarchy of the Police force, and that of the supernatural. The latter of course also proves to have a set of distinctly arcane rules, some of which will take him years to get to grips with as he goes through his apprenticeship at an establishment known as ‘The Folly’, where he goes to live with Nightingale, his dog Toby and their non-speaking feline housekeeper Molly as its only other occupants. The mood and geography of inner and outer London are very well caught as our heroes criss-cross the great metropolis. As the body count goes up and people first give in to unexplained aggression and then have their faces explode or fall off, Grant makes some new friends and several enemies while his magical skills slowly improve (amid a rain of exploding apples and cell phones).
“But what if he’s something else … Like the manifestation of a social trend, crime and disorder, a sort of super-chav. The spirit of riot and rebellion in the London mob.”
Although there are jokey references to Harry Potter (and Doctor Who and Star Wars come to that), this is a resolutely adult book with strong language and some quite shocking scenes, such as the murder of a husband, wife and their baby child early on, which leaves Peter and Lesley reeling in horror. The book aims to be both contemporary in its urban setting and timeless in its magical excursions but it also has an unexpected resonance given the way that it taps in to some of the triggers that led to the chaotic events in the UK over the last Summer with its plot about mostly innocent people suddenly and inexplicably going mad and creating mayhem in London. But any allegorical underpinning, intentional or not, never gets in the way of telling a good yarn with energy, wit and plenty of sheer gusto.
What the book does especially well is compartmentalise the fantastical and procedural elements so that Grant never loses sight of the need for straightforward police work to track down the villains, even if a little magic is needed to speed their ultimate dispatch. The last third of the book sees Grant separated from his ‘Master’ and pushed out of the Force for the time being – and this is where the story really kicks into high gear as we see him having to cope on his own as everything he thought he knew about those around him is put into question and events pull him inexorably back to Covent Garden for an operatic climax. Available in the US under the rather anodyne title Midnight Riot, this is a highly entertaining generic hybrid that deserves to do well. I look forward to the next book in the series, Moon Over Soho which is already out in hardback. A third book, Whispers Under Ground, is due out in 2012.