Friday, 6 September 2013

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

Publication date: 10th January 2011

Published by: Gollancz

Genre: Crime/Fantasy

This is the first of a series of crime fiction novels with a difference.  Peter Grant is a London-based police constable who is about to complete his stint as a ‘Bobby on the beat’ (UK term for a police officer on foot patrol).  While out on patrol he is called to a crime scene and it turns out to be a murder victim – a lifeless body minus the head.  Peter and his partner, Lesley, remain on the scene waiting for the detectives to arrive.  Lesley goes to get them coffees and Peter takes a look around the crime scene.  While doing so he is approached by someone who claims to be a witness.  There is something not quite right about this witness.  For one thing, he is dressed like he is from the early 20th century and he is completely transparent.  The witness gives him an account of what he saw then disappears.  

Late one night while off duty, Peter takes it upon himself to go back to the crime scene of the beheaded victim in search of the mysterious witness to gather more evidence.  He does not find him but meets someone else, a man who turns out to be Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale.  He demands to know what Peter is doing there.  Foolishly, he tells the truth - that he too is a police officer and that he is looking for a ghost witness.  To his surprise Nightingale leaves him to it.

The following day Peter is assigned his first placement. He is given the name of the task force he will be working for, the Economic & Specialist Crime Unit, as well as an address where he may report to his commanding officer.  Peter goes to the address and meets his new boss – who turns out to be DCI Nightingale.   They discuss the case of the decapitated victim, who has died under supernatural circumstances, and Peter learns from Nightingale that ghosts and other supernatural beings exist, and that his new position is to work for the branch of officers that specialise in catching criminals of the supernatural kind - a team that consists of 2 ( Nightingale and him).

Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London is a fun fantasy crime novel and a love letter to the city of London. Make no mistake it is as much about London as it is a crime mystery – from its history to the multicultural vibrant city into which it has evolved.  But please don’t let this put you off.  It is not a history or cultural lesson. That’s what is so clever about it.  The historical and cultural stuff is woven into the plot.  For example, the plot is centered around the River Thames (hence the title).  There is a sort of postcode war taking place between the leaders, Mamma Thames and Father Thames, as they jostle for territorial dominance.  They both have offspring with responsibility for the tributaries including the characters Beverley Brook, Tiburn and Fleet, all with supernatural abilities.  So you see, old and new have been woven together.

The publishers of the book did not agree that readers would be put off and decided to change the cover and the name to Midnight Riot. Admittedly, those who are familiar with the city are likely to get more from it than those who are not, and those who love London as much as Aaronovitch clearly does may appreciate it all the more, but there is plenty to enjoy from the central plot without knowing anything about the other stuff.  But did it really need re-branding? (Probably.)

If you are not a fan of fantasy fiction then that’s another story. This one is not for you. It is a bit Dr Who and (even more) Torchwood.  Aaronovitch was formerly a script writer for TV and this would make great TV viewing.  Rumour has it this is in the pipeline.

Being a native Londoner, who shares Aaranovich’s love of the city* this was a joy for me. I love his prose and some of the passages were so good they jumped out at me.  I am currently working my way through the entire series.

* I too include a lot of references to London life in my writing.

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