A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Ben Aaronovitch has a background in screenwriting, most notably for Doctor Who, and has also written some novelisations of the series. Rivers of London is his first non-Whovian novel and although it contains much of the pacing and lateralism of Doctor Who, it’s a very different work. It is also the first in a new series featuring Peter Grant, a newly-qualified police constable in the Metropolitan Police. It is also a London novel; those who like London as a setting will probably enjoy it more than those who don’t. The next volume in the series, Moon Over Soho, is due to be published this April.
Peter is basically an ordinary Joe, a nice young bobby in pursuit of three things; a place on the Murder Squad, a life unencumbered by paperwork and a sex life, ideally involving his pretty colleague, Lesley May. However, attaining these goals becomes very difficult after a man is found dead in the Covent Garden area with his head violently removed. Peter is assigned to work with the ambiguous DI Nightingale, who, it turns out, is a wizard and definitely not one in the Hogwarts mould. From there on in, the narrative beds itself down as a combination of horror, music hall and police procedural. Even when hob-nobbing with the supernatural, Peter can’t escape paperwork. The assignment does nothing either for his ambition to join the Murder Squad; it’s not that his senior officers don’t believe in the supernatural – the evidence for it is too plain even for them – but they deeply resent its existence and this pip-squeak of a probationer for shoving it under their noses.
Aaronovitch’s London looks very much like ours but it is peopled with ghosts, vampires and an unpleasant fusion of both who can infuse people with one of popular cultures most horrifying creations. The rivers remain rivers, but they also have human embodiments with the power of deities. The lower Thames is represented by Mother Thames, a charismatic Nigerian matriarch with a large family and the ability to get right under Peter’s skin, possibly because she is so like his own tough, resourceful mother.
Although comedy is very much part of the narrative, so is evil and there are one or two scenes that might upset the very sensitive. However, good and bad in Peter’s London are highly ambiguous; a particularly good example of this is Nightingale’s housekeeper, Molly. She is definitely a creature of the dark, without being completely given over to the darkness. At the same time, she is clearly in a time-warp. Her cooking is more Isabella Beeton than Delia Smith, forcing the two policemen to eat out if they want a twenty-first century diet.
The fusion of genre and the ambiguous nature of many of the characters suit the anarchic, carnivalesque tone of the novel. In this world, the usual rules don’t apply so genre as a fixed form ceases to be helpful. This is a particularly amusing subversion when it comes to the police procedural. Generally, this genre relies more heavily than most on rules and procedures for its storylines and character development and in Rivers of London, the rule book comprehensively rewritten. At the same time, because it is set in a real place, (London) within a real entity (the Met) its subversion has to be particularly sensitive and intelligent. Without those qualities, the storyline would lose its credibility.
On the whole, Rivers of London makes a decent job of both subverting the form and maintaining the form’s traditions. It is not as assured as it could be; for example, the scene inside the Opera House is wordy and overloaded with exposition. Many readers will think that more show and less tell would work better. However, this is the first in a new series and hopefully, issues like that will be ironed out as Aaronovitch becomes more familiar with his terrain. In the meantime, Rivers of London’s atmosphere, humour and the sheer volume of imagination that goes into it, offers the reader an enjoyable treat.
Gollancz, London. 2011. ISBN: 978-0-575-09756-8. 392pp.