Rivers of London

reviewed by Wendy Tucker

by Ben Aaronovitch

How to describe this novel, the first in a series of nine?

It’s a crime novel, a police procedural novel, a fantasy/magical realism novel,

a love letter to London and a commentary on race. And it’s rollicking good fun and totally addictive. I am a fan of good crime writing but not usually of fantasy.

Rivers of London is a cross over of crime and fantasy and it has the familiarity of suspenseful crime novels and the fantasy elements never disrupt the reader’s belief in reality. This crossover of genre is not easy to achieve but Aaronovitch does this superbly. It has been described as Harry Potter for adults, that’s if Harry Potter joined the Metropolitan Police Service, the MET. But it’s much more original than that.

Ben Aaronovitch is an English writer and screenwriter. He wrote two series of Doctor Who and spin-off novels of Doctor Who.

Peter Grant, our young protagonist, is just a probationary constable in the Met. He has a science degree and hopes to become a detective but has failed to impress and looks at a life of drudgery ‘doing paperwork so real coppers don’t have to’. While on his inner London beat, he witnesses a murder and finds himself talking to a ghost. This ability, which is a huge surprise to Peter, brings him to the attention of Inspector Nightingale, the last wizard in England.

He is officially apprenticed and joins a secret department of the Met that investigates the inexplicable.

And so begins our story or stories, steeped in the folklore and unban myths that a city as old as London is full of and that live on in the architecture, rivers and landscape. Firstly, Mother Thames and her seven daughters and Father Thames and his sons are in a boundary dispute that must be settled before natural/unnatural disasters occur. Much of the history of the Thames and its tributaries are woven into the narrative here.

Then we come to Punch and Judy. An ancient and horrible tale of murder and revenge that somehow morphed into a children’s puppet show. In the original story, Punch is actually a murderous villain, who first murders his wife and baby, attacks a doctor and then pursues the constable who is chasing him. And this is happening again. The faces of the murderers are transformed into the face of Punch and murders most horrible follow. And we know that our Peter is the constable who comes next. This all sounds a bit grim, and it is, but the voice of our hero is self-deprecating, witty, drily amusing and full of asides. These asides comment astutely on race (Peter is black), the police, relationships, sex, the English and his beloved city. The tone is dry and sardonic.

‘For a terrifying moment I thought he was going to hug me, but we both remembered we were British just in time. Still, it was a close call.’

Peter gives also gives some advice: ‘If you find yourself talking to the police, my advice is to stay calm but look guilty; it’s your safest bet.’

And – ‘In winter she curls up around a good book and dreams away the cold.’

I’ll take both onboard. And I’ll keep reading this series.