Whispers Underground by Ben Aaronovitch

When I pick up a book to read, it’ll for be for two reasons:

  1. I think I’m going to enjoy it
  2. I think reading it will make me a better writer.

In most cases, it’ll be both, occasionally, it’s just one, and a book that fits neither I won’t bother finishing; life’s too short. I didn’t think Fifty Shades was a great book, but I also believe you can learn a lot from other people’s mistakes as well as your own, so I made it to page 12.

Anyway, I romped through Whispers Underground, the third book in Ben Aaronovitch’s excellent Rivers of London series, in about three days.

The whole series is set around a clandestine department of the Metropolitan Police Force tasked with dealing crimes of a supernatural nature. In Aaronovitch’s mind, London is teaming with ghosts, elves, goblins and gods, most of which, for obvious reasons, try to keep a low profile. But like everyone else, they need policing. Unlike everyone else, they can do magic, so to keep a lid on things, you need the Folly, an off-the-books division that has police officers that can also do magic. It’s a bit like Harry Potter, but a lot more adult and a bit more sinister

For me (even though I’m not a Hogwarts person) this is a killer setup, but even if it’s not your usual cup of tea, you might want to read it anyway, because it’s a bit of masterclass in writing.

What Aaronvitch does brilliantly, is balance: the story is mix of comedy, a classic whodunnit, a fantasy mini-epic and a textbook on police procedure that you might want to read before joining up. And amongst all this, the writer has achieved a level of characterisation which makes you wonder what the players are up to, even when they don’t feature in a particular scene. The pace is not breathtaking, but that’s because there’s so much rich detail along the way (the author clearly has more than a passing interest in the history of architecture), but you don’t get the impression that things are moving too slowly. I’m not an expert, but I don’t imagine that a real police murder investigation is going to move much faster – unless the guilty party is caught of the body with his wand in his hand (actually there are no magic wands in this story).

And all this hangs together so seamlessly, you can’t see the join. The narrator is the main character, Peter Grant, an ambitious PC, who breezes through the story (occasionally dipping into future events) with a dry wit and an attitude that makes him likeable, but occasionally makes you shake your head and think, ‘Kids today …’; Lesley, his disfigured (by magic, no less) partner and possible love interest is also likeable flawed, and I suspect a better police officer and magician than Peter himself; time will tell. And then there’s Molly, the housekeeper/vampire/succubus who an absolute joy of a character, even though she never says anything.

Anyway, the prose is funny, tightly written, with some killer dialogue and great set pieces. Well worth a read if you want to comedy or a police thriller or an urban fantasy …

It’s a nine out of ten.

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