Thursday, January 5, 2012

Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch

Midnight Riot (published as Rivers of London in the UK, which is a far more apt title to my way of thinking) is the debut novel by former Doctor Who scriptwriter Ben Aaronovitch.

My wife got this book and it’s sequel (Moon Over Soho) months ago and had been raving about it. I only just got around to reading it, and am kicking myself for not making time for it earlier, because it was an excellent story, with plenty of humour, pop culture references and clever subversion of a number of urban fantasy tropes.

For an urban fantasy Midnight Riot is a bit different in a number of ways, firstly it’s not set in the US, it has a male protagonist and he’s biracial.

Peter Grant is a uniformed London cop coming to the end of his mandatory two year period in uniform and is hoping to be transferred to a plainclothes division where he can do some ‘real’ policing, actually catch criminals rather than do data entry, attend minor disturbances and stand guard around crime scenes. That is until he happens to meet Nicholas Wallpenny a witness to an unusual murder. Unusual in that the victim’s head appeared to have been knocked off the body. Unfortunately for Peter, Nicholas Wallpenny is not your standard witness…he’s a ghost. I loved that Peter’s permanently perky partner, and possible love interest; Leslie Mays, doesn’t just dismiss Peter as mad when he tells her about Wallpenny, but actively helps him try and pursue that particular lead in the case. Of course then Peter meets Inspector Nightingale, Britain’s last wizard, and his life is turned upside down.

I’ve never lived in London, but I get the sense that Ben Aaronovitch’s descriptions of the cities geography, in particular it’s many waterways, was spot on. The concept that the rivers themselves have magical beings attached to them, which manifest as normal citizens was intriguing and amusing. The bigger the river, the more powerful the ‘person’. Mother and Father Thames (no relation) are the king pins. Peter and Nightingale soon realise that to get anywhere with their investigation they’ll have to deal with the rivers and their families. This brings the delightful Beverley Brook into the story as a sort of de facto deputy. The post riot scene where she’s busted and told off by her big sister; Fleet, is priceless and a highlight for me.

The writer also appears to have done a good deal of research into the London police force as the novel displays a great deal of knowledge about police procedures and hierachies. There are also odd little excursions into British history, which deal with everything from Sir Isaac Newton (the greatest British wizard) and the origins of Punch and Judy. I know I’ll never look at the nasty little puppet show the same way again after reading Midnight Riot.

The big reveal of the book was well hidden and I certainly never saw it coming, so much so that I let out a gasp of disbelief when I read it. The novel starts out rather breezily in the style of some of more recent amusing British novelists, but progressively turns darker, although it never loses it’s humour or drive at any point. It’s a great debut and I’ll be looking for the name Ben Aaronovitch from now on.

The whole cast of characters: Peter, Nightingale, Leslie, Beverley, Mama Thames, Lady Tyburn and of course Nightingale’s unforgettable maid Molly, were fascinating and well drawn. There are still mysteries around Nightingale (exactly how old is he?) and Molly, I’m still not sure exactly what she is, so plenty of room for Aaronovitch to move. The sequel Moon Over Soho is out and a third book is planned.

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