Valentine’s Day is a bit rubbish, really, but there’s no whinging about it that will make for a good blog post. Complain about the ubiquity of the thing and everyone will just assume that you’re secretly sad because you don’t have a partner/your partner isn’t attentive enough/there is something “missing” from our relationship. The thing missing from my relationship is probably “a person who cares about getting cards with bad poems in them”, so Valentine’s chat is unlikely to be a good topic for today’s post.
Happily I also finished reading an excellent book recently, so let’s talk about that instead!
In lieu of romance, let’s talk inspiration. I was recently leant a copy of Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch by one friend, after a few other friends had recommended it to me; most of my remaining friends that I raved at about it had already read it and raved back at me and the others had already heard about it and were planning to read it.
Ordinarily something that smells suspiciously of hype would put me off, but this was passed on to me by the discerningly brilliant Holly Yagoda, who has an excellent hit-rate when recommending books, and so I let this skip ahead over all the other books on my impressively and embarrassingly full “to-read” self.
I’m extremely glad that I did. Ben Aaronovitch’s work here is – I use this word sparingly at best – inspiring.
The plot and characters can be gleaned from reviews elsewhere, and a potted summary can no doubt be found on Wikipedia. I would much rather point out the skill with which both are drawn: Aaronovitch’s characters have weight, warmth, humanity (even the ones who aren’t strictly human), and a reality which made them seem as if they had walked in off the streets of London and into my head as I read.
His rendering of London, too, is exquisite. As an annoyingly committed transplant to London, it always pleases me when someone manages to capture the complexity and the patchwork nature of the city; Aaronvitch casually strews the history and social make-up of the place in asides that his protagonist has only just himself picked up, and in another context this might seem clumsy but in this, as Peter Grant (hopeless constable, charming fellow, not quite Joe Average and not quite special) struggles to explain both how he’s ended up in this unnatural situation he drags in every kind of explanation.
I am, too, pleased by the positive attitude towards modern policing; nods are made to the failings and to the things which still need to change, but unlike a lot of crime dramas Rivers of London doesn’t fantasise about a glorious past in which coppers were their own gang. In fact it demonstrates the importance of conflict resolution training even as the protagonist gently mocks it, which is priceless.
The very, very London nature of the book is inherent in the humour which buoys up an otherwise dark story; the grimness and the grimaces part of each other in what ought to be grandly theatrical grittiness but which feels much more like the London I know and love.
I think part of this is down to the genuinely intelligent way in which Aaronovitch observes. His spot-on descriptions of things like the estate in Kentish Town where Peter’s parents live; Dr Walid’s office and the institutions of London; the kind of man Seawoll is; the strange atomic dance of bicycle couriers and the specificity of their haunts. He outlines only the details that are necessary to let the rest of the image flourish in the mind’s eye, bringing familiarity rushing in with it, a kind of cartooning with words.
It may not be immediately evident that this is high-quality writing because of the cheerfully pedestrian approach of the narrator, the unpretentious use of language and ease with which you can cut through chapter after chapter, but I would argue that is the point. It is astonishingly easy to read; absolutely nothing jerked me out of the book, and I am a finnicky, picky, fussy, whiny reader. I complain, moan, and bitch about books. I throw them out of rooms if I’m not enjoying them.
Ben Aaronovitch’s light-but-precise observational touches, warm and human dialogue, likeable protagonist, and solid plot with highly professional pacing (I was not surprised to discover he was also a television writer after reading this; there was such exact timing and acceleration of plot beats that it was clear he’d learnt about the constraints of timing in a stricter medium than the lax environs of novel-writing) make for a deeply enjoyable read, and I’m looking forwards to getting my hands on Moon Over Soho and Whispers Underground.
Best of all, it has inspired me with one of my own projects.
I do however have one question:
I cannot speak for anyone else, but I don’t think I’d buy a book called Midnight Riot and featuring a stereotypical armed man-with-magic-light on it, because I would expect this (spoiler-ridden covered) book to be trash. Now, don’t get me wrong, I do read supernatural detective trash, John Connolly’s “Bird” books, which are egregious rubbish designed to cater to my desires for exhaustive background material, my desire for bickering gay side characters, and my desire for inventively gruesome serial murderers. But Rivers of London is not trash, and the idea that the genre determines the trashiness here is null.
Yes it is a supernatural detective novel; no that does not mean it is the same as trash. People looking for trash who pick up Midnight Riot aren’t going to have their need for trash fulfilled (I would definitely recommend the “Bird” books if you are looking for trash), and people who might otherwise seriously enjoy Rivers of London aren’t going to pick up Midnight Riot if they think the book consists of a Bad Ass Cop Shooting People and Doing Magic.
Poor marketing decision there, presumably made by someone who either didn’t read the book, or didn’t understand it.