Rivers of London
Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Just came across this lovely off-beat fantasy crime novel, thanks to a friend of my wife’s. It starts with a bang one freezing cold night, when probationary copper PC Grant is guarding the scene of a murder in Covent Garden, only to meet a small-time thief who swears he witnessed the crime. The only problem: his witness is a ghost. You might start to suspect “Rivers of London” is not your average police procedural. Nor is mixed-race PC Peter Grant an ordinary copper. It turns out he has certain natural abilities that allow him to converse with the dead, learn magic spells and work on chat-up lines with some rather fit river nymphs.

Passed over by his bosses and destined for the bureaucratic hell of the Case Progression Unit, Grant’s supernatural snout brings him to the attention of Scotland Yard’s branch for dealing with magic – yes, it exists – a one-man unit run by the decidedly unusual DCI Nightingale. Soon the unit is a unit of two, as Grant is appointed apprentice police wizard. Meanwhile the Covent Garden murder turns out to be the first of a series of murders, with a strangely theatrical twist.

This fast-paced, tongue-in-cheek debut novel by TV writer Ben Aaronovitch (Dr Who, et al) crackles with sly humour and intriguing plot twists. I love the characters – not only the main characters but a support cast – alive and dead – which could easily have become repetitively oddball in other hands. Somehow, Aaronovitch steers clear of the trap and gives us magical pathologists, vampire housemaids and uppity river gods that we actually care about. I suspect it’s because he cares too, and treats even the smallest, inhuman character with, er, humanity.

It’s been criticised for being unbelievable. Well, duh, it’s about a PC who learns to make magic light-balls with his hands and talks to ghosts… “This is England ‘90” it ain’t. On the other hand, his sardonic picture of the Metropolitan police is spot on, both funny and only slightly exaggerated, as indeed is his barbed satire of life in Britain today. It’s the first of a series of five so far with a sixth on its way, so loads more magical policemen to come.

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