Throwback Thursday: Rivers of London

Book cover: Rivers of London - Ben Aaronovitch (a snarkily contextual map of London, with a suggestively bloodstained West End)Easily distracted, PC Peter Grant is a probationary officer with a dull future of tedious admin ahead of him – until he takes a witness statement from a ghost in Covent Garden and finds himself recruited into the Met’s little-advertised supernatural division…

I’m currently reading – or rereading, in this case – a number of books that have been out so long I’m instituting Throwback Thursday in their honour, as a celebration of not remotely recent releases. I picked up Rivers of London (or Midnight Riot, as the Yanks call it for some reason) when it first came out and giggled all the way through it and the first few sequels in their turn. Until now, I’ve never reread any of them, but a Muskedragon group read is providing the perfect excuse. I might even finally get up to date with the most recent one!

Rivers of London was my first foray into the now densely-populated world of supernatural London whodunnits. It’s still my favourite – the plot is tight, the pacing is well-managed, the characters are colourful, and the wit is a constant counterpoint to what could otherwise be really dark (my main beef with the Shadow Police: not enough humour to leaven the grim).

Because Aaronovitch doesn’t shy away from the grue. The murderous attacks result in people’s facing ‘falling off’ and there’s an early child murder (not graphic, but shocking) which may put some readers off altogether. Crucially, it doesn’t revel in it – both Peter and his former partner Lesley May are traumatised by it, underlining that this isn’t cool. It’s horrible.

Once co-opted into the Folly as the first apprentice this century, Peter (and we) get a whirlwind introduction into the sorts of things the Met’s supernatural division have to contend with: possession, ghosts, vampires, trolls and river spirits. It’s clear the Folly are outnumbered – aside from Peter, there’s the unworldly but charming Inspector Nightingale and the mysterious, slightly chilling, utterly awesome Molly (Molly eating pizza. I can’t even) – but held in high regard. They’re not enforcers, they’re peacekeepers in a complex world of delicately-balanced power – and they too have magical powers at their disposal (well, Nightingale does; Peter just has a lot to learn).

Aside from the murders, the main subplot revolves around the Folly’s ability to head off a turf war between Mama Thames, Father Thames and their various children. I live in London; I cross Beverley Brook almost daily – so the personifications of the streams and rivers won me over entirely. But it was also educational: Tyburn at least is on the look out for ways to expand her own influence, and sees the Folly as an unnecessary gatekeeper. The supernatural world and the real world are intertwined, which bodes well for the scope of future adventures – I’m all for politics and influence wars in addition to whodunnits.

My only unease on this reread was Peter’s way of looking at the world. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a lovely bloke and I adore his attempts to apply GCSE science to his magical training – but he’s a 20-something with a healthy libido, which means we see every woman through a sexualised male gaze. The descriptions of women he doesn’t find attractive are worse (i.e. offensively dismissive). As we get the world solely from his point of view – and he does have the common sense / good manners not to vocalise his perceptions – the narrative largely can’t call him on them (I’ll admit to cheering when Tyburn dismissed him for thinking with his genitalia). Thankfully, Peter always acts with respect towards others, whatever part of their anatomy he may focus on initially. He retains my good will by virtue of his ability to sleep with his female partner at the end of a traumatic day, without trying anything on. It’s a scene that could have played to the worst Hollywood tropes; I was delighted to find they weren’t fulfilled.

Rivers of London is a riot (so maybe that American name isn’t so far off the mark after all) – I have a soft spot for protagonists who are out of their depth, and Peter gets sucked in deeper and deeper with each twist and turn. On the whole, it’s far too much fun (Beverley Brook asking Peter’s permission to do what she does best in the face of carnage in Covent Garden; Beverley Brook giving him hell for casually offering her a sandwich; Nightingale trying to join in the pizza party) for me to hold my niggles against it, and I’m looking forward to revisiting Moon over Soho soon.