When the son of a US senator is found dead in a tunnel just before Christmas, the heat is on to find his killer and get the trains running (London priorities). Given the scarcity of leads, it’s just as well Lesley May is back to lend Peter a hand with some Proper Policing…
I remembered three things about Whispers Underground, and the main one was that it was a bit boring (and the other two details ended up being so peripheral, I’m not sure why I recalled them at all). On reread, I think boring is a bit unfair – but after the pell-mell pace and regular horror of the first two books, it’s fair to say Whispers is a much slower affair.
Kicking off with a dead body and punctuated by reminders that the team have made no progress in tracking down the Faceless Man since his rooftop escape, Whispers is remarkable mostly for behaving like a police procedural. If anything, it’s a reminder that most cases are broken through blind luck, villainous idiocy or painstaking hard graft. Here, we join Peter as he drives back and forth through London’s traffic to follow up on minor leads, and very little in the way of progress for all the miles covered.
That’s not to say he doesn’t manage some spectacular property damage – this is Peter Grant after all – although I’m delighted to say that he finally appears to have come to terms with working closely with DS Stephanopoulos (or perhaps it’s just that with DCI Seawoll back on the ground, there’s a bigger ogre to fear, and one that genuinely dislikes everything he stands for).
In another fine development, we have Lesley May back – now living at the Folly and studying alongside Peter (and providing Nightingale ample ammunition to tut about how Peter would make better progress if he’d only concentrate instead of getting distracted by trying to turn magic into science all the time). Officially, Lesley is on indefinite medical leave – this mostly means she can’t be seconded to the Murder Squad, and doesn’t have to do any paperwork. Lucky Lesley.
It doesn’t let her off the hook for some of the good old-fashioned police work (although not as old-fashioned as some of Peter’s regretful musing – for a modern copper who has had to face down his share of racism, he’s oddly nostalgic for the 70s. I blame Life on Mars). This is probably just as well after the improvisation in evidence in Moon Over Soho – here, Lesley reins in Peter’s more inventive impulses, and keeps things moving along. In so far as they move.
In between the plodding, however, we get some spectacular set-pieces: Peter and Lesley get to visit a Nazareth – or goblin market – which manages to feel entirely Neverwhere up to and including the bit where Oberon (no, not that one) and one of the Thames girls show up.
The ongoing investigation into the Faceless Man leads to the Little Crocodiles, an Oxford study group that looks remarkably like a practitioner and his apprentices, which in turn leads to the epic awfulness of a demon trap.
And when the action finally goes underground (false frontage houses, hooray!), it’s with a hair-raising sequence which is entirely too evocative given it takes place in the sewers (nobody will be queuing up for this rollercoaster) and ends with Peter being buried alive (claustrophobes: be warned).
Unfortunately, the final act doesn’t really deliver on the build – the finale is as understated as the whispers of the title suggest, and while it finally brings together all the elements that have slowly been teased out along the way, it’s all a bit underwhelming. Don’t get me wrong – I’m fascinated by the Quiet People (hooray, more non-traditional supernaturals, here riffing off a B movie about cannibal navvies – and yes, I was totally expecting carnivorous pigs) – but they barely make an appearance, and the implications of their existence are talked about but left unresolved.
In spite of fab new companions BTP Sergeant Kumar (unruffled by the magical; weird things happen underground) and Special Agent Reynolds (…who I sort of hope we’ll see again?), this outing feels like a bit of a damp squib.
If anything, the most interesting aspect is wideboy goblin Zach’s response to Lesley – and I don’t mean his enthusiastically straightforward desire to get in her pants (who wouldn’t; oh wait – Peter, now that she’s got horrific facial injuries), but rather his unexpected last act demonstration of insight and mischief when he calls Peter out for not being able to look an unmasked Lesley in the face. It’s moments like this that make me give Aaronovitch a bit more space as an author: for all the times (in Rivers in particular) where I raised an eyebrow, this makes me think there’s some carefully crafted character development in progress as Peter is forced to grow up. Or if there wasn’t originally, there is now.