These, as Maria von Trapp would have it, are a few of my favourite things: 1. Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere; 2. The city of London; and 3. chocolate. Rivers of London just about covers two of these three, so it’s a good start.
The book is about PC Peter Grant, newbie in the Metropolitan Police. Peter is basically an intelligent underachiever facing a long career in paper-pushing from behind a dreary desk in an uninteresting outer borough while the colleague-slash-friend that he fancies sees him as little more than a drinking buddy. Then, one night, a man in Covent Garden is found without his head attached to his body. As the forensic team sweeps up, Peter is suddenly accosted by an oddly transparent man in period garb who claims to have witnessed it all.
Needless to say, Peter isn’t quite stupid enough to tell people he’s seen a ghost, but he is intrigued – and, more importantly, regards it as an opportunity to get out of the tedious desk job that’s been assigned to him. And so he returns to the scene, hoping to see the ghost again. While doing so, he meets a fellow police officer, DCI Nightingale, who has no problems believing there really is a ghost. The next day, Peter is hired to work on a special task force, one that uses magic to catch the bad guys. Strange attacks have been occurring all over London between seemingly unconnected people, some of whom, rather bizarrely, have their faces spliced open and their skin bloom outwards before their skulls collapse and they die. Meanwhile, Peter also has to act as a peacekeeper between Mother Thames and Father Thames, equally eccentric individuals who have been encroaching on each other’s territory.
The premises of the book are uncannily similar to Neverwhere in that famous London landmarks are personified in the book’s characters; here, it’s the various rivers and tributaries of London. In that sense, it’s far from original, and of the two Neverwhere is definitely the better book, but that doesn’t mean Rivers of London isn’t worth your time. Peter is a likeable lead who strikes just the right balance between stoic, British acceptance of this strange new world and curiosity for all it has to offer. There are intriguing details that are never quite explained, leaving room for the imagination or, perhaps more lucratively, sequels (six books in all have been published so far). And, importantly, the plot is genuinely tense and somewhat unsettling because, without wanting to give too much away, Mr. Punch is fucking scary.
It’s also quite funny; Peter’s dry wit made me laugh out loud several times, and the fact that one of his superiors keeps referring to the work as ‘that X-files shit’ gives in an indication of just how tongue-in-cheek it is, though, to be honest, some the book’s sporadic brutal occurrences are treated in such a brief, dismissive fashion that I wondered whether leaving them out altogether wouldn’t have been better. Nevertheless, it strikes an excellent balance between the odd and the everyday, and as London aficionada, I loved the descriptions of the streets around Covent Garden and the British Museum.
My only regret, though? That I didn’t keep this for my summer beach reading list. It would have been perfect. Thank God for sequels.
Nb. For team USA: the novel is published as Midnight Riot for you guys.