Hooray for World Book Night! For without it, I very much doubt if I'd have read this totally delightful novel. As it happened I was having tea on 23 April with my co-editors of Shiny New Books, and Annabel happened to be a WBN giver, so she gave. I actually left the book behind in London when I went back to France the next day, but as I was there again for a couple of days at the beginning of this week, I picked it up and started reading it. And how I galloped through it, loving every minute.
It appears that I've really missed the boat where Ben Aaronovitch is concerned. I suppose that may be partly because his novels -- of which this is only the first -- have been classified as fantasy, or even SF, neither of which is a genre I'd normally give the time of day to. But of course this is also a thriller, and a police procedural -- it just happens to include a good helping of magic as well.
This is the story of PC Peter Grant, a young man who joined the police because his A-levels were not good enough to get him into university. But Peter, the son of a jazz trumpeter and his African wife, is far from stupid, and in addition, though he hasn't realised it until the novel begins, has the ability to tune in to ghosts and other supernatural phenomena. This turns out to be quite lucky for him in a way as, rather than having to join the Case Progression Unit (basically pen-pushing) he is recruited by the suave Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, who drives a Mark 2 Jag and heads up a secret branch of the Met whose task it is to tackle ghosts, ghouls, faeries, demons, witches and warlocks, elves and goblins, and much more besides. Almost before he can turn round, he finds himself living in Nightingale's grand house in Russell Square and working on two separate cases -- in one, some malign force is taking over ordinary people and forcing them to act in senselessly brutal and violent ways, and in the other, a dispute has broken out between the two river gods in charge of the two halves of the River Thames.
If you think this sounds as if it might be a bit twee, think again. It's a proper thriller, and also, importantly, witty and intelligent. It manages to combine the kind of realism you expect from a novel in which the police play an important part, with history, folklore, and as much imaginative action as you could ever wish for. One critic described it as What would happen if Harry Potter grew up and joined the Fuzz, and though this isn't strictly accurate (unlike Harry, Peter is very much a beginner), it gives the general idea of the fun to be had. It's impossible not to love Peter, with his wry wit and his penchant for beautiful girls, most of whom turn out to be non-human in varying degrees of scariness. Nightingale is great, too, a relic from the early twentieth century though he doesn't look it -- and then of course there's his very strange housekeeper Molly, who seems unnaturally fond of raw meat, and Beverley Brook, one of the many tributaries of the Thames, and Lesley, Peter's co-constable, who may not be all she seems, and Dr Abdul Haqq Walid, a world renowned and 'cryptopathologist', who performs the autopsies on the variously mutilated victims. And then there's London, which is almost a character in itself -- the novel made me quite homesick for my hometown, something the doesn't happen very often.
So -- I can't recommend this highly enough, and I'm already planning to read the next in the series. The only downside is that I started reading a conventional police procedural straight afterwards and kept expecting ghosts and vampires to pop up at any time. But hopefully that will pass. So thank you, Annabel, and thank you World Book Night.