Review: Rivers of London

I’m scandalously late to the Peter Grant series from Ben Aaronovitch. As I write there are five books, and after making short work of book one – Rivers of London – I plan to read them all.

When Rivers came out I remember spotting it on the shelves and thinking, like everyone else: it’s Harry Potter in the Metropolitan Police (“The sorting helmet has assigned you to the Vice Squad, Peter”, “Buy your truncheon from Inspector Wallander’s on Letsby Avenue”, etc). I suppose I labelled it as interesting but likely derivative-bordering-on-knock-off, and lengthy calculations indicated it didn’t then merit a place in my teetering stack of unreads.

Since then, something has changed. Perhaps it was the end of the Potter hype cycle, perhaps the sight of multiple sequels to River. Most likely a sneaky read of the first few pages in the back of Waterstones: it’s effortless, funny first-person writing, with the protagonist Peter Grant – a newly qualified police constable – finding himself deep into the plot within a page or two, interviewing a ghost after a gruesome murder in Covent Garden.

I plonked it onto my Christmas list, top of the pile for 2015. And here we are.

There’s no denying it: from 10,000 feet it is Constable Potter – just as from the same height, Poirot is Sherlock. There’s plenty of room for both. Aaronovitch’s world of magic is vastly different than Rowling’s. It’s more grounded in reality, if that doesn’t sound perverse for a book where the Goddess of the River Thames is real and Nigerian. As in Potter, magic isn’t common knowledge in Rivers – but those at the top of the Met certainly know it exists, even if they don’t like it. It’s a handy source of extra tension, though I couldn’t help thinking the secret would never be kept with so many people in on it.

Essentially Rivers of London is a police procedural with wizards. The usual pie – violent crime, bunny suits, grizzled old coppers driving classic Jags the wrong way up one-way streets – with a creamy topping of spells and haunting. The plot’s engaging and coherent, and I suspect much shoe leather died in the service of its research. In brief: Peter Grant must come to terms with this new reality, start on the path of wizardry with the help of his mentor Nightingale, and solve a murder or two – while keeping on good terms with London’s bickering waterways.

London is a strong supporting artiste in the book. Aaronovitch clearly loves the place. If you’re a fan of geography in books, Rivers is for you. Descriptions are true-to-life and vivid, albeit marginally too generous for my tastes on occasion – though never approaching get-on-with-it levels.

Our hero Peter is nicely drawn and feels real: a decent but inexperienced copper with a brain and a ready wit. And, great to see, he’s mixed race. In my head he’s Samuel Anderson (The History Boys, Doctor Who) or Daniel Anthony (The Sarah Jane Adventures, Casualty). (On that topic, Rivers adapted for TV could be damn good. The internet tells me it was optioned for TV a few years ago: hopefully it’ll turn up on screen at some point.)

In summary, I’m a fan. Book two will drop onto my unread stack in a couple of months (I don’t want to binge-read all five).

PS One day I’ll review books published recently. I fear this day will not come soon.

PPS The next book I’m reading is non-fiction: Scatter, Adapt and Remember, by Annalee Newitz. If you want to giggle at what else is on my shelves, here I am on Goodreads.

The perils of writing in public

Cambridge Union Society coffee shopAt the moment, when I’m not working on a freelance job, I’m outlining and/or writing and/or procrastinating in a variety of locations across Cambridge. I try to keep my destinations random, not turning up at the same places on the same days each week. It’s harder than it seems: habits are easy to form, sneaking up on you when you’re not paying attention. The main advantage for me of a busy coffee shop or café over my desk at home is a feeling, however inaccurate, of sociability. The same four walls day in and day out, the same Doctor Who calendar travelling through time beside me — and no office chatter to break up the day — can sap the soul. Coffee shops at least provide an illusion of a social experience — sufficient to trick the relevant neurons.

These locations can also act as fertile marshlands of inspiration through their unpredictability. Someone walking past the window triggers an idea for a character trait. A snatch of music brings to mind a useful metaphor. Those habits our brains crave not only keep us in physical routines, they also lead us down well-worn mental paths, our thoughts cascading along the shortest route and blocking originality. And all it takes is a stray overheard word to send us stumbling somewhere new and exciting — like Dagenham, only new and exciting.

That’s the ideal: a state of mental flow, fingers rattling the keyboard or thumping the gorilla glass while the white noise of bustling conversation injects turbulence into the process. And it works well, until you find yourself in a near-empty room.

Silence isn’t so bad. What I can do without is a single, clear, unavoidable soundtrack. Something like a piece of music I know well — or worse, much worse, someone else’s interesting conversation. These bring all productivity to a steaming halt as I shudder out of the flow state into reality and the details of someone’s neighbours or bunions or drunken escapades, or an unlikely attempt by a young gentleman to woo a tattooed maiden by showing her his BCG scar (true story). Or I find I’m humming along to something cheery by Radiohead.

It’s not that I try to listen. I don’t. It’s that I can’t not listen. I simply cannot blot it out. (I can’t listen to music and write, so earphones are no use unless I play white noise through them — and I prefer human to artificial randomness.)

When someone booms every detail of a hospital stay across an otherwise mumbling café it is humanly impossible to fade them down and hike back to the zone. You hear everything, from diagnosis to discharge via discharge. With any luck it sparks an idea, but this is rare. My tactic is to endure it until the place becomes busy again, or the voices cutting through the general babble reduce volume a notch, or I outstay my welcome and move on.

You certainly hear plenty of secrets. People can be saucer-rattlingly indiscreet in a public place, as if their Americanos come with a free cone of silence. In Cambridge during term you hear a great deal of student angst and college politics: dating, committee gossip, excitement at the big two-oh, and the often coincident “I’m going to fail my exams” and “I have no idea what I want to do after graduation”. Sometimes people bounce between multiple languages, and my brain picks out tantalising half-sentences in English. Then there’s the ones in burgundy chinos humble-bragging about their family’s new villa in Umbria and how they’re going to spend the summer by the pool with a variety of local meats. With those I enjoy watching the others in the group carving out the social graph by the power of a glance.

Often in a coffee shop you find almost everyone else is doing the same as you. They’re all nursing pots of tea or quintuple espressos and glaring at the person closest to the power outlet, their faces lit by the devil-glow of Word or Excel or Facebook. You begin to recognise them. The Santiago Cabrera lookalike. The one with the nose. The one who only ever plays Solitaire on his PC, who’s on first-name terms with the staff despite their best efforts. We’re like a secret society: so secret none of us knows who else is a member, and we sit judging each other in mute fury. So terribly, terribly British. Then you look at your screen and the world fades away, and before you know it everyone around you has regenerated and it’s dark outside.

Or, as happened to me last year at the Cambridge Union Society coffee shop, everyone leaves — including the staff — and you’re locked in. This, I can confirm, is a tremendously productive period. But it’s not so great when your brain puts zero and zero together and you finally realise what’s happened.

And then you can’t raise any of the society staff by any of the published phone numbers.

And then you call the non-emergency 101 police phone number, explain your predicament to the poor man charged with answering the phones within thirty seconds for statistical purposes, and listen to him laugh as he forwards you to another number that just rings and rings since nobody is measuring those statistics. In my case, as I listened to the ringing and contemplated a cheeky freebie pint, I spotted someone through a window leaving a different part of the building. He saw me too — and alarm bells rang. Last out, so he thought, he’d armed the system. There was a deer-in-the-headlights moment, then he scurried back inside to press the buttons in reverse order.

He had to call one of the staff out from home to free me. This had never, apparently, happened before.

Locked in a coffee shop: that’s seriously in the zone.