Reviewed by Harriet
I almost missed the boat where Ben Aaronovitch was concerned. I might never have discovered him at all if my fellow editor Annabel hadn’t given me Rivers of London, the first of what is now a five-part series, on World Book Night last year. I suppose my ignorance may have been partly because his novels 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 they are also thrillers, and police procedurals – they just happen to include a good helping of magic as well.
If you too are new to the series, here’s the background. The protagonist and narrator is 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 hadn’t realised it until the point where the first novel begins, he has the ability to tune in to ghosts and other supernatural phenomena. This turned out to be quite lucky for him as, rather than having to join the Case Progression Unit (basically pen-pushing) he was 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. So Peter soon found himself living in Nightingale’s grand house in Russell Square and working on cases that had baffled the best efforts of the conventional police.
What’s so great about these novels is that they are proper thrillers, and also, importantly, witty and intelligent. They manage 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 them 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, though he learns fast), it gives a 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.
The first four novels are firmly based in London, but in Foxglove Summer the action moves to the heart of rural Herefordshire. Two eleven-year-old girls have mysteriously disappeared from their homes in a quiet country village, and Nightingale suspects that some supernatural force may have been at work.
‘Regrettably, in the past’, said Nightingale, ‘children were occasionally used in the practice of…’ he groped around for the right term, ‘unethical types of magic. It’s always been our policy to keep an eye on missing child cases and, where necessary, check to make sure that certain individuals in the proximity are not involved’.
‘Certain individuals?’ I asked.
‘Hedge wizards and the like’, he said.
So it is that Peter finds himself joining the investigation in the tiny village of Rushpool, in the midst of a summer heat-wave. The police are already at the end of their tether, and though they may not welcome him with open arms, they are ready to try anything. He is soon hooked up with Dominic, a young policeman whose farmer boyfriend has a useful truck for navigating rough terrain, and before long the beautiful young river goddess Beverley Brook, long-time object of Peter’s desires, arrives to join him and help with the investigation. Needless to say many adventures ensue, involving, among other things, ancient retired beekeeping wizards, giant unicorns, changeling children and alternate fairy universes. If you think all this sounds as if it might be a bit twee, think again. The great joy of these novels, and this one is no exception, is the way in which all these supernatural elements come to seem entirely plausible (well, more or less) from the way they are juxtaposed with Peter’s totally down to earth habits and view of life. He likes a beer and a girl as much as the next man, but he just happens to be able to create werelights, and invisible shields, and can burn through the hinges of farm gates to save getting out of the car to open them.
I gather that some readers have been disappointed by the move out of London in this novel, and certainly we don’t see much of Nightingale, who remains mostly a voice on the other end of the phone, as does Dr Abdul Haqq Walid, the world renowned ‘cryptopathologist’, who specializes in analysis of the remains of supernatural beings. Peter’s friend and co-constable Lesley, who turned to the dark side in the previous novel, pops up with rather scary messages from time to time, and something is revealed that sheds light on the mysterious Molly, Nightingale’s very strange and totally silent housekeeper. But I actually enjoyed the change of scene, and the different possibilities it opened up.
The question that always arises with a series like this is whether it’s necessary to start at the beginning or if it’s OK to jump in at the deep end with the most recently published. I’d say in this case either would be fine, though if you start with Foxglove Summer I can more or less guarantee that you will be reading all the precursors before too long.
Harriet Devine is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Ben Aaronovitch, Foxglove Summer (Gollancz, London: 2014). 978-0575132504, 384 pp., hardback.