The Severed Streets by Paul Cornell

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Reviewed by Ann Darnton

Late last year I stumbled across London Falling, the first novel in Paul Cornell’s series of what might loosely – very loosely – be called police procedurals. If you haven’t read that first excursion into the distinctly unsettling London underworld faced by Detective Inspector James Quill and his team, then perhaps the best way in which I can prepared you for the crimes they encounter in The Severed Streets is to jog your memory as to where you may have come across Cornell’s name before; that is, attached to some of the very best episodes of Dr Who. If you’re not a Dr Who fan then this series may not be for you. If, like me, you love both the good Doctor and police procedurals then you are in for a treat.

In London Falling (which I really do recommend you read, not only because it will help you develop the necessary ability to believe six impossible things before breakfast, but also because it is a damn good book) we are introduced to Quill and his initially rather ad hoc team of DS Costain, DC Sefton and police intelligence analyst, Lisa Ross. They, in their turn, are introduced to a world operating beneath the surface of London that might in shorthand form be described as occult, but which it becomes increasingly apparent has as much to do with the history of the city itself and the power that its past retains over its present. In a story that twists and turns around the question of human sacrifice and the obsessive hold that football has over far too many of us, Cornell opens up the possibility that there is a force at work in the city that robs the likes of you and me of the power to make our own decisions and manipulates our actions to its own destructive ends. Believe me, if you are a football fan you will never again view any match your team plays against West Ham in quite the same light.

Having established his world in the previous novel, Cornell’s vision takes a rather more serious direction in The Severed Streets. His subjects this time are drawn from news items all too familiar to his readers from the events of recent years; namely perceived corruption amongst high ranking city figures, press intrusion through phone hacking, city riots and the use of social media to coordinate such disturbances. As Quill and his team try to discover why a series of rich white men are being targeted by an assailant visible only to the four of them and mutilated in a way that is reminiscent of the horrors perpetrated over a century earlier by Jack the Ripper, they find themselves involved with a villain whose aim is to manipulate government to his own ends regardless of the devastation caused along the way.

The underlying premise in this novel is far darker than in London Falling and, like all the best Dr Who episodes, the more disconcerting for being in its thesis only just the other side of believable. If the teams’ descent into ever more disturbing levels of the underworld (via a good old London pub) tests your powers of credulity, the type of corruption they encounter there will not. When, in the final pages, Quill muses that:

 [w]hat he wanted was for there to be a law that applied equally to [the villain] and to himself, to those who saw themselves above it, and to those who enforced it

… you get the feeling that this is the nub of the matter for Cornell; that too many people with various types of power see themselves as untouchable and that we need the Quills, Costains, Seftons and Rosses of this world to teach them that that isn’t the case.

However, just because the subject matter may sound both serious and grisly, please don’t run away with the idea that this is a serious and grisly book. Far from it. Cornell’s style offers a nice turn in one liners, frequently at the end of a passage that would otherwise be a little hard to take. There is no point in my quoting any because you need to read them in context, just take my word that despite its subject matter this book will make you smile.

There is one other feature of this novel that is, I think, interesting. Cornell frequently appears to be exploring the role of crime fiction itself in our understanding of the society in which we live. Crime stories, Sefton says, [are]all about getting everything back to normal…Crime stories say the centre ‘can’ hold; in reality, it’s going to fall apart any minute. At its conclusion, The Severed Streets does pull reality back into what is almost certainly only a temporary state of security, but at least we can feel safe for the moment knowing that the plot of one all too realistic egomaniac has been foiled. I shall be waiting impatiently for the next power-crazed individual to come along. Fortunately given the aspects of society Cornell has chosen to explore it is unlikely that the wait will be a long one.

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Ann blogs at Café Society

Paul Cornell, The Severed Streets (Pan Macmillan, 2014)., 401pp.

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