Foxglove Summer…and all the other books by Ben Aaronovitch
Britain’s youngest official wizard, apprentice PC Peter Grant, is the highly addictive creation of Ben Aaronovitch—addictive in that once you start reading about him you don’t want to stop. He’s a young man who can sniff out the magic—literally (it’s called vestigia). His capacity for inadvertently destroying property and London landmarks (both real and imaginary) keep the action on a knife’s edge.
We’re first introduced to him in, Rivers of London, as a mixed-race constable on the beat at the very beginning of his career. Along with him we meet the mysterious soon-to-be-his-governor Inspector Nightingale, head of the Folly, a branch of the Met proper coppers recognise the need for but don’t really want to talk about. It deals with all the “weird bollocks”. We meet the deities of the Thames and its tributaries. We are introduced to a whole supernatural London sub-culture along with the intricate policies and politics of the Metropolitan Police.
Aaronovitch is a quintessential London writer. It could be argued he’s done more for ‘multi-cultural’London than any literary tome and certainly more than a whole sheath of government reports. What makes the supernatural elements so convincing is the reality he’s embedded it in. He knows London. You recognise the streets and buildings, you know the people. The way Londoners think‚the way they constantly speculate on property values, it’s all there. As someone remarked to me recently, “it’s your London he is describing, my London, the diversity we know and love so well woven into his writing”. And, I might add, served up with engaging wit and humour though PC Grant’s eyes.
In Moon Over Soho we get the London jazz scene and a wonderful depiction of Soho in all its natural oddities you might be familiar with and a few unnatural ones you (probably, hopefully) aren’t. His Whispers Underground excited my imagination enough to get me (marginally) tolerant of the Tube. Okay, I use it rarely and never at rush hour. You have to understand I don’t even close the blinds in my flat because they make me feel hemmed in. But still, it’s an accomplishment and it’s down to PC Grant. Broken Homes takes the phrase to a whole new level when Grant is once again challenged, this time by the very architecture of London.
So, in Aaronovitch’s new book, Foxglove Summer, what’s he doing in the countryside? Will it translate?
It does. He sees it through a Londoner’s eye—but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t done his homework. Aaronovitch already has a convincing breadth of knowledge on everything from history to architecture to police procedure to management-speak. Now he’s added land management.
When two little girls go missing Nightingale sends Grant on a reconnaissance mission to the wilds of Herefordshire—just to rule out any rogue magician element to their disappearance. And when that seems unlikely, Grant stays on because, well, it’s two little kids and all hands on deck. Soon, at Nightingale’s behest, he’s joined by the goddess of a Thames tributary, Beverly Brook. And what they get up to you have to read.
Despite the field of white faces it turns out rural England has many of the accoutrements of the city including gastropubs, gay policemen and people with dark, dirty secrets—and a few it doesn’t (like possible aliens and UFOs). I recognised an accurate description of rural rollercoaster free-for-all roads from my own ventures into “everywhere else”, (ie, not London).
Aaronovitch captures the fear and tension of the parents awaiting news. You learn a little more of the mysterious happenings at Ettersberg (no, I’m not telling you what). And you meet more beings that don’t quite fit the appellation of ‘human’and find some fairy tale figures have much better PR than they deserve. What’s most seductive are the thoughts and observations of Peter Grant himself. As these are first-person narratives, dwelling in his head is a very entertaining place to be.
My only complaint, and this is a personal prejudice, is there’s too little of Nightingale in this book. I have a bit of a crush. But that’s a minor niggle. I couldn’t put it down. It builds to a tense and ever-twisting conclusion. Beyond that, you feel overall these stories are leading up to Something Big. The clues are there, dropped throughout the series adding another layer of curiosity and tension.
But you don’t have to have read the whole series to enjoy each book individually. You don’t have to be a Londoner. If you love London from a distance it will give you a fix. Even if you hate London you can sit smugly in your armchair and enjoy the ride.
At a recent talk given by Mr Aaronovitch at Waterstones Trafalgar Square (which, by the way, had an excellent reading by the actor Kobna Holbrook-Smith, who does the audio books), he suggested at some point he’d like PC Grant to visit Paris, perhaps have him meet the deity of the Seine.
I’m up for it—and not just because I’d like to see the impossibly romantic Leslie Howard-like figure of Inspector Nightingale wandering its streets.
The question is, will Paris be ready for PC Grant? One can only ponder with delicious apprehension on what might befall the Eiffel Tower.
Summer Plans: Reading, Writing and Surgery
Another June, another bout of surgery and no doubt another summer spent with a knee three times the size of a watermelon. Despite the notable inconveniences, there are upsides.
One, you can read with impunity all day. You have a perfect excuse. I have the latest Robert Galbraith’s Comoran Strike all lined up alongside George R. R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons and Hilary Norman’s Chateau Ella. Plus a mountain of research reading on a future eco-thriller I have planned.
Two, you can read with impunity.
Three, you can read with impunity…
Well, you get the picture. I can read.
It’s yet another time of reflection. What has been accomplished since the last surgery? Well, the Kevin Bryce crime series has been digitally republished on Orion’s The Murder Room imprint and had a good time writing a few blogs for the site. I rediscovered a long lost book from that series and now that may yet see print. I’ve finished the sequel to The Knightmare called Who is Huggermugger Jones?, and it is waiting for the editor’s eye. I have 17 chapters of the next book, a ghost story called The Cruel Humour of Women, which after this surgical blip will be taken up again as soon as I can sit at the computer.
Looking on the bright side, technically I suppose I can call this surgery research. Disability is one of the main character’s defining characteristics in Cruel Humour. Pain has formed her personality. Pain is a personality. I know. I’ve done the research, like it or not. As far as that goes, and I think this character would agree, I hate the word ‘disability’. I am not a bomb (usually). I have not been ‘disabled’. I do not have an ‘out of order’ sign on me. I can still do things. I far prefer to be called a cripple, as un-PC as that might sound. It’s far more accurate—you might be slowed down, there may be things you can’t do (commute for one thing but – hey! – who misses that?) but others you can and it’s about making the most of those things. You take nothing for granted. Besides, it’s far more romantic a word, so Dickensian. Tiny Tim and I have a few things in common. The stick, for instance. A benevolent Scrooge might be nice.
So these are my summer plans. Reading, writing and surgery.
It could be worse.
I’ve read a healthy percentage of the classics, some several times over. Yet however diligent you are there’s always a classic author you pass by. You don’t know why you haven’t read them, you just haven’t. Maybe you think they’re going to be too depressing—and life’s too short. Or perhaps you’ve heard enough about their work to think theirs is not a world you fancy dipping your toe into. And perhaps that’s why I had never read Ray Bradbury. One of his most famous novels, Fahrenheit 451, I felt I could live without and I suppose I never got beyond that.
Recently I was handed a copy of his Something Wicked This Way Comes—well, something terrific my way came. No, it’s my usual type of book. It’s strange, it’s creepy, it’s a coming-of-age novel and a stream-of-consciousness novel. I’m fine with strange and creepy but the rest… Well, in this case, I was entranced.
One dark October night a carnival comes to a bland American town, a flashy freak show that feeds on souls. Among its victims it has its evil eye on two young boys, who are basically two sides of the same coin—light and dark, adventurer and homebody. How they escape—or don’t escape—its clutches in a population that (mostly) doesn’t realise the danger is the story. Simple. Direct. But the underlying theme I took from it is: what destroys a soul? And this is where the father of one of the boys, Charles Halloway, comes into his own.
A library janitor, he’s spent his whole life contemplating what wisdom can be found between the pages of a book. Now real life intrudes. He has to act. Yes, his thoughts ramble a bit—consciousness streams do. They make more sense in feeling than in actual fact. And the human condition can be a sorry old thing at times. But most of all this book has a concept I firmly believe in—the power of humour. Oh, it’s not a funny book, not at all (at least, I didn’t laugh). But forced into the deepest darkest pit of despair Halloway must find a way to save himself and the boys, and how he rises to the challenge is as wise as it is life-affirming.
Another interesting aspect of the edition I read, published by Gollancz, is Bradbury’s Afterward: Carnivals, Near and Far. It’s a charming piece on how he conceived the story, its evolution and the peculiar events that led him to writing in the first place. Since it made me curious about the man himself I researched his life a bit (Google can be a wonderful thing when it’s not playing Big Brother). Having a wee trawl through an author’s life is something I rarely do because, quite frankly, it’s dangerous. Hearing about a personality and its peccadilloes can spoil the stories. But an interesting fact about him, according to his bio, is he’s descended from Mary Bradbury who was tried for witchcraft during the Salem Witch trials of 1692 (but fortunately not burned at the stake)—how delicious is that? I might even own up to such a relative.
After all, we all need a little something wicked in our genes.
Welcome to the New Website
At long last, the website is rejigged, updated and all that jazz! Whoo-hoo! I’m sure there will be some blips, burps and profanity as I come to terms with how to run this thing, but I still feel the special sense of accomplishment that comes when you’ve done something you’ve been procrastinating about for ages, the thing akin to a wee dog constantly nipping at your heels. You may be ignoring it, but you surely know it’s there going ‘grrr’. Many thanks to designer Peter Keighron (www.peterk2web.com) for his kind services (very kind considering how thick I can be about these things) in getting us up and running.
I’ve kept this site mainly about the books, rather than the screenplays, although I’ll surely be posting the news on that front (of course, I may change my mind and add a film page but given how long it’s taken me to do this much, don’t hold your breath). And, of course, there will be a regular blog.
Speaking of blog, I’ve had a run of discovering some really terrific authors lately. By that, I don’t mean debut authors, I mean authors who have somehow escaped my radar. I am relieved to find they all have a substantial body of work to keep me entertained for a good while.
First of all, the delightful Hilary Norman (www.hilarynorman.co.uk). Hilary and I were introduced for an ‘in conversation’ style interview soon to appear on Orion’s The Murder Room blog. Research entailed reading her books (so we’d have something to talk about). This research also became the cause of some seriously catastrophic dinners because once you start one of her books, you don’t want to stop even as the stink of smoke and charred meat waft your way from the kitchen. Exercise caution, make salad. This is a writer who knows how to create characters to care about and then ratchet up the danger signals to hair-trigger levels. Unputdownable.
Another happy discovery is Graham Joyce (www.grahamjoyce.co.uk). So far, I’ve read The Silent Land, The Year of the Ladybird and Some Kind of Fairy Tale—and believe me, he is some kind of fine writer. One of the things I love about him is that he is difficult to categorise. Yes, he’s called fantasy/horror but there is a quality to his writing that’s quite spiritual. Not in a ‘glory hallelujah’ sense but in the ability, with a twist of the supernatural, to tap into the mythic aspects of ordinary human beings in everyday life. Extraordinary. Wonderful.
There’s something especially alluring about books set somewhere you know well and Ben Aaronovitch (www.the-folly.com) has done just that. His books are in ‘my patch’ of London and crikey he knows it well. The adventures of his PC Peter Grant in the London Met are a captivating blend of wit and wizardry, historical trivia and police procedure alongside the appropriate hair-raising situations. Aaronovitch seems to know so much about how the police department works it crosses your mind to wonder, does the Met really have such a department as The Folly? Where they take care of all the crimes committed by those not quite in the human league? I expect not (sigh). More’s the pity. But at least we have Inspector Nightingale and PC Grant on the page. Enormous fun.
If you don’t have these authors on your bookshelves or e-reader, I suggest you add them ASAP.
Enjoy the books—all of our books—and the new website! And would love for you to sign up for the blog.