Books to be Scene: Ben Aaronovitch's RIVERS OF LONDON

"Which is how I came to be standing around Covent Garden in a freezing wind at six o'clock in the morning, and why it was me that met the ghost.
Sometimes I wonder whether, if I'd been the one that went for coffee... my life would have been much less interesting and certainly much less dangerous. When I'm considering this I find it helpful to quote the wisdom of my father, who once told me 'Who knows why the fuck anything happens?' "

Imagine if Britain had HBO. No, not the half-assed version of the real thing the Murdoch family keep taunting us with. A premium cable channel trading in the kind of upscale television people who work for the BBC would like to make but can't, for fear nervous housewives in Middle England will spontaneously combust at the idea their license fees are being used to bring down civilisation with violence, nudity and liberal use of compound nouns (seriously, I hear it's their greatest fear).

What might we get out of this hypothetical service? Even more historical dramas than usual, most likely, with production values so rich you'd be going through a whole box of chocolates per episode. Endless reruns of the Harry Potter saga, plus so many remakes (The Long Good Friday, Get Carter, The Italian Job) us Brit cinephiles would be crying ourselves to sleep. But just as HBO have to throw a bone to the geeks every so often - perhaps more often now Game of Thrones has proven such a success - let's think about what we might get in genre.

Say what? But there's plenty of British -

Us British don't really do genre. No we don't - beyond soap operas like Being Human or the community theatre spirit of Doctor Who, Primeval et al (cheap and cheerful FX work in tow) what is there? Attempts to copy the scope of US series on a tighter budget generally lead to well-meaning flops like Outcasts. What's really taken off? And more to the point, what's so British about these shows, anyway? Beyond the thin veneer of "Keep calm and carry on" aimed at snaring the overseas markets what makes them more than Eastenders (or worse, Dad's Army) with fangs?

Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London series - two books out, with the third due later in 2012 - is basically the kind of thing for which I hope someone is begging for the rights about now. Though yes, it'd help if a British HBO actually existed. And money were in relatively plentiful supply. Look, both volumes so far are god damned awesome, trust me; a modern-day police procedural with a wry sense of humour, a love for the Big Smoke as well as an acceptance of the state it's in, and a deep, nuanced fantasy backstory with terrific character development plus enough mature content to have Daily Mail readers choking on their morning Tetleys.

Oh, sure. Urban fantasy. "Deep". They'd all have switched off inside thirty seconds.  

Look, when I say deep, I don't mean to imply there's enough lore to need a five-minute text crawl before every episode. Urban fantasy this may be, but Aaronovitch is keen to ease readers in as quickly and painlessly as possible. The first book starts with PC Peter Grant - desperate to make detective, but lacking the chutzpah to impress the higherups and facing a lonely career in the Met's back office - assigned quite by chance to watch over a crime scene after a fairly brutal murder. Where he meets a ghost who insists he saw the whole thing.

Rivers of London_cover 01 detail.jpgNo terrified self-recrimination that drags on for ages here. While Grant's somewhat puzzled, he basically takes it for granted straight off this is actually happening, enough to try and follow the ghost's lead. Then he discovers Inspector Nightingale, the strange officer with the cane who everyone at the station treats with fear, distrust or outright loathing, is actually running The Folly, a top-secret paranormal investigations unit within the Met, and he wants Grant on board. Would Grant like to sign up? Of course he would. There's your pilot episode, zero to sixty just like that - you can practically hear the boardroom salivating already.

Okay. But how does it pan out?

Each book deals with one main case that falls under the unit's purview, only with multiple side plots along the way, plus Nightingale's patient efforts to tutor Grant in the sorcerous arts. Not to mention (grudgingly) feeding the younger man information about the pantheon of mythological figures squabbling over various bits of London, and just how long the unit's been dealing with their infighting plus keeping it under wraps from the world at large.

Aaronovitch writes in a very relaxed, matey style for a great deal of both books, like a slightly drunken tour guide who's lived in London for ever and knows everything about absolutely everyone. The Folly turns out to be Nightingale, Grant and their mysterious housekeeper - no-one else, at least to start with - meaning plenty of fantastic back-and-forth between teacher and student that's a pleasure to read (even easy gags like Grant asking Nightingale "So you studied at Hogwarts, then?" still raise a smile).

Who do we sympathise with? Which one of these misfits keeps us watching?

Grant is the audience surrogate, obviously, but Aaronovitch is smart enough to make him more than just White Van Man. He's black, for starters, and secure in his ethnicity, with his family history and how it relates to the unit's goals offering some subtle perspectives on, as well as some sharply-written, affectionate jibes at multicultural Britain. He's also progress, gently reminding Nightingale this is the twenty-first century, challenging the accepted way the powers who shape London's destiny do business. And he's human, with emotions and appetites that tend to skew his judgement, sometimes for the better, sometimes not.

Aaronovitch does sometimes wheel out his Believe it or Not fascinating facts a few too many times, but he's a world away from Dan Brown's bull-headed smarm or Alan Moore's insufferable rambling in From Hell (Oh, I went there. I've been there so many times I get frequent flyer miles). His writing has the literary sheen plus the comfort food quality that great TV can sometimes evoke - you know Deadwood is a masterpiece, but mainlining half a series in one go is still a shameless indulgence. Like great TV you relish the dialogue here for its wit, its craft, its texture, and the action scenes for the shivering tension and the sheer pace dragging you along.

Rivers of London_cover 02 detail.jpgSo it's not just talk.

There is action, and tension, most of it fairly dark, at that. Rivers of London is very much about magic as something sensible, level-headed people shouldn't mess with, a force of nature liable to do terrible things if misused or harnessed for selfish ends. Aaronovitch likes his body horror, to the point people changing shape means they rip themselves apart inside, and pimps catering to customers with a taste for the supernatural offer ghastly hybrids of multiple strands of DNA with no business being welded together.

And when people get caught in the fray it really hurts, in more ways than one. Major characters take heavy damage or worse, both physical and emotional. Again, there's levity, there's downtime and cracking jokes, but Aaronovitch is at pains to remind his audience many of the people Grant and Nightingale are dealing with are either no longer entirely human or they never were human in the first place. It's hardly a new idea for genre fiction, but the man gives it a subtle gravitas that's greatly impressive; be they friends or enemies, you treat these characters with due care and respect, or you won't like the consequences.

Just so we're clear - how badly are you daydreaming this would ever get made?

A big part of doing Rivers of London justice would be getting the right cast, people the audience could care about the way Aaronovitch wants his readers to. You'd still need money - it'd take some elaborate CG for a lot of the key FX, not prosthetics - but hardly Boardwalk Empire money. Shoot it as high-end as possible to show off the city, get a good scriptwriter to keep the best bits of Aaronovitch's dialogue, two leads who can riff off each other, throw some Best of British character actors in there for the supporting roles and you're well under way.

Adapting it for TV could shore up some of the series' weak points, too. The main plot threads in the second book don't completely gel, and putting the emphasis on the visuals could help the characters win viewers over better than they did some readers. Aaronovitch arguably downplays the most interesting of his side stories far too much, and while putting it closer to front and centre could detract from what is a lightning bolt of a cliffhanger, it might balance the overall narrative arc better.

We neglect a shameful amount of pop culture unique to the UK - our myths and legends as much as the melting pot that is modern-day Britain. Talk about British fantasy or sci-fi on TV, the big screen, even videogames and all too often you end up over-praising vacuous whimsy or tired nostalgia. Celebrate multiculturalism and it gets brushed off as left-leaning hippie crap or similar dismissals from reactionary old men. If we had a home-grown industry catering to every flavour of geek - not just a generation who grew up hiding behind the sofa when the Daleks came on - Rivers of London would have been marketed half-way around the world by now. Still, a man can dream, can't he?

Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London series, published by Gollancz in the UK and Del Rey in the US, is available now in paperback, hardback and ebook formats.

Covers from the UK editions of Book 1, Rivers of London (known as Midnight Riot in the US) and Book 2, Moon Over Soho. Image of the Thames from Wikipedia. Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0


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