There are so many new crime writers coming onto the scene these days that sorting out which are worth adding to the list of ‘authors to be read immediately’ is a real challenge. In the past few months I have started novels by half a dozen highly praised writers only to give up on them after I’ve failed completely to understand quiet why their works had garnered such accolades. Very few are passing the ‘just one more chapter’ test which is the real indicator of whether or not they have managed to grip me in a way that means I am likely to become a fan for life. However, I have just finished the first in a new series that had me turning the pages into the wee small hours desperate to know what was going to happen next.
Paul Cornell, the author of London Falling, is probably best known for his work on Doctor Who, although if he keeps up the standard of storytelling to be found in this, the first of the Shadow Police series, that may soon change. You don’t have to look far to recognise the Doctor Who influence, however, because if this highly original novel might be likened to any other works in the field it would be to Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant series and those of you who are aficionados of the Doctor will know that Aaronovitch is also a scriptwriter for the programme. And, as is the case with Aaronovitch’s novels trying to tell you anything about the plot of London Falling is going to be like trying to get you to believe six impossible things before breakfast every morning. Nevertheless, I will try.
When DI James Quinn finally manages to pull in Rob Toshack, head of a local drug running syndicate, he thinks he is about to wrap up the case that will make his name. He is, therefore, more than a little miffed when, during interrogation, Toshack basically explodes. Apart from the fact that there is blood and bits everywhere (and there is a nice undercurrent of humour here that ameliorates the often very gruesome details, although Cornell is not the master of the one liner that Aaronovitch is) Quinn has to come to terms with the fact that he is certain he saw something come through the interview room wall and cause said explosion. Compelled to accept that what he has witnessed is the handiwork of an agency older and more mystical than anything the police manual addresses, Quinn puts together a task force that comprises himself, two undercover officers who have previously infiltrated Toshack’s gang and intelligence analyst, Lisa Ross. Their role is clear; not only have they to capture the being who caused the gang lord’s death but they must do so before anymore people explode. Blood and bits can be difficult to explain.
Having established the fact that they are looking for a woman known as Mora Losley, their investigation takes them all round London but repeatedly bring them back to Upton Park, the home of West Ham Football Club. There is a legend that if any player scores a hat-trick against West Ham they will shortly thereafter come to a very sticky end and as they look further into Losley’s past this legend suddenly takes on a very sinister dimension. Even the deaths of those footballers who appear to have met a natural end on closer inspection turn out to have died in interesting circumstances. Furthermore, each death is linked to the disappearance of three small children, but children who for some reason have never been reported missing by their parents.
As I say, some of this is very gruesome, but Cornell’s writing means that you are never that far away from a lighter moment, a turn of phrase that will bring a smile to your face and help to get you over the very real evil that is being discussed. And, intertwined with the story and its magical apparitions there are some interesting social comments, which again is something I would expect from a Doctor Who scriptwriter. I could, for example, make a joke of the football connection and say that listening to the results on a Saturday evening will never be quite the same again and it’s true that in future any footballer who reads this book is going to think twice about setting out to make his name against West Ham. However, Cornell does, albeit, tangentially, explore the phenomenon that is football fanaticism and what can happen when club becomes more than family, more than community, more than life itself. Fortunately, not many such fanatics have the power to reduce the opposition to blood and bits via an internal explosion. But, I do mean fortunately, because some of those I’ve met in the city centre after a bad loss would certainly have taken advantage of the power had it been theirs. I also stopped and thought at the moment when the club’s directors refuse to cancel a match despite being ordered to do so by the police. In Cornell’s London they are doing so under the influence of malignant magical forces, however, the cynic in me could see the same thing happening in the non-fictional world if television rights and the money that goes with them were being threatened. This isn’t just a book to read for entertainment, it is book that will make you think about certain aspects of the society in which we live.
Luckily for me I have come across London Falling quite late in the day as it was published in 2012. This means that I am not going to have to wait that long for the second in the series, The Severed Streets, which is due out in March. In the meantime, if you are a fan of Ben Aaronovitch, or of the Doctor, or just like crime fiction set in London then I can strongly recommend this. I already have number two on order.