Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch

Jazzmen dropping dead in circumstances that are unusual even by their standards. Incontrovertible, if circumstantial, evidence of a real-life vagina dentata. These two sets of mysteries set the stage for the events of Moon Over Soho, events that will show readers more about Constable Peter Grant, much more about his mentor in magical policing Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, and leave slightly less property damage across greater London than Grant’s previous adventure. But only slightly less.

Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch

Moon Over Soho has the three things that I said made Rivers of London terrific fun to read — humor both line-by-line and over longer stretches, unrestrained love for twenty-first century London (The opening sentence is “It’s a sad fact of life that if you drive long enough, sooner or later you must leave London behind.”), and good balance of magic and mundane — and deepens them over the course of its heroes’ capers. By the end of it, readers know and appreciate Grant and Nightingale better. They can see how London itself is starting to change because of the events of which the police pair are just a part. The supporting cast are taking on greater depth, and readers can see how they might be the protagonists of their own stories. Molly, for example, who is presented in the first book as an unknowable and fearsome automaton, practically an extension of the house, might be someone comprehensible after all. Which of course leaves Grant, a Black Londoner, with unsettling questions about her apparent unending servitude.

Like any good mystery writer, Aaronovitch gives readers crucial information right up front, even though they may not realize its importance until much later.

Vestigia is the imprint magic leaves on physical objects. It’s a lot like a sense impression, like the memory of a smell or a sound you once heard. You’ve probably felt it a hundred times a day, but it all gets mixed up with memories, daydreams and even smells you’re smelling and sounds you’re hearing. Some things, stones, for example, sop up everything that happens around them even when it’s barely magical at all — that’s what gives an old house its character. Other things, like the human body, are terrible at retaining any vestigia at all — it takes the magical equivalent of a grenade going off to imprint anything on a corpse. (p. 12)

Which is why Grant is surprised to hear a saxophone solo emanating from an expired jazzman.

“How did you spot this?” I asked.
“I check all the sudden deaths,” said Dr Walid. “Just on the off-chance. I thought it sounded like jazz.”
“Did you recognise the tune?”
“Not me. I’m strictly prog rock and the nineteenth-century romantics,” said Dr Walid. “Did you?”
“It’s ‘Body and Soul’,” I said. “It’s from the 1930s.”
“Who played it?”
“Just about everybody. It’s one of the great jazz classics.
“You can’t die of jazz,” said Dr Walid. “Can you?”
I thought of Fats Navarro, Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker who, when he died, was mistaken by the coroner for a man twice his actual age.
“You know,” I said, “I think you’ll find you can.” (p. 13)

The action practically never slows, and Grant’s droll commentary remains hilarious — and scathing about things like London police practices into the 1970s and 1980s — but now having finished the book I most value the things that illuminate Grant’s and Nightingale’s characters. One thread of investigation has led them to find out who checked out a certain book from Nightingale’s old school, which he wishes Grant wouldn’t call Hogwarts. Readers get a glimpse of how Nightingale came to be the only wizard in Britain.

“There was an agreement [in the Great War] between the Germans and us not to involve magic,” said Nightingale. “We sat that one out.”
“I bet that made you popular,” I said.
Nightingale floated his werelight along to reveal the honoured dead of World War Two.
“You see, there’s Horace,” said Nightingale, illuminating the inscription: Horace Greenway, Kastelli, 21 May 1941. “And there’s Sandy and Champers and Percival.” The werelight darted across the serried ranks of names, listed as fallen at Tobruk and Arnhem and other places that I dimly remembered from history. But most of them were listed as having died at a place called Ettersberg on 19 January 1945. [Ettersberg is a real place, a high point outside of Weimar. The Buchenwald concentration camp was on its northwest side.] …
[T]he memorial covered two entire walls from top to bottom. There must have been thousands of names.
“There’s Donny Shanks, who made it through the siege of Leningrad without a scratch and then got himself torpedoed, and Smithy at Dieppe and Rupert Dance, Lazy Arse Dance we used to call him,” Nightingale trailed off. I turned to see tears glinting on his cheeks, so I looked away.
“Some days it seems so long ago, and some days…” he said.
“How many?” I asked before I could stop myself.
“Two thousand, three hundred and ninety-six,” said Nightingale. “Three out of five of every British wizard of military age. Many of those who survived were wounded or in such bad shape mentally that they never practised again.” He gestured and his werelight snapped back to hover over his hand. “I think we’ve spent enough time in the past.” …
As we were leaving, I asked him who’d carved the names.
“I did it myself,” said Nightingale. “The hospital encouraged us to take up a hobby. I chose woodcarving. I didn’t tell them why.”
“Why not?”
We ducked back into the service corridors. “The doctors were already worried that I was too morbid.”
“Why did you carve the names?”
“Oh, somebody had to do it, and as far as I could tell I was the only one still active. I also had this ridiculous notion that it might help.”
“Did it?”
“No,” he said, “not really.” (pp. 127–29)

Events in Moon Over Soho show that Nightingale wasn’t the only one still active, making their investigations considerably more complicated and dangerous. Grant persuades Nightingale that “black magician” is not a good name for such a practitioner. The book’s events also raise a question that I presume will become more relevant over the course of the series: for nearly fifty years, practically no magic but now a new bloom. Why? How?

Later on, Grant asks Nightingale what’s the biggest thing he’s zapped with a fireball.

“That would be a tiger,” said Nightingale.
“Well don’t tell Greenpeace,” I said. “They’re an endangered species.”
“Not that sort of tiger,” said Nightingale. “A Panzerkampfwagen sechs Ausf. E.”
I stared at him. “You knocked out a Tiger tank with a fireball?”
“Actually I knocked out two,” said Nightingale. …
But my brain was still trying to get round the idea that Nightingale could put a hole in ten centimetres of steel armour, when I still sometimes had trouble getting through the paper of the targets.
“Practice and training,” said Nightingale. (p. 312)

Fortunately for 2011 London, Moon Over Soho comes to a less explosive conclusion. Its last line is also a brilliant hook for the next book.


Doreen’s brief and enthusiastic review is here.

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