Whispers Under Ground by Ben Aaronovitch

I’m only three books into the Rivers of London series, and already they feel like comfort reading. I can feel confident that with each new Peter Grant book I pick up, I will encounter characters I enjoy spending time with — the narrator first and foremost — that they will have adventures and scrapes, that Aaronovitch will reveal something new about London and its magical side, that the main characters will survive though not always unscathed, and that the mystery will be solved if not entirely resolved. I’ve previously mentioned three things that make Aaronovitch’s premise of magical police procedurals in contemporary (as of the time of writing) London work so well: humor both line-by-line and over longer stretches, unrestrained love for twenty-first century London, and a good balance of magic and mundane.

Whispers Under Ground by Ben Aaronovitch

Whispers Under Ground begins with Detective Constable Peter Grant corralled by the daughter of a friend of his mum’s to go and see a ghost. “Back in the summer I’d made the mistake of telling my mum what I did for a living. Not the police bit, which of course she already knew about … but the stuff about me working for a branch of the Met that dealt with the supernatural. My mum translated this as ‘witchfinder,’ which was good because my mum, like most West Africans, considered witchfinding a more respectable profession than policeman.” (p. 3) Thirteen-year-old Abigail has been down near some train tracks where, strictly speaking, she shouldn’t have been, and she saw the ghost of a young man who shouldn’t have been there either but was now in a sense there forever because a train struck him mid-graffiti. His ghost is still trying to finish spraying “Be excellent to each other.”

This encounter presages the main line of the book: an unknown person has been stabbed on the tracks just outside of the Baker Street tube station. He makes it as far as the platform before dying. The stabbing happened late at night. The man should not have been on those tracks, and he definitely should not have been able to get on those tracks without being spotted by Transportation for London’s extensive system of surveillance cameras. Which is the main reason DCI Seawoll — first seen in Rivers of London as a Northerner “with issues, [who]’d moved to London as a cheap alternative to psychotherapy” — calls in Grant in case there is any “weird bollocks” to deal with in the investigation.

While having to close down two major Underground lines just before the start of service for the last shopping week before Christmas is bad, what’s potentially much worse is that the victim was the son of a US Senator. The Met wants the case solved, quick and clear, and with as little weird bollocks as possible, tyvm. With that set-up, Aaronovitch has drafted Grant into a major investigation for the first time. No more running about with just him and Nightingale trying to sort things out. Grant has to work as part of a large team, and on a case with potentially a huge public profile. The American angle means that the team soon has an attached FBI agent, who is straight-arrow and ambitious. She’s also much too observant for Grant’s and the Met’s comfort, given all of the magical things that they don’t want anyone to know about.

That stays tricky because the case turns out to have a great deal of weird bollocks. The murder weapon was a piece of pottery. Odd enough in itself, but when he examines it, Grant senses strong vestigia, afterimages of magical workings. The victim had been an art student. He painted in a nineteenth-century realist style, but a few months before his murder his work took a decidedly darker turn, and some of those pieces had traces of vestigia. The victim’s planner showed that he had intended to attend the opening at the Tate Modern of an exhibition of works by a young Irish artist. Grant attends instead, and he encounters a piece whose vestigia is so strong that even the mundane opening-goers can feel something, though they know not what. If that weren’t enough supernatural to annoy Seawoll no end, it turns out that the victim’s roommate Zach is half-human and half, well not fae, he hates the term, but something in that direction. Zach knows a lot more than he lets on, but getting any useful, or even reliable, information out of him is sometimes more than Grant can manage.

Aaronovitch delivers on all of the promises he has made for this book, and for the series to date. Where Moon Over Soho was strong on deepening readers’ knowledge of key characters, and those characters’ connections with each other, Whispers Under Ground expands the series by introducing characters who look like they will return and by showing that there is much more to supernatural London than even Nightingale knows. The loss of more than two thousand practitioners in the Second World War is keenly felt even almost three-quarters of a century later. Thirteen-year-old Abigail is likely to turn up again, especially as she delivers the line that sets up the next book, Broken Homes. The FBI agent is a prime character to have return. The eventual revelation of what is whispering under ground shows that Nightingale is not the only one who can make informal arrangements at the border between the magical and the mundane. The story hints that London’s rivers are not the only genius loci that can develop into personifications, a sign that far from receding amidst technology, the tide of magic may be flowing back in after decades of ebb. Grant also learns that his school of practitioners, with a lineage dating back to Newton, have a nickname among some of London’s magical folk: “the bloody Isaacs.” Looks like there won’t be any shortage of conflict going forward.


Doreen’s review of Whispers Under Ground is here. She flags a great quote about why Grant does what he does.

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2 pings

  1. […] wrote about Whispers Under Ground that I found the Rivers of London comfort reading, despite the uncanny events, the grisly murders, […]

  2. […] counterparts have sent over a crack team, as Peter learns from an FBI agent he befriended in Whispers Under Ground. The special relationship between the US and UK governments is specially unhappy at the level of […]

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