The October Man begins with what I have come to think of as a hallmark of Ben Aaronovitch‘s Rivers of London: a death that is in nearly equal measure grisly, fascinating and supernatural. This novella offers “a suspicious death with unusual biological characteristics.” (p. 4) The narrator’s local police liaison adds, a few pages later, “The paramedics declared it a biohazard.” (p. 8)
In contrast to the other books in the series that I have read, The October Man gives readers rivers but no London. The story is set in and around the German city of Trier, and the narrator is not Peter Grant but Tobias Winter. He is a member of a special unit within Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office, the Bundeskriminalamt or BKA (pronounced in German like “bay-kah-ah”). He knows more magic than Grant, though his relations with the head of his department within the BKA are perfectly correct but not warm. She’s originally from eastern Germany, he’s from westernmost parts and from a police family too, whereas it’s implied that magical practitioners in East Germany skirted even what passed for law in the communist times. All of that, though, is background for future intrigues within the bureau for Complex and Diffuse Matters (Komplexe und diffuse Angelegenheiten, KDA) — the perfectly German bureaucratic name for Winter’s department.
His liaison in Trier is a young and ambitious police officer named Vanessa Sommer, her last name being the German word for summer. “It might have been a coincidence but someone, I knew, somewhere, was enjoying a laugh at my expense.” (p. 6) She is not only fiercely competent but also an expert in winemaking, and the sorts of crimes that go along with it. Trier is near the heart of the Mosel, one of Germany’s premier wine regions. The Mosel is also the river that flows past the city. Like London’s, Trier’s river also has an incarnation; unlike London’s, Trier’s presents as a wildly enthusiastic and precocious five-year-old girl. Sommer and Winter don’t meet her until later, but the chain of events leading to the meeting starts with the potentially biohazardous corpse: it’s discovered on a riverbank.
He had been a tall, well-built man, going to fat with the onset of middle age. But you wouldn’t be able to say what his skin colour was, because the whole of his body was covered in what looked like short, grey-coloured fur like the pelt of an animal. …
“What is it?” asked [local police investigator] Förstner.
“A fungal infection of the division Ascomycota,” said [the KDA coroner]. “It covers ninety per cent of his body but is particularly concentrated at his feet, groin and armpits.”
“According to our timeline,” said Förstner, “he can’t have been dead for more than three hours.”
“Then the speed of growth is almost miraculous,” said [the coroner], looking at me as she said it. “The growth on the skin is also anomalous. I’m not a mycologist but I believe you only get this formation when the fungus is forming reproductive organs.” (pp. 16–18)
When the coroner rattles off a few more facts, Sommer shows that she knows the exact fungus involved, Botrytis cinerea. Among vintners it’s known as “noble rot,” and is sometimes used to impart particular flavors to wine. It’s never been known to jump to humans, let alone to grow at a rate that could cover almost all of a human body within hours, and grown quickly enough in the lungs to suffocate the victim.
And with that, the investigation is underway. Who was he? Why was he killed? And why in that particular way at that particular place? Does it have anything to do with the owners of the winery on the hills above where his body was found? Along the way, Winter learns more about what the Nazis did with magic in the area during the war, about history that goes back much further, and about the very human foibles of some decidedly non-human entities.
Aaronovitch’s trademark humor is no less witty for being translated into Germany. Investigator Förstner is the head of the local police branch that “dealt with homicide, kidnapping and all the other crimes that make interesting television.” (p. 13) It’s likely that Aaronovitch is also taking a gentle poke at one of Germany’s top-rated television series. Tatort (Scene of the Crime) has been a staple of German TV for more than half a century and specializes in exactly that sort of crime. Later on, when noting a detail about the Newtonian synthesis and English magic, Winter recalls “what the Director calls the maddening Anglo-Saxon vagueness of British wizardry.” (p. 69) More sinisterly, “But there are people, and things that look like people, for whom death is just the beginning of a career.” (p. 97)
The October Man is brief, at just under 180 generously set pages, and I think I would have enjoyed a bit more. On the other hand, Aaronovitch certainly leaves the door open for more investigations featuring Winter and Sommer. There’s no telling what will walk through that door.