Odd reports from the Metropolitan Line of the London Underground have come to the attention of Peter Grant and the Special Assessment Unit he’s a part of. They’ve come through as part of a project to deal with sexual assaults and offensive behavior on the transport system, and part of that was “improving reporting rates for those offences, which meant convincing victims we were taking them seriously. So when you get a cluster of complaints about assaults by ‘a man who wasn’t there’ you don’t just bin them. You pass them to the people who are responsible for weird shit, i.e., me and [Sergeant] Jaget [Kumar].” (p. 6) Wait a minute. “‘A man who wasn’t there?’ I said.” (p. 6) Indeed. Five reports of people being variously pushed, groped, shouted at or racially abused. Common element: no apparent perpetrator.
“Where it got weird was in the follow ups.” (p. 6) Not only was there no apparent perpetrator, the victims denied having made any calls from their mobiles to the police, despite logs on both the phones and from the police, as well as transcripts of the conversations. Officers who made later follow-up visits said they believed the victims genuinely had no recollection of the incidents. A detail that caught my eye was archaic, or at least peculiar, language used by the assailant. One transcript mentioned a victim being called a “Saracen,” for example. Those peculiarities and the lack of apparent connections or intimidation make it look even more like a case for Peter and company. When Jaget asks for his official view, he gives another flash of the bureaucratic jargon so lovingly mentioned in Foxglove Summer: “We at the Folly have embraced the potentialities of modern policing.” (p. 8)
With that, they’re off. Ghost-hunting on the Metropolitan line. Fortunately, Peter and Jaget spot a disturbance on a train the very first morning of their search. By the time they make their way through the cars, whatever-it-is has already happened. Aaronovitch shows a bit of police procedure by way of setting the stage for the supernatural. The two have figured out which passenger was the victim, a young white woman who
caught my eye because not only was her face flushed, but she kept sneaking looks at us and then pretending to be madly interested in her Kindle.
Me and Jaget did some professional looming until we’d cleared enough space for me to crouch down and, in my best non-intimidating voice, ask whether she was alright. In case you’re wondering, that blokey sing-song timbre with a reassuring touch of regional — in my case cockney — accent is entirely deliberate. We actually practise it in front of a mirror. It’s designed to convey the message that we’re totally friendly, customer-facing modern police officers who have nothing but your wellbeing at the core of our mission statement — but nonetheless we are not going to go away until you talk to us. Sorry, but that’s just how we roll. (p. 3)
Jessica Talacre — Jaget got her name — says she was just startled, someone knocked into her, it was an accident. Peter swoops:
“But it wasn’t one of these guys, was it?” I said.
Jessica Talacre looked at me sharply. “What makes you say that?”
“There was something a bit weird about this person?” I asked.
“What, apart from being a ghost?” she said, and looked defiant and then a bit fearful that we might have the famous white coats stashed about our person.
“What makes you think it was a ghost?” I asked.
“Because,” she said, “he faded out in front of my eyes.”
I pulled out my notebook and asked if she could give me a description.
“Wait,” she said. “You believe me?” (p. 4)
The Furthest Station packs two mysteries into just under 120 pages: why are there suddenly so many ghosts on the Metropolitan Line, and what will Peter and the others do when they discover the answer to the first question. Unlike other Rivers of London stories, this one does not open with a grisly supernatural murder, but that doesn’t mean that the pace has slackened any or that the tension is not running high.
Peter’s younger cousin Abigail plays a prominent role in this novella, and she’s likely to do even more in future volumes. Her brains are running well ahead of her school program, and that’s taking her to places well outside of Peter’s comfort zone. He figures she’ll be trying to teach herself magic soon, and he’s not looking forward to discussing it with her parents.
“Is it safe?” they’d ask.
“No, it’s hideously dangerous, but if we don’t teach her she’ll probably accidentally kill herself before she’s sixteen.” (p. 9)
The subject comes up again later, when Peter decides that a stakeout is maybe about to become too dangerous for Abigail to remain there with him, and sends her out of harm’s way. He warns her that it might take a long time.
She held up a copy of Tacitus: Histories I & II in the original Latin. …
“Where did you get that?”
“Second hand shop,” said Abigail.
“You spent your own money on it?”
“Might have done,” said Abigail. And, when I didn’t say anything, “Miss Margot gave it to me.”
“What, Margot the Maggot?”I said. Miss Margot had been a teacher when I was at school. She’d taught [religious education] and I don’t remember her as being all that encouraging.
“She’s the one organising the GCSE for me.”
“You never said.”
“You never asked.”
“So how long has she been teaching you Latin?”
“You know when I asked whether you’d teach me magic?” said Abigail. “And you said you would when I passed my GCSE?”
“Since then?” I said.
Oh. Shit. (p. 99)
Nightingale has views on language, too, when Peter tells him that whereas police incident tape will draw onlookers, yellow and black hazard tape will only inspire any passersby to grumble about inconvenience.
I held up the high visibility vest. “This seals the deal and renders me invisible.”
“You’ve been taking lessons from Guleed again,” said Nightingale. “Haven’t you?”
“Vestis virum reddit,” I said — clothes make the man.
Nightingale looked blank.
“Quintilianus,” I said.
“Of course,” said Nightingale. “Which reminds me, it’s about time we started you on Greek.” My face must have betrayed my enthusiasm because he quickly added, “I think you’re going to find Marcus Aurelius particularly useful.”
“For what?” I asked.
“Quoting, mainly,” he said. “And thus maintaining an air of erudition and authority.” (p. 49)
And when things get nearly desperate near the end of the book, as the second mystery spurs urgent question, Aaronovitch does not forget to lighten the action with some well-placed droll remarks.
While Jaget was getting into position I called Nightingale and briefed him. We decided his best option would be to drive to Aylesbury nick where the Thames Valley Major Investigation Unit had its incident room and where he could swing his rank from side to side and persuade [Thames Valley Police] to take us seriously. (p. 101)
The Furthest Station was short enough and engaging enough that I finished it in just a couple of hours, enjoying it all the while. In addition to the the case and further developments in Abigail’s story, there’s a delightful bit about a river outside of London, and a brief view of Nightingale in full magic practitioner — wizard — mode.
Novella is a great length for fantasy and science fiction stories. Economics and distribution mean that the short novels I grew up loving are mostly a thing of the past. On the one hand, people paying today’s prices for a novel want something with more heft than 150 to 250 pages. On the other hand, manuscripts no longer have to meet the constraints of mass market paperbacks destined for drugstore spinner racks. But not every story needs to grow past 350 pages, and I don’t always feel like reading something of that length either. A well-crafted novella, like The Furthest Station, hits the sweet spot of concentrated storytelling with a punch stronger than its bantam weight would suggest. Ben Aaronovitch has already published one novella in the Rivers of London series that I haven’t read yet (What Abigail Did That Summer from 2021), and I hope there will be more in due course.