All three Rivers of London novellas that have been published to date — The Furthest Station, The October Man, and now What Abigail Did That Summer — have left me wanting more, which is a fine recommendation for books that are meant as light, if occasionally spooky, entertainment. The stories all take place in and around London, in a world where magic works, but where practitioners are rare, not least because magical practice without training has a tendency to produce irreparable brain damage. The narrator of most of the series is Peter Grant, a young police officer of West African and Caribbean descent, but the summer of this novella’s title was for him Foxglove Summer, so he is off-stage and Aaronovitch gives readers Peter’s ferociously precocious cousin Abigail as the first-person narrator.
Abigail has, in previous books, seen ghosts and thus been let in on the true nature of Peter’s police work. In her early teens, she’s become something of a regular at the Folly, the two-person unit officially responsible for what other police officers sometimes call “weird bollocks.” She is building her own relationship with Thomas Nightingale, the Detective Chief Inspector in charge of the Folly, who is also England’s strongest remaining wizard.
One level of the novella’s mystery is for readers to figure out what Abigail was doing that summer because the first chapter has her in an interview room in the Holmes Road police station navigating questioning with a combination of native intelligence, teen obstreperousness, and the inside knowledge that comes from having a cousin like Peter. It’s not going all that well, “this one’s already giving me the squinty-eyed look that adults always give me after meeting me for more than five minutes.” (p. 3) There are missing children, including someone named Simon; Abigail knows something that the police do not; and she is not telling. What’s going on?
The next chapter jumps back to how Abigail first met Simon, and how right away he wasn’t like other boys. They’re standing at the entrance to Hampstead Heath.
A skinny white woman jogs past us in a pair of red short shorts and a yellow Lycra top, her legs bending awkwardly inward as she goes. Following her is a dachshund, wheezing in the heat as it tries to keep up. We both watch the poor dog go past.
“That lady needs a bigger dog,” says Simon.
“Or maybe pull it along on a trolley,” I say.
“Dog on a skateboard,” says Simon, and just like that we’re friends.
For the day at least.
“Were you waiting for someone?” I ask.
“Jessica,” he says and smiles, which then fades into a frown. “But she didn’t come.”
Now this is interesting to me, because I was supposed to meet someone in the same spot. A girl from my old primary school called Natali, who I hadn’t seen in ages but suddenly turned up around my flats. (p. 7)
The cold opening and jump back work well because the chapters that follow the first are not just progress toward the confrontation shown at the start but involve their own little mysteries, in addition to things that are self-evident to Abigail but may surprise readers a bit. She’s acquainted with talking foxes, for example, and the group of them in this book act a lot like a spy organization. There’s also a Cat Lady, and the genius loci of the River Fleet holding her summer court around the women’s swimming pond in a wooded corner of the Heath. Abigail sees all of them as she tries to stay one step ahead of both Simon’s mum and the police, all while trying to figure out who’s going missing for a little while, who might not be coming back at all, and why. Because only then can she hope to do something about it while there’s still time. Unfortunately, all of those paths lead back to that first scene, and the adult police might get it all wrong.
The adventure and the puzzle are a treat, and with Peter off-stage, Aaronovitch can show readers more about Abigail. Two of the three novellas point to how the Rivers of London series might branch into multiple longer sets of tales. Abigail might become Aaronovitch’s Tiffany Aching; Sommer and Winter might be the leads of more books set in Germany. What Abigail did that summer is open up a lot of new possibilities for magical London and its rivers.