3 November 2016

The Hanging Tree

Image from http://www.gollancz.co.uk/
The Hanging Tree (Rivers of London 6)
Ben Aaronovitch
Gollancz, 3 November 2016
HB, 400pp
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy via NetGalley.

This is the sixth outing for PC Peter Grant (in novel form - I'd strongly recommend the comics which fit between the books. not least as some of those stories are mentioned in this book - though you don't need to know the detail). Grant is the newest apprentice to enigmatic wizard - and Detective Inspector - Nightingale, whose task is to provide support to London's police when they encounter "weird bollocks" - essentially magic but also, inhabitants of the London demi-monde of fae, river gods, Silent People and genii loci.

Grant's back in the city after his excursion to Herefordshire (where he didn't meet a certain Church of England priest turned exorcist - so he can be excused here for not recognising the name of her singer/ songwriter boyfriend). I enjoyed Foxglove Summer but there's no doubt that Grant's true milieu is London and he's magnificent here in what's essentially a tricky police procedural (but with magic).

Lady Ty's daughter and a group of her posh friends run into a spot of trouble when a party gets out of hand and somebody ends up dead. Tyburn wants it tidied away quietly: Peter's stuck in the middle. From this starting point Aaronovitch spins a clever story involving drugs, stolen antiquities, a bunch of independent contractors who keep crossing his path, a clever fox and - of course - the Faceless Man who's been haunting this series from the start.

One of the things about Rivers of London that I enjoy most is the apparent authenticity of the police investigations. (I say 'apparent' because I can't judge, I don't know anything about it). This isn't Morse and Lewis strolling moodily around solving crime (much as I love Morse and Lewis) - even if Grant's and Nightingale's peculiar talent might justify that approach. Instead, they're clearly enmeshed in the modern police machine, with information collated by computer, "actions" raised in response to it and a whole background of hierarchies, review meetings and territorial support deployed as part of the story rather than simply an impediment to our hero.

Another thing I like is Aaronovitch's gentle but pointed tale on diversity:

"I was beginning to think that there must be a factory somewhere stamping out dangerously skinny white girls with good deportment and a nervous disposition".

"...the wrinkly brown chamois leather complexion that white people get if they spend their lives under a hot sun."

These and other similar (and similarly sharp) lines just sink the assumption that any character must be white unless the book says otherwise. Or take Guleed, who works with Grant through most of this book - just another police officer (though we find out a little bit about her background, courtesy of a story she tells... and of Lady Ty). Or again, the episode where Grant is stopped at nightie his car by two uniforms because he "looked happy" (he takes their lapel numbers... just in case). Or a senior police officer - she has, we are told in passing, a wife somewhere out in the suburbs. Maybe it shouldn't be noteworthy that an author is doing this, but there we are.

At this stage in the series Aaronovitch could be forgiven for sitting back and letting the plot and series arc rest. All he really has to do to entertain is to bring out Grant and his cronies, let us see and listen to them and lace the text with banter, deadpan humour and the cynical Londonist viewpoint:

"'That's a difficult question, Alexander,' said Nightingale.

'I know it's a difficult question, Thomas,' said Seawoll slowly.

'That's why I'm fucking asking it'".

... together with Aaronovitch's own engaging geekiness - both about the truly SFnal ("the spice must flow!" or a reference to Sir Samuel, patron saint of policemen) and about wider culture ("And where it all came from was a mystery, I thought. Like the changing of the seasons and the tides of the sea.")

It would be easy for him to relax and neglect the story, but he doesn't. This is a satisfyingly confusing and mazey story, fast moving and full of incidents which - despite the magic - essentially respects all the conventions of the crime story, of which it's a cracking example. Indeed I would say that on the level of story, this is one of the best of the Rivers series so far. It's a cracking read, and laugh out loud funny in places

My only reservation would be how the story relates to the titular Tree. In the London context, Tyburn Tree - the Triple Tree - was the gallows standing where Marble Arch now is. Condemned criminals were taken along St Giles High Street, past the present day site of Forbidden Planet where I've met Aaronovitch at book signings, and down what is now Oxford Street on their last journey. The title and cover art allude to this and indeed the site of the Tree is mentioned and a couple of other locations key in to the theme. But this doesn't really seem to be a central concern of the book, and that left me (slightly) waiting throughout for the other shoe to drop, which it never did. In terms of London lore there is more about, say, Jonathan Wild in here than the Tree itself (even if Mr Wild did end up dancing the Tyburn jig...) But that's a small point, really.

There is a great deal else here: the Faceless Man, Mr Punch, a mysterious, almost steampunk, device, a lost Third Principia of Isaac Newton, loads of death and destruction in Central London, a great deal of really smart dialogue, a cynical light on the doings of the London super-rich ("once you're past a certain point, the sheer weight of your money sucks in wealth like a financial singularity") and, of course, the marvellous Beverley Brook herself - without whom no volume in this series would be complete.

In all, probably the best of the series so far, showing Aaronovitch on fine form even six books (and several short stories and comics) in.







2 comments:

Annabel said...

I've still only managed to read the first two. Must get a move on... this one sounds rather brilliant.

David said...

It's a very nice series. Difficult to keep up though... blink and a series is up to 5 or 6 books!