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Whispers Underground by Ben Aaronovitch

Whispers Underground by Ben Aaronovitch (Rivers of London 3) (Del Rey, 2012) continues the story of Peter Grant, the new member of the Isaacs, and maintains a high quality of style and panache (even throwing in a sideways swipe at Tolkien nerds who can read Elvish script). This prompts the notion that it’s a lot more difficult to write gentle humour than you might think. It’s all very well an author falling about laughing as he or she writes the stuff. It’s easy to convince yourself you’re the ultimate dispenser of comedy when the muse is in the ascendant and words are tumbling out of you faster than your fingers can type. But it’s when the cold light of day shines on your treasured prose that the first fickle fingers of doubt start to work on your self-confidence. There are some writers, of course, who really don’t care whether the readers find their work funny. They laughed so that’s them satisfied. After all, there were probably paid for the words, so what you do with them is up to you. This is the approach of those poor suckers who take the money and write humour to order for the mass market. Pity the fools who run regular columns in newspapers or must meet the deadline for the magazine or website. Not for them the luxury of afterthought. If it worked when the creative juices were flowing at peak rate, that’s good enough. A quick tidy up for the grammar (unless that’s part of the humour) and then press return with relief and get on with the next piece.

Ben Aaronovitch watching the birdie with lens-assisted eyes

In all this, the people you have to admire are the novelists who work to the timetables set by the publishing industry. For reasons connected with the need to market and distribute hardbacks and mass market paperbacks and allow each a fair shot at building sales, a year can pass as quickly as the blink of an eye between one book and the next. This tempts the author with the opportunity to edit the text just one more time. I’ve always been of the opinion that the first time you write something, you’re already approaching the target and, with a little polishing, you hit as good as you’re going to get with the idea. Those of you who read these reviews will understand that I don’t spend much time making them beautiful. This is more or less stream-of-consciousness content. However, an author who has a year before he or she needs to deliver the next book faces the challenge of believing the book is still as good as it was when it was first written. Having now read two books by Ben Aaronovitch, it’s obvious he trusts his own judgement. No matter what the first version, what emerges for us to read is genuinely amusing.

Now back to the task of reviewing. As already advertised, this book is a joy, but made doubly so by the historical arcana that keep floating to the top of the prose soup. For example, I’ve already squirrelled away the late-arriving news of Victorian butty gangs and their rise to financial glory — I knew all about the Truck Acts but this and several other buried gems had passed me by. However, when you take the overview, it’s the gentle humour that gives the book its edge. The chase through the London sewers just reeks of amusement (as one might say in an idle moment of unselfconscious depravity before the self-editing mechanism clicks in). Indeed, I found myself smiling on a regular basis as I turned the pages. Completing the perfection of the whole is a nicely constructed police procedural. For all we’re deep into the supernatural with various types of magic, different varieties of being and the occasional divine river, this remains a crime-solving book with Peter Grant now ably assisted by PC Lesley May (and monitored from a distance by Detective Inspector Nightingale) confronted by a murder while continuing to track down the Faceless Man. We also have contributions from the British Transport Police in the shape of Jaget Kumar and not always helpful appearances by Agent Reynolds, i.e. the FBI operating outside their jurisdiction. When you add up the magical lore, put it into its historical context and understand how everyone is related to everyone else, this turns out to be a most elegantly constructed puzzle for our hero to solve.

An alternate cover for US distribution

So, whether you want to enjoy a murder mystery or a supernatural crime novel with a wry sense of humour, Whispers Underground delivers. Perhaps even more importantly, there’s no pressure from anyone on the marketing front to classify this as urban fantasy. Obviously the London milieu is not sufficiently urban for it to register on the marketers’ radar. Or may be it’s not got enough magic or supernatural stuff happening. Or perhaps it’s got a scruffy young man as the hero. As a final thought, if there are people living in the sewers, it would be a good idea to rescue them and bring them into mainstream society, say by tempting them with the title of the fourth in the series by Ben Aaronovitch due in 2013. It’s called Broken Homes.

For review of two others in the series, see:
Broken Homes
Midnight Riot or Rivers of London.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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