I am a long time murder mystery fan in all forms, from cozy gentle to the soul-wrenching noir mysteries. Part of it of course is the twist and turns of the plot, the unraveling of the mystery, second guessing, being wrong, being surprised (or being smug when the guess is right). But a good deal of pleasure also comes from the characters -- the detective (and how many many iconic detectives we have in this genre, their names as notable as the titles of their stories and the authors who created them) the femme fatales, and the street wise informants. And while I am not a horror reader, a friend recently recommended Paul Cornell's work, with its gritty take on ancient and malevolent magic in modern London. So the blood, the tearing of flesh, and the monstrous behavior all fell into a form I could handle -- a pair of police procedurals and noir-ish cast of troubled detectives. And to avoid spoilers (at what looks to be an ongoing series) here's what I liked most about London Falling (2013) and The Severed Streets (2014):
1. The Detectives: these novels bring together an unlikely cast of individuals to sort through the inexplicable murders and threats that thrive beneath the surface of London's urban exterior. And what a wonderfully tormented cast it is. Tony Constain and Kevin Sefton -- the two undercover operatives, whose past experiences have taken them a little too close to (and maybe even over) the edge; James Quill, their boss, a gruff old-school sort, yet haunted by an existential hole in his life he can't explain; Lisa Ross, an astute analyst who carries scars on her face and in her memories that have made her a near agoraphobic; and Lofthouse, the detective superintendent, who oversees their investigations -- and while she seems more like a formidable librarian (which is carried over in her very name), she has private reasons for doubling down on this group when their investigations uncover supernatural suspects.
2. The Villains: a surprisingly large cast of the normal human thugs, drug overlords, criminal capitalists, and corrupt politicians. But behind them are much older and waaay scarier forces working through them. An angry crone (ala Baba Yaga) who lives between the walls of slum houses and who offers power with gifts of bloody and bone-crunching sacrifices; an even angrier female spirit trapped deep underground but who is given power to slash victims through silver rivers embedded like veins in London's soil; and finally, some really creepy and as yet not fully understood demonic figures who appear as "My Lord of the Pleasant Face" and "The Smiling Man" who operate in the background.
3. The Magic: I enjoy it when an author constructs a new take on magic. The dubious gift of second sight allows one to see the supernatural that inhabit London, voracious and unhappy ghosts wallowing side by side with ordinary unsuspecting citizens. But beyond that, magic is also a function of stored memories, of history, of traditions that if summoned by enough drive and force by the community or an individual, it can acquire weight and shape, and finally, power in the present day to those who know how to manipulate it. A soccer field rests on ground with a violent history, and a 500 year old witch tethered to its past comes alive when she becomes an infamous fan of the sport. The traumatic memory of violent beatings on a school bus allows a character to call forth a ghostly version of the bus and ride it to a London that exists only in antiquity. And entire underclass of Londoners fight to maintain the old ways of magic by eschewing modernity, money, and offering personal sacrifices (a finger, a tooth or two being the least horrific) as gifts to those darker forces. One of the more important tasks of the detectives is to learn how to read this alternate London, how to find the language, the gestures and symbols, the dark, forgotten histories beneath the modern facade that are being mined for present day magic.
4. The Landscape: Here is a London above and below, modern and ancient -- and there is so much variation. From the slums, to the quiet suburbs, the city centers with more infamous histories, to even a version of Hell -- which here, seems to be situated in a peculiar, alternate London of the late 1800s. There are also arcane ruins among city streets but hidden from view except to those with the second sight, deep rivers flowing with power beneath the city, and haunted barrows buried under the cornerstones of shopping malls.
If I have any quibble it would be just this: Neil Gaiman appears in the second novel, The Severed Streets. It's a fun nod to a fellow writer and I am sure that most Gaiman fans will be delighted by the cameo. But I found it a bit distracting. So much wonderful work is invested in bringing to life the fractured and flawed detectives, but they seem to pale when a real, nonfictional character takes the center stage -- even if only briefly. It's like breaking the fourth wall in the theater, and the spell so carefully cast by Cornell wavers at the intrusion. Still...I am eagerly awaiting the next novel, as there are so many interesting narrative secrets hinted at that must at some point in the future be revealed.
Art: Ashkan Honarvar is a complex and fascinating artist -- using altered photographs, drawing, and detailed collages. The work is richly evocative, but also often disturbing which is why I thought it reminded me so much of the novels. If you decide to explore further, be advised that it is definitely NSFW. (Clicking on these images will give you larger versions...and probably shivers.)