Whispers Under Ground, Ben Aaronovitch

The third of the Peter Grant magical police constable books to appear on this blog.

I’m beginning to feel I should write the review in the style of a police statement:

Proceeding on information received via a personal contact, Police Constable Grant witnessed a person or persons unknown which he later recognised as a ghost defacing property belong to the railway.

But I fear it would become terribly tedious both to myself and you!


Aaronovitch had been a writer on the – frankly, limply disappointing – Sylvester McCoy days of Doctor Who in the 1990s and this book does feel an awful lot like Doctor Who. And in a good way. A much more satisfying way than the previous book, Moon Over Soho.

Like Doctor Who, there is an overarching story arc that has covered the last two books: the black – or ethically challenged – magician known as the Faceless Man. Here, however, it takes a definite back seat: we discover the Faceless Man’s mentor almost incidentally but he disappears (permanently so far as we can tell) without revealing anything to further that plot.

The main plot is actually a decent, focused and coherent murder story. An American is found dead on the tracks of the underground; evidence leads Grant, Lesley and Nightingale into the sewers and tunnels and warrens beneath London; the evidence leads to a surprise discovery hiding in the dark and, subsequently, the murderer.

There is actually very little magic involved here at all: if you’re looking for Harry Potter style hexes, you’d be disappointed. The world that Aaronovitch has created exists and magic plays its part… But, here, it is good old pedestrian leg work (pun fully intended) or what Lesley calls “real police work” that gets to the killer. And I liked that!

Aaronovitch does like to include one “set piece” public magical debacle in each of his books. In Rivers, it was the burning of Covent Garden; in Moon it was the ambulance dash into the Thames; here it is a conflict with what Grant – gloriously geekily – calls an Earth Bender who buries him in a cement coffin in an underground station. Despite these set pieces, the three books are different in tone, despite being set in the same universe: the mythic nature of Rivers has not quite been matched since; Grant’s slipping back into prehistory in Rivers – thanks to Molly’s bite – resurfaces (again, pun intended but not one you’d recognise prior to reading the book) in Whispers; the tenderness of Grant’s relationship with Simone and her memories in Moon are not matched in the other books; and this one feels much more like a police procedural than the previous two. Again, the parallels with television series like Doctor Who or Buffy‘s episodic nature are apparent: different emotional and writing styles week-by-week housed within a wider story arc which – one anticipates – will culminate in a final showdown that brings together the various strands (Goddesses, Quiet People, even FBI Agents and teenage girls) against the Big Bad Faceless Man.

One thing did rile me with this book. The grammar and syntax is simply bad in places. I read it on my ebook so I’m not sure if the errors I found so annoying were problems with editing or scanning…

There are two things which make this series stand out for me: firstly, the detail and history of London that seeps into the pages – in addition to the genus locii devices that allows London’s features to walk around as characters in their own right. Also, the understanding and banter and detail of the police procedural elements of the book seem to me to be screamingly authentic. I don’t know if Aaronovitch has a police background or not but, if he doesn’t, his research is very thorough!

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