The late (and very much lamented) Douglas Adams had this to say about deadlines: “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by”. When said deadlines loomed it is alleged that his publisher would lock him into hotel rooms in an effort to get the book finished on time. I don’t know how true this is but it may be a tactic which Ben Aaronovitch’s publishers may want to consider since this, the sixth book in the Rivers of London series, has been promised for the best part of a year as far as I can see. In fact when we were told the publication date had been set for 3rd November there was an awful lot of scepticism. When I mentioned on Twitter that the date had been confirmed (and I had an e-proof from Netgalley to prove it) there was probably an equal amount of doubt and over-excited squeeing. The customers who have been in so far to actually collect their copies have generally shown a curious mixture of disbelief and elation. And I’m fairly certain that when they have read the latest outing of P.C. Peter Grant and his colleagues in that branch of the Met which investigates ‘weird b*llocks’ they will forgive Ben Aaronovitch for the delay.
The Hanging Tree has everything that you would expect from the series. Peter Grant does lots of the leg work for his boss, Nightingale, while also trying to compile a proper Operations Manual for the Falcon department. He is given back-up by Guleed, a kick-ass female, hijab-wearing DC, and tolerated by the rest of the force. Mostly because he deals with stuff so they don’t have to. There is plot aplenty – involving rich teens getting mixed up with drugs, collapsing buildings, mysterious shell companies who own some eye-wateringly pricey London real estate and general peril – but I don’t want to give too much away. Let’s just say there are a lot of familiar characters (the personifications of the Rivers of London themselves are still my favourites) and villains. The Faceless Man shows up (or rather doesn’t) as does Lesley May, Peter’s ex-colleague turned baddie, and there are interesting new faces who, I hope, we will see again in future novels.
I enjoyed the wit and pace of this book – as always they are like a normal police procedural story with added magic, humour and weirdness – and I really like Peter Grant as a character. Little comment is made about his race (and as a whole race is only mentioned to describe white characters – an interesting twist on how these things usually happen) but we do see some of the difficulties he faces. Much is made of the way that London itself plays a major role in this series but I am particularly struck by the way that the books reflect the city’s generally accepting attitude to diversity.
Back in November I reviewed Christopher Fowler’s collection of Bryant & May short stories and finished with my usual complaint. If I keep finding all these wonderful authors and series when am I ever going to find the time to read them all? I’ve been reading about time machines recently – if I ever manage to find a foolproof blueprint for one that should solve my problems: in the meantime I’m going for my tried and tested method of ignoring housework, gardening and phone calls…
Anyway, since I enjoyed the company of these grumpy old detectives and their assorted colleagues so much I decided that I should read their latest adventures when they were offered up on Netgalley. And, luckily, my second outing with Bryant & May was as rewarding as the first.
The plot involves illegal immigrants, various new age therapies and the fear of alzheimers. And, of course, some seemingly random crimes which can only be solved by Arthur Bryant’s unorthodox methods. Unfortunately Bryant seems to be losing his grip on reality and the whole unit looks to be in danger of closing down. Obviously I don’t want to give any spoliers but, suffice it to say, the ending was satisfyingly quirky.
My main thought about this book is that London itself is a major character. There is a new, thrustingly modern, city superimposed over a series of older ones and the Thames is the thread that ties them all together. For hardened Londoners the details of these parallel cities are almost invisible – either that or they have proprietorial sense of ownership of all the quirky places, even if they never visit the places in question. For other Britons the city is a source of endless fascination: for a Syrian immigrant it can seem bloated and crass.
When she wrote Emma Jane Austen said that she was ‘going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like’. I have a sneaking suspicion that these words may have crossed Anthony Quinn’s mind when he began writing about Freya Wyley since she is as self-deluded and spoilt, in many ways, as Emma Woodhouse. Luckily, like Austen’s heroine, Freya has very many redeeming features and, even if you don’t always like her, you care about what happens to her.
The book starts when Freya meets Nancy Holdaway on VE, moves to undergraguate life at Oxford and then on to their later careers (Freya as a journalist and Nancy as a novelist). It is the story of a friendship, albeit one frequently torn apart by bad behaviour on Freya’s part, and of women’s lives in the middle years of the last century. Probably one of the reasons I actually liked Freya so much as a character is that she is very much a 21st Century woman in many of her attitudes – a lot of the tensions in her life come from her struggles against the sexism and homophobia inherent in the systems of the 40s, 50s and 60s. The other reason is probably that, beneath her bravado, attitude and apparant heartlessness, she is a rather damaged woman. Although she seems tough by the end it is the softer, younger Nancy who turns out to be stronger.
As well as a portrait of a remarkable woman this novel is almost like a biography of an era. Set largely in London it gives a fascinating insight into the world of artists, journalists, writers and ‘celebrities’ of the day – a form of social history which makes those post-war decades come alive. As the years pass you are not only willing Freya to be happy in her life but you are also cheering on the changes which have made life better (if not yet perfect) for women, the gay community and others who were marginalised at that time. We are so blase about sexuality these days it is easy to forget that, less than 50 years ago, men were branded criminals for loving other men.