Just when you thought there was nothing new to be done with urban fantasy, Paul Cornell comes along with London Falling and mashes up the police procedural (i.e., a mystery solved by the police, using the tools at their disposal and confined in their scope by the law) with demons and British history. Until you read it, it’s hard to imagine a police officer giving the “right to silence” speech (the British version of the American Miranda warnings) to a creature who is doing her best dispose of him through magical means. But once Cornell gets to that point in his narrative, he has set everything up so well that it seems as natural as can be.
The novel starts as a straightforward police procedural. Costain is an officer who is working undercover for Rob Toshack, the current king of the London criminal classes, the first ever to have united all the bad guys in one organization. Toshack has conquered all his rivals and remained untouched by the law. It’s Costain’s job to get the information necessary to put Toshack away for good, along with his fellow undercover officer, Sefton. Their superior, Quill, is running out of patience, as he makes known to Costain in no uncertain terms in the first pages of the book. Quill wires Costain up with a recorder, which, he tells him, is his last chance to get the goods or the operation will be shut down.
The territory we traverse for the first two and a half chapters or so is entirely in police procedural country. The reader might be forgiven for thinking that she’s picked up the wrong book. But stick with it, because things start to get strange in Chapter Three. Toshack, upon being taken into custody, doesn’t behave the way a crime lord ought to behave. Soon, he doesn’t look the way a crime lord ought to look; in fact, he becomes sort of hard to see, even to the police officers in the same room he’s in. And then things get really weird.
The weirdness is inexplicable to the cops for some time. After all, whose mind would immediately jump to the occult as an explanation for a death, no matter how gory? Lofthouse, the top cop, says the toxicology folks are looking to see whether poison was involved, but no one’s ever seen anything like what happened in their own witness room. The team pulls in Ross, a computer and research guru, in the hopes that she can find something in the transcripts to explain the inexplicable, but she has no greater success than the toxicologists.
Lofthouse puts together a spin-off unit from the undercover squad that captured Toshack, comprised of Quinn, Costain, Sefton and Ross. It’s an uneasy work unit at first, and their assigned task — to find out what killed the victim — is not one any of them relishes. But it still isn’t until they consider the involvement of the West Ham Football Club, and the “urban myth” that anyone who scores a hat trick against them dies, that anyone gives the least thought to the paranormal rearing its head. Once they’ve opened the door to that possibility, though, more strangeness enters their lives and their investigation, until things start happening fast.
It’s exciting to watch this unit accept the possibility of magic infesting London when that very notion seems utterly absurd, just as absurd to them as you would find it absurd to walk into your job tomorrow and be told that you’re to function with magic because your computer is down. These are people who are entirely of the world in which we all reside together, until suddenly they discover that there’s more to the world than they had thought. And they’re also confronted with the notion that they still have to operate within the law, sorcery or no. How do you get a proper search warrant when the target of your investigation has a warren of homes connected by occult pathways? How do you solve a series of serial murders that dates back to the sixteenth century? What do you do when a cat — a dead cat that talks — is your best witness? This is CSI on steroids!
I have some quibbles with the book, such as Cornell’s tendency to shift the point of view from one character to another with alarming rapidity and no warning; one paragraph we’re seeing the world through Quill’s eyes, and the next we’re in Sefton’s brain. The characterization is drawn with broad strokes, so that Sefton is the atheist, Costain is the crooked one, and so on. It’s written rather cinematically, as one might expect from Paul Cornell, who was until now best known for his Dr. Who and other television scripts.
With a lesser plot, these annoyances might have marred my enjoyment of London Falling. But these really are just are quibbles because the story is so fascinating and the story moves so quickly, and is so smart, that it overwhelms my objections. As a result, I’m eager to read the next in the series, and to see what these characters do with their lives and their jobs now that they know there is magic in their world.