A Doctor Who writer breathes new life into the "magical detective" novel

Every television network is looking at doing a police procedural with fairies, monsters or magicians, and there's one book they should all take a look at: Ben Aaronovitch, who wrote for classic Doctor Who during its waning years in the late 1980s, has created the perfect blend of CSI and Harry Potter, with his new book series about a London cop who investigates supernatural mysteries.

Spoilers ahead!

Aaronovitch's writing was one of the few bright spots in the final years of Doctor Who — together with a couple of other writers and script editor Andrew Cartmel, he brought a welcome irreverence and renewed sense of mystery and edginess to the overexposed world of the time-traveling eccentric. And with his new novel, called Midnight Riot in the U.S. and Rivers of London in the U.K., Aaronovitch brings the same sort of freshness to the equally overexposed field of urban fantasy. Even if you've read all of the Dresden Files/Sandman Slim/Felix Castor/etc. novels, you'll still find plenty of originality and cleverness here.

So in Midnight Riot, Aaronovitch introduces Peter Grant, a young police officer who's just become a full-fledged constable. Grant is desperate to avoid the boring desk job that appears to be his destiny — so it's lucky that he spots a ghost at an impossible crime scene. His ability to see ghosts and other paranormal stuff brings him to the attention of Detective Chief Inspector Nightingale, who's sort of a one-man magical police force that the regular cops barely tolerate. Nightingale takes Grant on as a sort of apprentice, and Grant learns about the complicated secret world of wizards, ghosts, vampires, and river gods — while also unraveling an increasingly violent and disturbing magical crime spree.

The above synopsis makes it sound as though Midnight Riot might be "dark and gritty," or noirish — and it's not at all. It's very light and fluffy, with a first-person narrator who's basically unflappable. (Although Grant is definitely flustered at times, especially when he encounters sexy female river gods or other erotic situations.) Grant is a good addition to the long line of wisecracking urban fantasy protagonists, and the off-kilter situations he stumbles into frequently have a healthy dose of silliness to them, especially as we see how the old-fashioned world magic is interacting with the world of cellphones, cars and the internet.

After Grant helps Nightingale destroy a nest of vampires using phosporous gas grenades (and make it look like a house fire), he remarks, "And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is how we deal with vampires in old London Town." There's also lots of self-deprecating humor as Grant struggles to master basic spells, and figure out how to avoid embarrassing himself in the face of ancient powers. It's a fun read, and the pace never slackens, which really helps.

Here are the first 50-odd pages:
MIDNIGHT RIOT by Ben Aaronovitch, Excerpt Click to view

So what does Midnight Riot have to teach Hollywood's gang of aspiring magical police procedural writers? For one thing, unlike most urban fantasy novels about private detectives and whatnot, this one relies heavily on having Grant be a member of the police force, even after he's assigned to help Nightingale with the supernatural cases. Aaronovitch doesn't just borrow the trappings of a police story — he's actually super careful to sketch in the details of how everything works in the Metropolitan London police force. He details everything from what sort of radios they use to what the protocol is when questioning a suspect or being questioned. There are long, but fairly breezy, passages explaining the ins and outs of the police bureaucracy as well as the culture of policing. It's all kept slightly satirical and self-mocking, but you're left with no doubt that Aaronovitch did hours and hours of research on every little detail before writing a word.

And even though a lot of the detecting in this novel depends on figuring out exactly which spirit is influencing people to murder each other, and what the rules are of a centuries-old curse thingy, Aaronovitch still lets his characters depend a great deal on good solid policing. There's a fair amount of honest detective work every step of the way, and Peter Grant's best friend and confidant, Leslie, is a regular copper with no particular magical skills.

A Doctor Who writer breathes new life into the "magical detective" novel

And then there's the "community policing" aspect of it all. One major subplot in the novel — and the reason it's called Rivers of London in the U.K. — is the fact that there are two major river gods in London, Father Thames and Mother Thames. They've kept their territories entirely separate for scores of years, but now Father Thames is encroaching southward into Mother Thames' territory. Both of these rivers have tons of offspring, representing all their tributaries and minor local rivers, and the politics of the rivers turn out to be both complex and vexing — especially after Peter Grant pisses off one of the more powerful local rivers.

Another lesson that Midnight Riot could teach wannabe magical procedural writers is: Keep clear rules for how magic works. There's not much wiggle room or vagueness in Aaronovitch's explanations of the mystic arts, which is especially handy since we see Peter Grant learning magic more or less from scratch. There are fairly cogent demonstrations of how to develop basic spells like the "werelight" and levitation, and we also learn a lot about the traditions of magic — although some mysteries are kept hanging, for the coming raft of sequels. (The second book, Moon over Soho, comes out March 1.)

Those two things — a detailed explanation of police procedure, and a rundown of the rules of magic — help to make all of the crime-stopping and world-building feel a lot more real and immediate than they otherwise would. And if the price is that the reader occasionally feels a bit bombarded with exposition, then at least it's mostly funny tongue-in-cheek exposition.

And the other ingredient that helps Midnight Riot/Rivers of London rise above the pack of other supernatural detective novels is its curious, rationale-seeking protagonist. Even as Peter is pushed into the role of the apprentice to the older, more experienced wizard-cop, he's constantly figuring out stuff that his mentor didn't know. Most of the time, Peter's discoveries are about half stuff his mentor shows him, and half stuff he figures out through a superior understanding of scientific phenomena as well as a certain amount of common sense. You get the sense, at times, that Nightingale is a bit baffled by Grant's need to figure out the physics of magic, but it's a boon to readers who appreciate a proactive, clever main character. Peter Grant is almost like a science fiction protagonist who's wandered into a fantasy novel, and that's a very good thing.

He's also got, as Nightingale says, "a devious mind," and he's often very good at manipulating situations to his advantage. If you're looking for a main character who's filled with angst, or who suffers huge moral or emotional crises, you might have to look elsewhere — but if you like a cheerful, resourceful hero who overcomes increasingly ridiculous levels of adversity by keeping his head, then you'll like Peter Grant.

All in all, the army of screenwriters currently trying to figure out how to combine Gandalf and Law and Order could do much worse than to consult the works of Ben Aaronovitch. And if you remember his Doctor Who writing fondly, then you'll probably get a kick out of his new venture into cops and spectres.