brought to book
The London writer tells us how he moved his police procedurals to the country
Ben Aaronovitch on his fantasy police procedurals.
Writing a book with a particular audience in mind is one thing, but you can’t be sure that audience will pick up on it. Just ask Ben Aaronovitch. When he began his sequence featuring Metropolitan Police officer and apprentice wizard Peter Grant with Rivers Of London, he assumed he was crafting urban fantasy to connect with Jim Butcher fans. “I didn’t know it was going to be their mothers,” he says, laughing. “People would say to me, ‘ My mother has stolen your book, and now they’re doing it at the Guildford Women’s Institute reading group,’ and you think, ‘ You’re not my audience…’”
Not that Aaronovitch is complaining, as he quickly goes on to give a shout out to the WI (“Love them!”), but it is striking that when SFX catches up with the writer, it’s at a literary crime festival rather than an SF or fantasy convention. As the fifth novel in the sequence, Foxglove Summer, is published, why does Peter Grant seem to appeal most strongly to fans of police procedurals ( especially German fans, apparently) rather than fans of fiction featuring eldritch happenings?
One reason might be that, for all he knows how to throw a lightning bolt, Peter Grant is in all other respects a recognisably modern copper, a mixed- race junior officer who’s keen to get on by catching criminals – and that’s maybe something surprisingly unusual in crime fiction. “He’s not a middle- aged, drunk white guy who fights with his boss and ex- wife, and hates his job but carries on doing it because he has a sense of mission,” says Aaronovitch. “Peter Grant is a young guy who likes his job, wants to be good at it, wants to be a wizard, really enjoys that. He is having a whale of a time.”
Aaronovitch says Grant is a character who reflects changes in the police service that began in the middle of the 1980s, keyed off by criticisms of the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe. “That was such a shambles,” says Aaronovitch. “It wasn’t just the fact they pulled him in several times [ for questioning], it was the fact they just floundered around. They got overloaded with information. It just showed there was
“If you put some magic in you can have real policing, but it can be really exciting”
no professionalism – there were lots of professional cops, but there was no professionalism as such.”
In contrast, Grant is methodical as he goes about his work. He even takes an empirical, scientific approach to trying to figure out how magic works, to the occasional bemusement of his boss, DCI Thomas Nightingale, a man of improbable age and the last officially sanctioned English wizard. “Policing is not about people having hunches and ‘ ding!’ moments,” says Aaronovitch. “It’s about people using systems, it’s about interviewing everyone and looking for discrepancies. That’s just what you do, especially in serious cases.”
Whisper it, but modern policing is actually a bit boring. However, as Aaronovitch points out, “If you put some magic in you can have real policing, but it can be really exciting.”
Foxglove Summer bears this out. It’s a novel about the search for two missing girls and finds Grant far outside his comfort zone, beyond the M25 in rural Herefordshire. Fey folk feature, as does an important role for Beverley Brook, daughter of Mama Thames, goddess of her own small river in South London and Grant’s recurring love interest.
While north London resident Aaronovitch has clearly had a blast kicking Peter out of the capital for a while, we shouldn’t expect this to become a habit: “It’s Peter goes to the countryside so that when he gets back to London, he’s really grateful and never leaves again,” he jokes, adding, “I’m one of those people that likes the countryside, I want it to be protected, I just don’t particularly want to go there. I certainly don’t want to live there, but I think it’s important.
“I think countryside people should consider this: it’s people like me that allow them to have the countryside, because if the seven million inhabitants of London really wanted to expand out into the countryside, there would essentially be nothing in the south- east except suburban terraced housing.”
Is it safe to assume the capital continues to exert a fascination for Aaronovitch? “It’s the sea in which I swim,” he laughs. “It’s like saying to a fish, ‘ Does the ocean still have an influence on you?’ ‘ Gee I do not know. Possibly, possibly…’”
For all that, after five Peter Grant novels, Aaronovitch hankers after doing something in a different style. There’s just a wisp of regret when he talks about SF, as if the success of Grant has somehow exiled the former Doctor Who scriptwriter from his tribe. He would like to write a military SF novel, or a sprawling space opera, but he suspects he’ll need to use a slightly different name to avoid confusing Grant fans.
“Peter F Hamilton, in the third book of a trilogy, he’ll come up with this fantastically detailed world that anybody else would set the trilogy on, and you’re there for 30 pages and then you go somewhere else,” he says. “You think, ‘ That’s just profligate.’” And, perhaps because he’s spent so many years writing tightly plotted police procedurals, it’s abundantly clear Ben Aaronovitch approves of such largesse.