brought to book

The London writer tells us how he moved his po­lice pro­ce­du­rals to the coun­try

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - Front page - Words by jonathan wright por­trait by will i re­land

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.

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