Book Review: Whispers Underground by Ben Aaronovitch

Genre: Crime, Fantasy
Publishing Info: Gollancz (2012)
Pages: 418

Back Cover Summary

‘Come Monday I get to do some proper policing. Person Unknown has been stabbed to death on the tracks at Baker Street tube. Magic may have been involved.’

Person Unknown turns out to be the son of a US senator and before you can say ‘International incident’, FBI agent Kimberley Reynolds is on DC Grant’s case.

And down in the dark, in the tunnels of London’s Underground, the buried rivers, the Victorian sewers, there are whispers of vengeance from beyond the grave.

DC Grant’s latest case is about to come off the rails…

The third book in Ben Aaronovitch’s ‘Rivers of London’ series feels more inspired by traditional crime fiction than fantasy, which helps to deliver a rich and detailed narrative.

One aspect of this novel I appreciated was how much it fell in line with what is considered as traditional detective fiction, with the central detective investigating a case which is twisted like a web, through the arches of a railway bridge and underground passages alike, until all of the pieces join together. One effect of this change in narrative direction is that the case is documented over a week or so, a shorter span than the previous books in the series, meaning a greater portion of the book is given to dialogue and DC Grant’s thoughts on the case. This does mean that there are less action sequences in this book but those that are present, such as the confrontation in the sewers, pop out of the pages more as a result.

It was a well thought out idea to have the third book in the series centre around London’s underground setting. As a city, London feels very much like it is made of layers, with more contemporary buildings going on top of demolished ones from centuries past. Aaronovitch’s writing style, which I have highly praised in reviews for previous books in this series, lends itself well to this focus. The author informs readers about several elements of this, not just the underground railway many think of when they hear the word ‘underground’, some stretching back hundreds of years or more. The group living beneath the streets of London, who are at the centre of this investigation, seems to represent these forgotten layers of London, the ones left behind with the constant need to modernise.

Something this book has over ‘Moon Over Soho’, the previous book in the series, is that it works just as well as a standalone than it does as part of this series. The opening sections are full of references to the books previous but with enough explanation to surely satisfy any casual readers. For those following the series, there are references to the Faceless Man, who is taking on the role of the primary antagonist, and his plan for the city, as well as a look to future events with the mysterious talking cat that appears to DC Grant’s neighbour. Aaronovitch is layering the lore of this universe really well, with ghosts and lost tribes added to what we have seen previous. Little details, such as the writing being more clearly visualised, and sections and chapters split into days and underground stations respectively, really help with this process.

The detective fiction vibe in this novel also has a couple of flip sides, the most prominent one being that there is very little character development compared to the previous two novels. As the focus is on the case, which is stronger than ones read previously, this wouldn’t be a problem had the arrival of FBI agent Reynolds not been so promoted in the blurb and the early stages of the book so much. With the focus not on characterisation, I have the sense that, compared to other primary characters when they made their debut, I don’t know her as well as I would have hoped. The BTP officer introduced even gets more layers than she does; I hope that she returns in future books in the series and is explored more than she is here.

‘Whispers Underground’ is a richly detailed crime novel that makes great use of London’s underground setting with the consistently good writing of Ben Aaronovitch. Though it sacrifices character development for a more traditional detective case, it is just as effective as a standalone than as part of the ‘Rivers of London’ series.

Star Rating: 4/5

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