A Foxglove Summer – Ben Aaronovitch

I am fairly sure everyone knows how much I adore Thomas Nightingale this series. There are so many ways in which it is just excellent. Foremost in my mind as I was thinking what to write in this post is how much I like a novel about the forces of justice where they FOLLOW THE RULES. Every time I watch CSI/NCIS/other crime drama there does seem to be the emphasis on the whole “maverick who doesn’t play by the rules” thing. And y’know, I kinda like the rules. Especially the ones about not hitting suspects. And needing a chain of evidence which will hold up to close scrutiny in a court of law. DEFENCE LAWYERS ARE NOT EVIL, oh fictional policemen. SCRUTINY. EVIDENCE. NOT HUNCHES. NEVER HUNCHES.

Ahem.

Now, Peter Grant has his hunches, but then he goes and follows police procedure when checking them out (or at least police procedure as it exists in the book universe) conspicuously and sometimes in triplicate. He tells people before he runs into the crazy situation. He calls for back-up. He gets permission from the appropriate superior officer before interviewing suspects. I’m sure that sounds boring to the makers of American crime drama, but I find it joyous. The books manage to make the stories still exciting without any need to go around cutting corners and punching people in the face gratuitously. Only non-gratuitous face-punching for me. Oh yes. It may be just me, but I think the maverick-detective thing is just laziness. Having to have your protagonist follow bureaucratic procedure (rather than cursing the red tape and getting away with ignoring it because he gets results) and still be interesting and engaging probably takes a bit more effort than an interesting and engaging man who hits people and blows stuff up. And that effort is worth it. It means I don’t hate him, for a start*.

But all this is true of the whole series. And true of A Foxglove Summer, so kudos to book five for not breaking the streak. That’s about where the good bits end, to be honest.

I’ll get this bit out of the way in a footnote, but it is one of my major complaints about the book, and a spoiler. Please read it in a suitably anguished tone of voice**.

And breathe.

That one is a debatable flaw.

Next up, and not a spoiler as it’s on the book cover: the book is not set in London. Considering Peter Grant’s whole thing is Being A London Copper, this does not really play out well. We get a lot of “oh look at me not knowing which end of a cow is which” and “haha countryfolk enjoy the romantic charms of sheep”, but those are both cheap laughs and they wear out REALLY quickly. The actual countryfolk he meets are rather less stereotyped, and I’m sure the cheap jokes were done with a sense of irony, but they’re still not funny. Or good. They just get in the way. Peter is so much better when he’s in London, knowing what he’s about and being slightly too awesome. That said, his over-awesomeness powers (like having a GCSE in something somehow making you excellent at it) have been toned down severely and to good effect. In this book, he knows things because Google, because research or because someone told him. Not because he has a magical GCSE in everything. Or he knows it because it’s a totally legitimate thing for his character to know. There is that. But there is a distinct tendency in the previous books to overpower him a weeny bit, and it’s nice to see that being toned down a touch. He’s still awesome, but he’s realistically awesome. Which is pretty much the whole charm of the books.

I know I’ve said about some of the other plots dragging on a touch – it has got a bit dry as the series goes on – but this one really screws it up. I had an actual, physical copy of the book this time, but was picking it up and being confused that there were only a few pages left, when the plot clearly felt like it had a third of the book to go, because it just hadn’t resolved anything. It ended with an enormous rush to resolution and a RIDICULOUS deus ex machina and a massive frown from me because Aaronovitch obviously can do better, and has. We don’t really meet anyone new (apart from Dominic the country copper and we barely skim the surface of him), no one existing is really explored further, nothing particularly fun is explained at us. Even the new magical dimension is kinda rubbish. Everything else Aaronovitch has done, he’s skewed a little and made his own. The rivers are brilliant, for goodness’ sake, and Molly and all the other tapestry of the “demi monde” which are never quite what you expect. And this one… it just isn’t. He’s done nothing new, and nothing exciting.

I suppose, it all comes down to everything previously having been Londoned. By taking a book about magical goings on out of the city, Aaronovitch has ripped away his normal perspective – pretty much his selling point – and left us without a new one in its place. We just have the unimaginative backdrop of folklore, as explored by so many others, and without any new flare, imagination, wit or style. It’s just… dull. And that’s disappointing. I will still read the new books (as I imagine there will be, because duh), but I’m not going to be as excited as I was about this one. I won’t have the date they come out stored in my phone calendar. I won’t agonise about maybe being able to afford pre-ordering. I might just wait until it comes out in paperback. And that’s about as scathing as I can manage about a book I still want to read.

Ok, I will end on one high. If you’ve read the other four books, you’ll understand the excited italics with which I type this (kinda slightly spoilery?) little tidbit. You ready? Here goes: we finally learn about Ettersburg! I won’t tell you how or why, but seriously, this is what we’ve all (I imagine) been waiting for and it wasn’t quite what I expected. Slightly darker, more complicated, and sad but in a different way to how one might take it from the maaaaany hints that have come before. And I think it came at the right time. If he put it off any longer, Aaronovitch would possibly have weighed it down with too much significance and nothing would ever have lived up to the hype and fore(back)shadowing. I think he timed it beautifully, and it makes a wonderful, awful, sorrowful sense. Well done. But it’s only one thing, and it’s not enough to lift the rest of the novel out of the mire of tedious unoriginality it’s wallowing in. There’s plenty great about this series, and it is so obvious that there’s a lot of excellence just waiting… just maybe it’s waiting until the next one? I can but hope.

Meanwhile, I have read all of Kate Griffin’s Matthew Swift novels (as recommended by Jacob from Drying-Ink) and need to find the words to articulate how awesome they are. I binged the entire series. Because apparently there is never enough urban-fantasy-wizardy-London.

*Ok, I’ve cut short the rant in the main post, but basically, no matter how they start off, any maverick policeman/detective/cop who doesn’t play by the rules is, eventually, going to hit a suspect to get evidence out of them. He’ll start by following hunches and maybe intimidating them with fake violence – grabbing of shirt collars and so on – but eventually, even if not on screen, suspect-hitting is where it’s going to end. Same goes for the “he’s totally guilty I just need to find evidence for it” thing. No, no. I love that you’re trying, but no. “There’s no evidence that he did it! We must find evidence that he did it!!” – this does not mean he is fiendishly clever (except when the plot makes it so). Maybe he just didn’t do it. I know real-world logic doesn’t apply to these tv-men (and let’s face it, this style of policeperson is nearly always a slightly older, emotionally grizzled man) but it just… I don’t see why people find them good protagonists. If they were all gloriously portrayed (like Vimes in Discworld) in the subtlety that this Not Being a Nice Man could bring, maybe I’d let it slide. But they’re not. They are often actual Heroes. Not antiheroes, or sitting on the line between the two. Just actual good guys. When they’re really not. They are nasty, nasty men using “justice” to justify some awful stuff, and why should that be the image of the law on telly? Maybe I watch the wrong detective shows (or “watched” as I don’t have a tv now and don’t seek out the genre on the interwubs). Maybe there are tonnes and tonnes of good ones without that. But the fact that there are a lot that play into this stereotype REALLY annoys me. I can’t like them. I can’t sympathise with them. I refuse. So hurrah for a gloriously procedural policeman. Rant over.

** NIGHTINGALE IS NOT BLOODY IN IT. HOW COULD HE EVEN. HOWWWWWW??!??!

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About readerofelse

A student of a redundant, useless and thoroughly interesting subject and reader of many books, particularly fantasy, science fiction and plenty else besides.
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One Response to A Foxglove Summer – Ben Aaronovitch

  1. Pingback: The Hanging Tree – Ben Aaronovitch | A Reader of Else

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