More magic in London: Ben Aaronovitch’s The Hanging Tree

rol-3The Hanging Tree is the sixth in the Peter Grant Rivers of London series – about a wizard’s apprentice in a special department of London’s Metropolitan Police, dedicated to sorting out the ‘weird bollocks’ that the regular Met don’t wish to have anything to do with. I think the best way to update other fans, and to introduce new readers, is to go through the characters. These novels are so attractive in their world building and their characters, it’s hard to detect which elements are driving the plot hardest, and which parts are given the serious development attention.

Peter Grant: not much development in his character, since he’s pretty fully realised as the police officer son of a ex-heroin addict jazz trumpeter and a fearsome mother from Sierra Leone. He’s improved his spell-casting (well up to Third Level now), and still drools over fast cars with more numbers than letters in their names. He’s got really good at spouting meaningless Met jargon to angry Inspectors as a defensive measure. Spends a lot of time with:

Beverly Brook: a south London river goddess who has other business during the duration of this novel, but she’s on hand to relay messages, and keep things calm back at Mama Thames’ headquarters, because there is Big Trouble with her big sister:

rol-1Lady Tyburn: she’s the leading river goddess in this novel, as arrogant and frightening as ever, but we find out about her children, her husband, the trouble they cause her, and the trouble she will cause Thames Water if Peter doesn’t repay the favour she did him by rescuing him from being buried underneath the city by malignant fae, by getting her girl out of police custody like she told him to. What Lady Ty tells Peter when she loosens up and stops glaring is truly fascinating. Whoever knew that islands took university sabbaticals?

Nightingale: Britain’s top wizard, still dapper, still mischievous, still devastatingly attractive, still into Jags. Possibly the only wizard who can control Lady Ty.

Varvara: the Russian night witch is not in this plot, but we hear some bad words being said about her past duplicity by:

Lady Helena: a new character, an earth- and nature-oriented witch / wizard / practitioner who thought she’d killed the first Faceless Man, but now finds that Varvara was lying. She has some loose ethical approaches when it comes to medical and biological experimentation, last seen in Moon Over Soho. Her arrival clears up some old loose ends, and frays more.

Caroline: Lady Helena’s daughter, trainee witch, desperate to learn to fly and getting pretty good at trying. Very interested in swopping spells with Peter, but not in that way.

rol-5Guleed: Peter’s new sidekick, a ninja-hijabi with zero magical powers and no wish to learn any either. Much the better police officer in interrogations and polite questionings. Unfazed by weird bollocks, currently appearing in series three of the Rivers of London comic, Black Mould.

Lesley May: OMG she’s back. Well, if you’ve been reading the Rivers of London comics you’ll know that she’s back properly, and The Hanging Tree brings us up to date with quite how dangerous, powerful and focused she is. And we learn a little bit more about her relationship with The Faceless Man Mk II.

Toby the dog: has a sugar and fat issue, because:

Molly the demon maid: stayed up all night to bake a Victorian-standard high tea for Lady Helena’s visit to the Folly. She gives all leftover food to homeless meals charities, which is why there is never anything left in the kitchen for midnight snacks.

rol-2What I really liked about The Hanging Tree are the background details of the world-building, that show that it isn’t static. Things are changing, in the demi-monde and in Peter’s mundane world, as the two universes come closer together. Zachary is helping the Quiet People acclimatise their children to daylight. The Folly is bringing in mundane specialists to work on thaumaturgical blowout with Dr Walid, and to do the time-consuming analysis. The Chestnut Tree (site of the original last pub before the hanging tree at Tyburn) is staffed by people who might or might not be partly fae. But how do you spot a partly-magical person in a crowd of goths? The Hanging Tree also delivers the expected amount of police procedural operations in crowded, built-up areas in central London. The joy of blowing up well-known and much-hated landmarks must be part of the joy of writing these novels.

In summary, The Hanging Tree is not as heartbreaking as Broken Homes, nor as joyous as Foxglove Summer, but it’s as excellent as Peter’s first appearance, in Rivers of London (or Midnight Riot, as I believe it’s called in the USA).


1915 New York newspapers: P G Wodehouse’s Psmith Journalist

wode-1Some years ago I wrote a scholarly investigation on the role of menswear in P G Wodehouse’s fiction (read about it on this page). As part of the background reading I waded my way through all his Psmith novels. They’re not my favourite Wodehouse stories, but I do have a fond appreciation for his cautionary tale about New York journalism in the early jazz age, Psmith Journalist (1915).

It isn’t a Jeeves and Wooster novel. It doesn’t produce rollicking, thigh-slapping hoots of laughter, though there are some fine funny moments. Rather, it is a study of an urbane and resourceful Cambridge student on the loose in hedonistic and slangy New York City, of how he runs rings around the utterly corrupt worlds of the yellow press and housing racketeers. Psmith, the eponymous hero, has been encountered before in earlier Wodehouse novels, mainly in a supporting role to his cricketing hero Mike Jackson. In this novel, Psmith wastes no time in getting on top of all situations that present themselves.

(I edited this paragraph in my original post when George Simmers put me right on a fact I got wrong, that Psmith Journalist first came out in magazine form in 1909.) It’s an interesting novel because it doesn’t mention the war. It was written when Wodehouse was living in the USA, when the US had not yet entered the war. Wodehouse was fully occupied earning a living on Broadway, writing for magazines and the musical theatre, so his fiction naturally reflects this, rather than trench warfare and the home front.

wode-2But the most rewarding aspects of Psmith Journalist are its coruscating analyses of the US magazine industry, and the slog of a journalist’s life sub-editing appalling things for an appalling magazine. Billy Windsor has been appointed the temporary editor of Cosy Moments, a foul-sounding agglomeration of trite tat for the masses. He meets Psmith and Mike during a contretemps over a stray cat, and Psmith – bored with the cricketing tour with which Mike is absorbed –  decides to help Billy Windsor out, whether Billy desires this or not. The scene could now be set for a series of catastrophes in which Psmith wreaks mayhem in New York in a Woosterian manner, because that’s what we expect from Wodehouse. But no: Psmith is the diametric opposite to Bertie Wooster. He is personally uncharming, but resourceful, annoyingly clever, and dashed efficient. Psmith can sort out every situation, every calamity, and deal with any specimen of humanity, and he always ends up on top. For readers accustomed to (and maybe bored with?) the personal disasters that Bertie Wooster trails behind him like clouds of glory, Psmith as a character is a remarkable tonic.

But the newspaper game is why I like this novel most. The repellent contributors to and the regular features in Cosy Moments are described lovingly. Psmith decides that its most revolting and saccharine contributors must go. By changing this best-selling but offensively glutinous rag to a go-getting, crime-fighting, scandal-revealing, campaigning newspaper, Billy will be swept up by one of the great New York dailies, where he really wants to be, and it won’t matter at all that the Cosy Moments owner, Mr Wilberfloss, will return from enforced sick leave to find his precious readers taking their dudgeon and subscriptions elsewhere. Unfortunately, the instigators of the housing rackets that Psmith first instructs Billy to reveal in cold print don’t approve. And then Mr Wilberfloss comes back early …

wode-4There is prize-fighting and boxing, there are New York night-clubs, there is election corruption, there is a good deal of Bowery dialect, there are shenaniganical plot twists, and throughout every farrago, Psmith sails supremely confident. No-one is hurt, no-one is seriously damaged, and Psmith actually gets the chief sufferer to pay him to go back to Cambridge. Thankfully, there is no girl: Wodehouse had not yet got to grips with his best way of writing female characters, and Psmith simply ignores them. Enjoy: I do, every time.