(2012) Paul Cornell, Tor, £12.99, trdpbk, 402pp, ISBN 978-0-230-76321-0
'London Falling.' Geddit? Come on, somebody out there must know the classic Clash song London Calling which the title of Paul Cornell’s novel riffs off, it even mentions 'the zombies of death' in its lyrics, but enough of old punk bands. Cornell is one of those writers who seem to have been around forever, and while I’ve only recently encountered one of his short stories (the very first tale in the Solaris Rising 2 anthology), I am more aware of him through his connection with Dr Who and the spin-off novels he wrote back in the day for Virgin Books, before the Doc was revived and rebooted by the BBC in his ninth incarnation. Then, some of Cornell’s books featured the fifth and seventh Doctors (one of which, Human Nature Cornell adapted as an adventure for David Tennent – you know the one, first world war, the Doctor’s consciousness is inside a watch, he doesn’t know who he is, etc, etc).
London is a big city with broad shoulders, more than able to withstand the one-off, smash-and-grab fantastical foray into its streets by the likes of Neil Gaiman and China Mieville, and also a more gentler, fantasy-based series such as the four books (and counting) from the likes of Ben Aaronovitch, and even Mike Carey’s late-lamented Felix Castor series, but is it big enough to carry Cornell as well? As you might have guessed from the other writers just mentioned, London Falling is an urban fantasy novel, and in particular an urban crime fantasy novel, but with a grittier, more procedural edge given that the major protagonists – Detective Inspector James Quill, intelligence analyst Lisa Ross who is ever-so-slightly obsessed by certain things due to her past experiences, and undercover cops Costain and Sefton, have no knowledge of the city’s dark, occult underbelly, until they arrest drug baron, Rob Toshack, someone they have been trying to take down for years, and suddenly against all the odds, when time is running out, they have him in custody. Something that should, could not have been able to happen, because Toshack has always been one step ahead of the police due to his alliance with dark forces who were looking out for him. Now those same forces have decided that Toshack is a liability and decided to cut their losses by cutting him to pieces, just as he’s spilling the beans and a lot more besides. Thus, the aforementioned, four characters are brought together and 'Operation Longfellow' is formed to discover how and why a major suspect can die so gruesomely while in police custody.
London Falling works because of the depth of character of the major participants who are flawed, realistic people who clearly do not have a Scooby about what is going on around them, and how dark things are, and how much darker they are going to be, but they are about to find out when they are given 'The Sight' and with it the ability to see other London’s that exist around them. Cornell has likened this novel to the old British crime/soap opera The Bill meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The four main characters occupy a realistic life of stretched resources, being understaffed and underpaid, having incompetents in charge, working beside people they don’t really like or respect, when suddenly they find themselves up to their waists (and sinking deeper) into all this occult…stuff! To compliment this realism there is some lively banter, with more than a smattering of East End rhyming slang and some technical terms for which Cornell provides a handy glossary at the end of the book.
Cornell is one of those talented writers who is just 'out there', beavering away in different narrative forms – short stories, comics, spin-offs novels from TV series, writing for TV itself (you might have caught some of the episodes he wrote for Robin Hood, Primeval, Holby City and even Coronation Street), and getting an almost cult following from some of those strands but not really getting the major recognition they deserve. Hopefully, with London Falling, and the forthcoming sequel, The Severed Streets, that is about to change.
See also Mark's review here.
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