Fiction Reviews

The Severed Streets

(2014) Paul Cornell, Tor, £12.99, hrdbk, 402pp, ISBN 978-1-447-26206-0


Taking up immediately from events in the previous already excellent 'Shadow Police' thriller, London Falling, Severed Streets really ups the ante, tension and surprise factor.

Having handled occult artefacts, a handful of detectives from Scotland Yard have developed cognitive psychic powers. This is handy with investigations, as they can read auras, and pick up on apparitions. But evil spirits of past and future saturate the city and God-like malevolent entities make villains with knives and guns the least of their worries. This is not The X-Files.

When a leading politician is hacked to death on the back seat in his locked door, chauffer driven Rolls Royce, though his chauffer is in the front seat driving, and no one else is in the car, it seems rather a familiar MO – famously, even infamously so.

London Falling was quite a wild romp, and helped to even make football entertaining to non-sports fans, but Severed Streets is a much darker story, with a genuine air of menace. His heroes seem much more vulnerable and sensitive here – Cornell is not following a formula. What happens here is often very different than might be expected from the first novel.

There are quite a few horror stories where Jack The Ripper comes back in the present day, but never quite like this. For one thing the five cops, cursed with psychic power, ask why is he targeting rich and powerful men instead of ladies of the night? Could the real evil go back much earlier than the 1890’s?

That the cops try to hold to police procedure as much as possible, instead of using their super-powers, is ingenious. The portacabin incident board actually feels like a character in its own right after playing such a prominent role over two novels.

Though much of the investigating is done by a team of four detectives, the main Shadow Police, it is now apparent that their boss is also blessed / cursed with the gift which draws her into dealing with Whitehall where secrets, both sacred and profane, interfere with her team’s investigations. For example, she needs to find out just how has Parliament rendered itself supernatural-proof?

The real inventive eye-opener here is the inclusion of writer Neil Gaiman, not added as co-author or a writer’s best chum being given a cool bit-part special guest cameo slot, but as a very significant character in the developing plot itself. It is hard to imagine any other writer daring or achieving what Cornell / Gaiman do here. The audacity of it is mind-blowing.

A minor aside is the revelation that all cities have their own versions of the Sight, which opens the possibility of Shadow Police stories going outside of London in future, but Cornell draws great use from the city and the collision between its ancient forces and more modern developments. The title alone refers to the city itself objecting to a junction of six streets being split down from seven – change from tradition not being appreciated is a central theme here.

The theme echoes with London’s cops in general struggling to cope with the time of flash mob riots fuelled by the Internet, which the Ripper is much more savvy about than they are, for reasons very neatly explained.

Two of the heroes will make extraordinary life changing sacrifices here; one in the hope of avoiding Hell; the other in hope of rescuing her Father from there. The loss by detective Ross is one of the most horrific and sad moments in horror literature, and it not a loss of life but possibly genuine fate worse than death.

The silver liquid, the choice of targeted victims, time travel (not just to Jack’s Whitechapel), and an exploding pub all play vital roles here. I particularly liked the investigators following a tour-guide showing Londoners the Jack The Ripper murder trail while the ghosts of the real killings of the late Victorian era put the story straight for those with the Sight. It is strangely moving. Cornell reminds us that there were real people killed by Jack who deserve our compassion.

Real World politics are never far away; corrupt Whitehall officials, security surveillance (by both CCTV and scrying mirrors), the question of whether the police should go on strike, it’s all right here.

The rioters dressed as Jack The Ripper in Toff-gent masks are undoubtedly influenced by Alan Moore’s V For Vendetta, and there are homages to the Life on Mars TV show too, but this is very much Cornell at his highly original best, though reading of the first novel before this one is pretty essential.

This is a series that really deserves to be filmed or televised and given the rise of violent shows like The Walking Dead and American Horror Story, I am sure audiences could handle Cornell’s horrors.

Arthur Chappel

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