I thoroughly enjoyed the latest volume of Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant series. So far I’ve only read the novels and ‘King of the Rats’, the short story included in the latest novel (the story is ‘exclusive to Waterstones’ according to a sticker on the front cover). I’m looking forward to getting the comics, other short stories, and the upcoming novella (The Furthest Station). Then, when I decide I need a holiday, I can read them in chronological order (not the same as publication order—see the explanation on Aaronovitch’s blog).
The Hanging Tree keeps many narrative strands from previous novels moving along: American FBI agent Kim Reynolds’ collaboration with the Folly, Lesley and the Faceless Man, and Peter’s romance with Beverley, to name a few.
Aaronovitch is subtly developing Reynolds’s character in part by hinting at her roots in Oklahoma. For those who don’t yet follow Aaronovitch on Twitter, he confirms his research by asking people from the places he writes about. I remember him asking questions about Oklahomans a couple of years ago because I answered one of them. It’s important for writers to find out the truth about a place. Hollywood often gets it wrong—contrary to what you see in many movies, it’s not all flat and it’s not covered in tumbleweeds (the Dust Bowl ended quite a while ago).
When Peter meets Kim for a kebab in chapter 10 her clothes signal her background; she has swapped ‘the mandated FBI agent-in-a-suit look for a pair of off-duty black jeans [and] an orange and grey sweatshirt with OSU embossed across the front’ (225). For Aaronovitch’s British readers, this will sound like one of many American university tops worn by tourists. His American readers, however, will be able to identify it as a sweatshirt from Oklahoma State University (the other OSUs in the US have different school colours).
He further develops this characterisation in chapter 14 when Peter refrains from cussing on the phone with her because ‘Kimberley had some views about blasphemy, and [he] like[s] to be polite’ (323). By no means all (or even most) Oklahomans avoid swearing, but many do. You’ll hear more ‘gosh darn its’ in that part of the country than on either coast. You also get quite a few ‘bless your hearts’—if you’re on the receiving end of one of these, they tend to be dripping with irony.
It’ll be interesting to see what Aaronovitch does with Kimberley. I wouldn’t usually think of the type of woman from Oklahoma who has ‘views about blasphemy’ as being the type who would become an FBI agent. Making it in the masculine world of American law enforcement generally requires a degree of toughness that many express through a shared, colourful vocabulary. I hope we get to see how Reynolds manages to be seen as competent in that setting without giving into trying to ‘be one of the boys’.
Reynolds isn’t the only American to feature in this novel; she comes to the UK to expedite the return of some of her countrymen, the Virginia Gentlemen’s Company (a.k.a., Alderman Technical Solutions), or the Virgins as Peter and Kim call them. The Virgins are essentially magical, military contractors. What characterisation we get of these characters is in keeping with the focused (some might say single-minded) and determined American military contractor who isn’t so worried about details like legality so long as they achieve their ends. Kimberley hints at this when she reveals they’d been struck off a list of approved contractors after a mysterious disaster in Fallujah—I appreciated the criticism of certain US foreign policies in this section. Peter says, ‘Given the low, low standards for success applied to private military contractors in Iraq, the fuck-up that got them fired must have been spectacular. Not that Kimberley used the words fuck-up, you understand’ (233). I’m looking forward to seeing how the Folly works with or against its American counterparts. I’m also interested in how (or if) Aaronovitch will respond to the stranger than fiction political situation in the US at the moment.
Lesley and the Faceless Man
I don’t want to spoil the novel for anyone who hasn’t read it, so I won’t go into detail here. The Faceless Man is as scary and destructive as ever—possibly more so in this text.
Peter’s Romance with Beverley
I love how Aaronovitch keeps their relationship in the text without letting it take over. He hints at complications to come, but doesn’t give anything away. The complications are related to Beverley’s nature as a river goddess and what that means for the shape and length of hers and Peter’s lives. This is a common narrative point in works about relationships between supernatural beings and humans—just think of Darrin Stephens’s concerns about his relatively rapid aging when compared to Samantha in Bewitched. What sets the Peter/Beverley relationship apart, though, is their lack of history; there are no examples of river goddesses becoming involved with humans for them to follow or learn from.
Beverley’s older sister is the first in her family to navigate these issues; not being able to look at what her mum or grandmother went through will limit Beverley’s understanding of her own situation. I’m enjoying the tension between the ancient idea of the river deities and their new experience of finding love with mortals, having mortal children, and wanting to live as humans. I just hope it has a happier ending than the Undine story (you’ll find the story, in English, here; also, the story inspired Carl Reineke’s Undine Sonata, which you can listen to here). When the man Undine falls in love with (and takes human form for) betrays her she melts into the river as she cries.
Magical Antiques, Lady Ty’s Daughter, and a Drug Overdose
Much of the action of the novel is driven by the desire to possess several magical antiques: Isaac Newton’s Third Principia, Jonathan Wild’s Ledger, and the Mary Engine. Peter and Nightingale are convinced Reynard the Fox has them, the Faceless Man wants them, and they come to the Americans’ attention when they turn up on e-bay.
The quest for these treasures is surprisingly connected to the apparent overdose of a teenager who attends a party with Lady Ty’s daughter, Olivia. Lady Ty wants Olivia kept out of the investigation, but Olivia complicates this when she admits some involvement.
I’m not going to spoil the novel for anyone who hasn’t read it yet, but Aaronovitch’s handling of these plotlines is masterful. They are seemingly completely disparate plots, but by the end of the novel, it’s both clear how they fit together and why they had to be entwined.
As many of you will know, Aaronovitch wrote for Dr Who in the 1980s. There are a few references to the show in this novel. For example, in chapter 12 when Peter explains the changes in policing since the days of the Peelers, he mentions the importance of the police box: ‘Here a police officer in need of assistance could find a telephone link to Scotland Yard, a dry space to do “paperwork” and, in certain extreme cases, a life of adventure through space and time’ (287). Readers who are unfamiliar with Dr Who or with Aaronovitch’s work on the show will likely pass by that last clause, but readers in the know will have a quiet little chuckle to themselves. I don’t remember catching Dr Who references in the earlier novels, but I’ll be on a lookout for them when I reread them.
I’m always impressed by authors who use allusion well. Aaronovitch can allude to Dr Who without confusing or alienating any readers. Jasper Fforde takes this even further, especially in the Thursday Next series, and yet I know several people who haven’t read the ‘classics’ who enjoy them. I wonder, but can’t really fathom, how I’d respond to Fforde’s Miss Havisham if I didn’t already know Dickens’s. Writing to a varied audience on different levels not only helps sales, it’s the mark of a good author.
If you are new to the Peter Grant series, I wouldn’t start with this book. Much of the world building has already been done and I imagine it would be difficult to fully understand if you start here. Start with Rivers of London to get your bearings. I speak from experience. I was at uni when the Harry Potter series became popular in the US; one summer while house-sitting for a professor, I came across and read Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I enjoyed the book, but it made more sense when I reread it after having read books one and two. New readers to Aaronovitch’s series would, I suspect, have a similar experience.
This is the sixth novel in the series, but the plots and characters are still engaging. There is no sense in which the writing of these novels has become formulaic to Aaronovitch. He deserves our thanks and praise for keeping Peter Grant’s London alive and vibrant.
These aren’t books for children, but if you grew up with Harry Potter, you’ll likely enjoy them. Until next time, happy reading.
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