If you’re partial to urban fantasy, have a weakness for police procedurals and LOVE London, this series is for you!
I first discovered that Ben Aaronovitch, the son of a working class East End Jewish immigrant intellectual, had created the Peter Grant series a few years ago and have gleefully kept up with it ever since. It is part of a new wave of London-based detective fantasy, which reflects a city we actually recognise.
I got hooked on audio-book performance through the intoxicating combination of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files and James Marsters’ (Spike, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, 1997-2003). Marsters blew my mind with his consummate performances across 15 books to date. I then went on to Butcher’s Codex Alera series, which was narrated by Kate Reading, despite the main protagonist being a young, straight man called Tavi. She did a bang-up job, and my expectations were not dimmed.
Now, you have to understand that these are NOT radio-play productions with a full cast and a range of sound effects. This is one actor, their talent and (usually, preferably) the unabridged word written by the author. The performance depends on the mastery not only of pronunciation, pace and volume, but particularly of intonation – the rise and fall of the voice, the energy of the tone and inflection; the emphasis placed on key words and emotions to help convey the exact meaning. These two, in particular, distinguishes each character and defines their state of mind as we hear them. The performer also must remember in whose voice he or she is reading, and observe those feelings too. The only concession to the challenge of the task is that these are rarely live readings so there may be several takes to get it right. But this then raises the issue of continuity in energy and of tone – all the things observed for the visual recorded arts, only perhaps more so! If they’re good, the artist will breathe a whole nuanced layer of life into the story you already enjoyed in your imagination!
I settled into a pattern: Buy and read the book in hard copy; buy and experience the audio-book. Several years after reading Aaronovitch’s series opener, and whilst waiting for the most recent book 6, I had the pleasure of meeting Kobna Holdbrook-Smith. I then decided to listen to his audio version of Rivers of London, knowing that with the greatest respect, he had some living up to do, what with me loving the paperback and being used to a high standard of spoken performance. The book arrived in CD/MP3 format, so it plays on all devices.
Mr. Smith has a rather smoky undertone to his spoken baritone, slightly more heightened than when you hear him in real-time conversational mode, but not to the detriment of the piece. In fact, in itself, it is hugely appealing. However it also absolutely nails Peter Grant’s laid back bemusement as, in chapter one, Grant finishes his constable probationary period by accidentally interviewing a ghost! Yes, PC Grant, the product of a hard-working Nigerian mother and a talented, white, junkie, jazz musician father, has a latent natural talent for magic that comes to the fore as the mystical arts begin a resurgence in Britain. A malevolent spirit is possessing apparently random Londoners and causing murderous mayhem against the backdrop of a turf war between the Genius Loci of the Upper and Lower River Thames.
Things kick off with a grisly murder near the actor’s church in Covent Garden. Along the way, we meet friend and colleague Lesley May, ‘a proper thief-taker,’ who always has Grant’s back (and vice versa); various senior officers, including DI Nightingale – Grant’s Master and the last authoritative wizard in Britain; various goddesses, magical beings and a ghost-hunting dog. All of them (except the dog) are voiced by Holdbrook-Smith, who slips between gender, rank, education, mortality, era and accent as easily and smoothly as if it were a cast of several actors.
Why I would particularly recommend this title in the audio format, resides in Chapter 4, where the combination of Aaronovitch’s apparently intimate cultural knowledge and Holdbrook-Smith’s talent, mesh beautifully. It’s where Grant meets Mother Thames, goddess of the River Thames Lower, from Teddington lock to the sea, who is a charismatic Nigerian matriarch with a large family of daughters who embody all the rivers of London as lesser Genius Loci. She recounts her story to him in a manner that will be familiar to most of our readership. I may not have an ear fine-tuned to the myriad of regional dialects, but Holdbrook-Smith certainly captures that sense of humour unique to the Nigerian nation just as well as he captures Grant and May’s Hendon-honed Estuary English, Nightingale’s plummy tones and various accents from the North of England.
The story is good fun, which pays particular attention to the detail of magical realism, the scientific method and the policies and procedures of the Metropolitan Police. The humour is dark and subversive with only a hint of anarchy. Over 9 hours and 53 minutes, Holdbrook-Smith is both engaging and entertaining.
So, when would you listen to an audio-book? Any time or place you would read a book, with the added bonus of when you’re using both hands or your eyes are needed for something else!
The series, “Rivers of London” was first published in January 2011, swiftly followed in this format in April 2011. Then came “Moon Over Soho”, “Whispers Underground”, “Broken Homes” and “Foxglove Summer“. The 6th Peter Grant hard cover, “The Hanging Tree,” entered the Sunday Times best-seller list at #5 at the weekend, having been published on November 3rd in the UK (North America will have to wait until January 2017). There won’t be long to wait for Holdbrook-Smith and the audio-book, which will be available come November 24th.
Holdbrook-Smith can currently be seen in an acerbically funny scene as a physical therapist to Benedict Cumberbatch’s, Doctor Strange; he appeared in episode 3 of the BBC3 Dr Who spin-off series, Class, as Jasper, and earlier this month in the ITV Encore movie Dark Heart (AKA Wagstaffe) as DS Dave Pulford. In August, we also brought you the fantastic news that he had been cast as trailblazing DJ Larry Levan in the forthcoming 2017 movie with the working title of, Paradise Garage, telling the story of the legendary New York members-only underground nightclub and its most iconic DJ. Considered the world’s top dance music venue for a decade (1977-87) because of Levan, who paved the way for post-disco electronic dance, garage and house music, catering to a diverse, predominantly minority crowd from all walks of life, including his own LGBTQ community, during what his cult following referred to as his “Saturday Mass”. This is sure to be a breakout role for Holdbrook-Smith in the USA, and we will be following progress as we get more details.
Rivers of London has also inspired a comic series by Ben Aaronovitch and Andrew Cartmel, with some great artwork actually featuring the mixed race hero, which all of the books conspicuously and consistently fail to do. Starting with “Body Work” and “Night Witch“, the third, “Black Mould“, was published last month (October 12th) by Titan Comics in print and digital with 4 alternative covers.
If your interest is piqued, check out another in the same sub-genre: the Shadow Police series by Paul Cornell, featuring darker-skinned tough man Anthony Costain and mixed race, closeted intellectual Kevin Sefton as undercover detectives who find themselves part of ‘The Five’. Book 1 is, London Falling, and the audio-book is also available, narrated by black Brit actor and voice over artist Damian Lynch.