Last week I was away in London, so today I’m recommending an Urban Fantasy mainly set in the parts of London I was visiting. `Rivers of London’ by Ben Aaronovitch is the first in a series (three books so far) about the adventures of young cop and trainee wizard, Peter Grant. It was published in Britain and the USA in 2011 but the American edition was renamed `Midnight Riot’. You can get this novel on Kindle, or other eReaders, and there is also an unabridged audio cd.

At the start of the story, tall, black and handsome Peter Grant is a probationary constable, the lowest rank in the Metropolitan Police. He spends most of his time guarding crime scenes and vainly trying to impress his fellow probationer, `short, blonde and impossibly perky’ policewoman Lesley May. Until the night he interviews a witness to a murder who turns out to be a ghost. That attracts the attention of Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, England’s last licensed wizard and the head of a very special branch of the police. Because of his rare aptitude for magic, Peter becomes Nightingale’s  apprentice and goes to live in the Folly, an old house in Bloomsbury. His time is divided between detective work and learning how to use magic.

In Nightingale’s company, Peter discovers a London he never knew existed, where there are nests of vampires in the suburbs, the rivers are ruled by a formidable family of goddesses, and an ancient evil is stirring. His former colleagues treat him with derision or suspicion, except for Lesley, who is willing to keep an open-mind about magic. Peter finds himself working on two cases which at first don’t seem connected – a feud between the river goddesses of London and the gods who control the upper reaches of the Thames, and a series of brutal and inexplicable murders. These murders are committed by ordinary Londoners who are suddenly transformed into someone or something else. When the violence escalates into riots, Peter and Lesley find themselves in terrible danger.

I have read a lot of London-based fantasy novels in recent years. This one stands out for a number of reasons. There are vivid descriptions of real places, such as the `Actors’ Church’  or Highgate Hill,  but Aaronovitch doesn’t present a touristy or romanticized view of London and he obviously enjoys trashing newly gentrified areas like Covent Garden.  Peter Grant spends much of his time in run-down council estates, dismal pubs, supermarkets and tube-stations. `Rivers of London’ seems to be influenced by Peter Ackroyd’s  concept of London as a dark grudge-filled city, always on the verge of mob violence. Yet this series also celebrates the humour, resilience and diversity of the ordinary citizens of modern London.  Aaronovitch draws on elements of folk culture,  such as pilgrim badges and Punch and Judy shows, and gives them a sinister twist. His detectives summon up the ghosts of some notorious Londoners and  deal with ancient deities who have moved with the times. Peter finds Father Thames in fairground caravan, while  the current Mama Thames is a Nigerian nurse living in a converted warehouse, complete with white leather sofas, a plasma-screen TV and a potted mangrove plant.

`Rivers of London’  tries to appeal  to both Fantasy and Detective fiction fans. I’m both and it worked for me. The `sorcerer’s apprentice’ is a common Fantasy theme but the magic in this book has carefully worked out rules and is convincingly hard to master. Peter is in for a long apprenticeship, stuck in a creepy house where modern technology won’t work. The story is narrated by Peter himself in a humorous,  self-deprecating style but -please take note – this book is as violent as any hard-boiled crime novel . There is a headless body on page one and plenty of gruesome scenes throughout. In `Rivers of London ‘ terrible things sometimes happen to nice people.  Gripping as the murder mystery is, some may find the jaunty tone inappropriate, but you can read it as Peter’s way of coping with the horrors and humiliations that come his way.

Aaronovitch has a gift for creating quirky and fallible characters who come across as forces for good – well, most of the time.  These include enthusiastic cryptopathologist Dr Walid,  the terrifying Detective Sergeant Miriam Stephanopolous who `looked like she fought Rottweilers for a hobby’,  brave and forthright Lesley, and meat-loving Molly, the most sinister housekeeper since Mrs Danvers in `Rebecca’.  Above all there is the mis-matched detective duo of Nightingale and Grant. Inspector Nightingale with his posh accent, tweed jacket and silver-topped cane, is like a figure from the golden age of British Detective Fiction, but he is much older than he looks and much more powerful than he seems. He is also emotionally-repressed and completely flummoxed by many aspects of modern life – such as mobile phones. Charming impetuous tech-savvy Peter, may have a father who’s a failed jazz musician and a mother who cleans offices for a living but he’s proud to be an officer of the law and `a free man of London’.  Together, Nightingale and Grant represent the best of old and new Britain. Until next week…