After London crime boss Rob Toshack dies in a bloody death during an interrogation four members of the Met Police are transformed and given the power of ‘The Sight’. Now they stand between a centuries-old serial killer and her prey..
Paul Cornell is no stranger to Doctor Who fans as author and scriptwriter of several books and episodes. To others, he is the architect of Action Comics and other DC titles. Therefore, his experience elsewhere should allow him to produce a compelling plot for his first fantasy novel.
In recent times the urban fantasy market has been a crowded market with Neil Gaiman and China Mieville leading in this competitive field. Not only that but in blending old London legends with a detective story and involving paranormal influences he has not hit on a new combination – Cornell’s fellow Doctor Who contemporary Ben Aaronovitch is on the fourth of his Rivers of London series.
What begins as a routine detective novel (and fair play to Cornell, it’s a more compelling crime story he creates than some of the later fantasy sequences) turns into a supernatural mystery after four detectives acquire ‘the sight’ – a mystical power that allows them to see things that everyday people cannot. This then equips them as the only line of defence against a centuries old serial killer with a fixation on West Ham United.
Cornell’s prose is full of enough visceral noises and sickening acts of violence to distract you from the unfolding plot. Indeed London Falling is a novel that requires investment to get the most out of it. You’ll need to pay attention as the threads snap from one element to the next.
Many have lauded the lead quartet of characters, but they read much more as stereotypes for me than fully rounded characters. The most enjoyable, and least featured character to me was Det. Supt. Lofthouse, whose wrangling to keep the team investigating in the higher levels may have warranted further exploration. As for the others, Sefton and Costain are interchangeable for each other for most of the plot, the initially interesting Ross simply evaporates and DI Quill feels like he’s wandered out of Life on Mars rather than The Killing.
For my reservations about London Falling, it does keep you reading – Cornell’s knack for creating cliff-hangers keeps the pages turning. There are also some moments that are genuinely chilling – an encounter with a demonic force in a bookshop proving to be an early highlight. And there some fantastic ideas in here – the origin of the serial killer and how their fixation with West Ham came about is as amusing as interesting – even if how the explanation comes around feels shoehorned in.
I just find the immaculate research and references to policing remarkably dull. As a job I was once interested in, the paperwork connected with detecting sounds as dull as dishwater – something I didn’t enjoy about Aaronovitch’s foray into this world either.
My other main problem is Cornell’s filmic prose. His roots as television screenwriter shine through, but at the expense of depth to his prose. His characters motivations and inner thoughts are rarely evident. A good television series this might make (and the afterword indicates that this is London Fallings original genesis) but it makes for a fairly superficial book in places.
If this is your first excursion into urban fantasy, I suspect you’ll enjoy it. For me, it’s a rehash of yet more London urban legends blended with some good ideas but wrapped in a disappointingly stereotypical set of characters.
The Fiction Stroker gives London Falling three strokes out of five: