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Book Review: Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch

Genre: Paranormal / Urban Fantasy
Mass Market Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Del Rey
Publication Date: February 1, 2011
ISBN-10: 034552425X
ISBN-13: 978-0345524256
Author Website: Ben Aaronovitch

In this hilarious paranormal cop drama, author Ben Aaronovitch focuses much more on police life than magical elements to make this story an even better mystery than it is paranormal urban fantasy. Midnight Riot’s inventive twists, compelling protagonist, and unusual plot direction make this the most original book in this subgenre you will find anywhere.

Peter Grant is a good-looking biracial London police constable newly weaned from his two-year stint in uniform. His hope is that he will be assigned to the murder investigation unit, but is afraid his superiors think his scientific education makes him better suited to pushing papers. But when guarding a murder scene on one of his last nights in uniform, Peter stumbles across a ghost. This changes everything, and Peter is soon assigned to a special investigation unit of one, Detective Chief Inspector (and wizard) Nightingale. Now Nightingale and wizard’s apprentice Grant must solve the mystery of a string of murders connected only by the fact that every perpetrator dies and has their face fall off immediately after killing a victim. Can Nightingale and Grant find the magical source of this murderous madness before it’s too late?

From the very first page, Aaronovitch captures your imagination. The reader begins the adventure by standing with Peter Grant as he protects a murder scene already scavenged by crime techs. Then he sees and speaks with a ghost. Then he gets his reassignment. And so on. Aaronovitch wastes little time in getting to the meat of the story, and once the text grabs hold, you won’t want to put it down. This is one of the few books I have ever read that gripped me in the first two pages and would not let me go.

One thing I think Aaronovitch does well is pay close attention to police detail. The protagonist is a police constable, and a believable one. Like popular mystery novelists, Aaronovitch gives as much close attention to detail to the mundane aspects of police life as he does to the surreal magical elements. This gives the novel grounding in reality that makes the magical portions all the more plausible. Suspension of disbelief is easy when Grant comes across as a down-to-earth, self-confident guy just trying to make his way as a policeman. There is no huge introspective interlude, as with many such books, where Grant questions himself or the magic he is encountering. He is matter-of-fact, intelligent, and clever; a younger version of Caroline Graham’s Tom Barnaby or Elizabeth George’s Peter Lynley. Longtime readers of British mysteries will love Peter Grant.

But while there is significant attention to mundane detail in Midnight Riot there is also just as much shown to the magical elements. DCI Nightingale is an enigmatic character, a Holmes to Grant’s Watson. There is a partnership of non-equals in Nightingale and Grant, but also a mutual respect and us-against-the-world mentality shared because of their unique skills in seeing the otherworldly.

Nightingale’s wizardly skills are part unreal, part science, based in books and potions. This again grounds the magical aspects of the story in the real world by mixing the concrete with the ethereal in much the same way that Disney’s recent movie The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Aaronovitch uses this to keep the story reading like a mystery. There is no deus ex machina here, no reaching into the aether to pull salvation out of a hat or using the magic of the story to “solve” the mystery. Instead, the crime is solved through good old fashioned reasoning mixed with a little luck, wrapped in a cocoon of good solid action.

Another relatively minor part of the story that I liked is that the British authorities are not unaware of the existence of magic, they just don’t care. There is no hidden world of magic known only to the protagonists, just ignorance or indifference on the part of the rest of the world. There is no X-Files style mockery of Nightingale and Grant’s division because of its unusual nature. No, the mockery Nightingale and Grant endure is merely professional, as the members of the murder investigation unit and superiors see Nightingale and Grant’s unit as about as useful as salt water to a thirsty man. It is refreshing to find this in this subgenre, which tends toward the lone wolf style of characterization, and rarely has any sort of recognition for the protagonist’s efforts from a governmental authority.

Midnight Riot is a superb paranormal fantasy that will charm both genre fans and mystery readers alike. I devoured it and cannot wait to see more Peter Grant mysteries from the pen of Ben Aaronovitch. He will be the next great paranormal urban fantasist, standing alongside such greats as Patricia Briggs, Carrie Vaughn or Harry Connolly and superb British mystery writers like Elizabeth George or Caroline Graham.