A long undercover police investigation following one of London’s most powerful organized crime figures is approaching its conclusion. The crime boss, Rob Toshack, is suddenly acting erratically, visiting a string of his houses, disappearing to the attic only to reappear and head to a different place. Costain and Sefton, the two undercover agents who have been inserted into Toshack’s organization, can’t figure out why their target is suddenly running all over London. Quill, the officer in charge of the operation, finally decides to bring in the criminal, but during the initial interview at the station, Toshack suddenly dies in a horrific and apparently supernatural attack…
London Falling by Paul Cornell mixes urban fantasy, horror, and police procedural elements into a dark, captivating novel. The easiest comparison would be the Peter Grant series by Ben Aaronovitch: Aaronovitch writes hilarious novels that combine dark magic and realistic police work set in contemporary London; Paul Cornell has done the same in London Falling, minus the “hilarious” part.
The opening chapters of the novel are a bit confusing, because Cornell drops the reader into the endgame of a police operation that’s been going on for years. He also introduces three of his main characters (Costain, Sefton and Quill) as well as crime boss Toshack all in a few pages, sometimes using their first names instead of their last names, which initially makes it a bit tricky to keep track of who’s who.
Stick with it, though: everything comes together smoothly. It also turns out that Cornell has created a really interesting set of main characters: Costain, Quill, Sefton and intelligence analyst Ross, who is introduced a few chapters later. Rather than info-dumping their backgrounds into the story, Paul Cornell gradually reveals them as the story unfolds. They are a surprisingly diverse and fascinating group. Their motivations are complex and very different from each other. I’m intentionally giving as little information about these characters as possible, because the process of getting to know them is one of the best things about London Falling.
The novel uses contemporary London as a setting but doesn’t describe the city with the same level of detail as Ben Aaronovitch does in his Peter Grant novels. This is probably because Paul Cornell’s characters are hyper-focused on the mystery they have to solve, so they spend less time having amusing thoughts about British architecture and more time obsessing about saving lives. Rather than spending pages describing the city, London Falling evokes its atmosphere as if in passing, much like the way its characters are introduced. It shows that Paul Cornell has ample experience writing screenplays and comics, where showing rather than telling is a requisite.
One of my favorite aspects of London Falling is the realistic way its characters deal with the supernatural horror they encounter. They don’t shrug off the type of occurrences that would send normal people running and screaming. They show shock, bordering on trauma. They occasionally need to escape, maybe have a few pints. One of them considers voluntarily checking into a mental institution.
Most importantly, the four main characters cling to police protocols and methods with a determination that borders on desperation. They analyze the unbelievable events around them like any other crime, checking records and diagramming relations. Early on, they actually have a discussion about whether, contrary to approved police methodology, it’s okay to work with assumptions rather than facts. The “police procedural” part of this novel is fascinating: it’s realistic, complete with a glossary at the end of the book to explain certain terms, but it also almost feels like a safety blanket for the characters.
After the confusing and somewhat slow start, the novel takes off and doesn’t slow down until the very end. The contrast between the everyday settings—suburban homes, police offices, soccer stadiums—and the horrific nature of the crimes is incredibly effective. The four main characters continue to gain depth as they try to stop an incomprehensible, seemingly invincible murderer. Their fear and helplessness is contagious. The tension and the emotional stakes escalate until the end, making this a very hard book to put down.
There are only a few aspects of this novel I’m not crazy about. First of all, Quill feels much more stereotypical than the other three main characters, with his daddy issues and his habit of drinking a few “pints of therapy”. Second, Paul Cornell fills in some of the necessary history in two flashback chapters. These break the flow of the story and don’t mesh with the “show don’t tell” narration. (To be fair, I have no idea how else the content of those flashbacks could have been included, but they still feel out of place.) And finally, the epilogue feels like one of those annoying teasers for the next episode of a TV show: it doesn’t feel like part of the story that came before and crams in too much new information.
Aside from those fairly minor quibbles, London Falling is a great novel. I’m not sure whether I’d call it urban fantasy or horror (or both), but regardless, what’s most interesting is the incredibly thorough way Paul Cornell combines the fantasy/horror with police procedural elements. The characters are fascinating and complex, and the plot is gripping. Urban fantasy isn’t my favorite genre, but I had trouble putting this one down.