Two undercover officers, one a veteran, the other a rookie, at odds, suspicious of the other as far as techniques, motivations, loyalties. Add to that their abrasive, hard-nosed commander, who will battle for every inch even as he feels the war slipping away. Four years on the case, carefully building the net, trying to draw it to a close, getting in deeper, all of them realizing that no matter how it ends, they all will be done once it’s over. There will be no winners.
Behind the scenes there is one intelligence agent, remote, talented with data but sequestered away by choice, she’s never met the other members of her team face to face. Bound to the case in more than just work ethic, she has the deepest stake but only she knows just how far that connection runs.
Quill, Costain, Sefton, and Ross. All brilliant at what they do, and yet catastrophically flawed. The team of Operation Goodfellow, hoping to set up and then take down Rob Toshack, head of a mob operative that has eluded all efforts to bring the case to a close, who always seems to find a way around or over or through witnesses or snitches or other gangs, by means that elude even four years of undercover work so deep that rumors are starting to fly. The operation has run out of time, run out of money, and run out of good will on the part of the top brass, and unless the desperate measures ordered by Quill (in response to what has been demanded of him) shake something out in the next few days, then the operation will be called in and labeled an embarrassing failure.
Desperate measures have unexpected results, but then a shocking development in the interview room leaves the entire station shell-shocked, and completely throws Operation Goodfellow into a tailspin. When the smoke clears, a new investigation is initiated, and with every lead comes a twist and a widening circle of bewildering murder and mystery encompassing not only the London gang scene, but the very depths of urban lore – and, bizarrely, the West Ham Football Club.
Most authors would figure that would be enough of a framework on which to base a crackling good crime novel. Not Paul Cornell, prolific writer known for his works within the Doctor Who franchise, as well as numerous screenplays, stories and comic books. For Mr. Cornell, that is merely the set-up.
During a somewhat mundane investigation of a suspect’s house, something happens to the four team members when Quill touches a shaped patch of soil whose spiral pattern has also appeared at other crime sites associated with their investigation:
Quill took off his gloves, which felt a blessed relief. He reached out to the soil. His fingertips touched it -
Just as he suddenly realized that all the others should be shouting at him not to, warning that a giant and ridiculous potential had risen out of nothing in the very second he’d moved his fingers toward the soil -
And he registered that he did actually hear them shouting, in a sudden concerted yell of fear.
Something gave a snap, between Quill’s flesh and the soil. Something shorted out. And everything changed.
What changes is that Quill, Costain, Sefton, and Ross now have the Sight – the ability to see the manifestations of evil that are prowling the streets of London. The haunts, the occults, the shadows, the shades and more. At times, they can even see into Hell itself, or at least a private Hell as perceived by their own minds. And therein, my dear readers, lies the tale that is at the heart of London Falling.
What sets this novel apart from other works where characters have the Sight, or some kind of ability to see the metaphysical darkness that exists cheek and jowl with our world of light, is the incredibly personal affectation of those things made visible with the Sight. We expect witches and trolls, ogres and goblins - and there are a few of those in Cornell’s London, some centrally so, and one in particular on which this story hinges. But the truly horrifying manifestations of the lingering evil are those that are attached to individual characters and which, in a strange and almost perverse way, add a keen definition to those characters. These manifestations – not always corporeal – are attached (sometimes literally) to one singular person, in some cases adding a burden to a melancholy life, but sometimes removing something of great value without recourse or remembrance. The threats and machinations become very personal and hurtful, hitting right where the armor is thinnest. This is very chilling to read, for who of us can, then, keep from internalizing what might be the horror sitting on our own shoulder?
Another very effective strength in this novel is the commitment of the central characters to the value of no-nonsense, systematic, methodical police work. Metaphysics be damned, there is value to method applied to the madness, and if our team has an advantage in winning the day, it exists in their police skills; their ability to utilize techniques, procedures and instincts honed through experience to push back against the evils that now complicate not only the investigation, but their individual lives and sanity. Set up the Ops Board, boys, pin on the evidence, brainstorm the conjecture, link to the possibilities and X out the extraneous, and for the love of all things holy, don’t hold back on the coffee – or the whiskey, for that matter. This is a marvelous, marvelous thing Mr. Cornell has done, incorporating this concrete human advantage into a darkly supernatural environment.
Having said that, there were a few things I did struggle with in London Falling. One was my own shortcoming in not being British; much of the lingo, slang and acronyms were lost on me (I didn’t find the glossary at the back of the book until after I had finished reading it), and I struggled with not having an innate understanding of the time honored loyalty to a football team (re: soccer team, for my American counterparts). Those things, however, were more environmental, and once I was ensconced in the story they were no longer a distraction.
I did, however, have a bit stronger issue with the reaction of the residents and authorities of London to some aspects of the central story: the discovery of evidence of child sacrifice (including a chilling twist surrounding the acquisition of the victims) as well as the final treatment of the perpetrator, and the growing knowledge of supernatural murder being associated with a spectator sport. At times it seemed like the veracity of the city’s response was underwhelming when I would have expected outrage, but elsewhere turned viscerally bloodthirsty without consequence. There were nods in the narrative towards an explanation for these reactions, but they weren’t weighty enough to put me at ease. It felt like the story had gotten a bit loose, which was a shame because the rest of the book was so sharp and tight.
At any rate, these are negligible criticisms and probably would not even be noticeable were the rest of the book not as good as it is. The characters of Quill, Costain, Sefton, and Ross are rich and deftly written, complex and completely credible (as are many of the secondary characters, as well). They are not really heroes, but damaged individuals who have been thrust into a position where they must behave heroically, chafing and blustering and doubting themselves (but not their instincts) as they go. They are us – if we were experienced, hardened coppers, at least. The insight into the deeper underside of London is dirty and dark and frightening, and utterly fantastic. The layers of the complex story arc are exposed at just the right tempo to keep interest and draw us in deeper, as we learn along with the detectives (and also as we experience their surprise, shock, confusion and revelations).
But perhaps the best of all at the end of the book is the promise of more. London Falling introduces us to characters that will inhabit a whole series of supernatural crime-solving stories; the suspects may change, but the reliance on tried and true police work will continue. If Mr. Cornell is able to keep up the uniqueness and the horror of the drama, and the gritty reality of modern day London found in London Falling, you can bet I’ll be getting to know Quill, Costain, Sefton, and Ross pretty darn well in the volumes to come.
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