LitStack Review: The Severed Streets by Paul Cornell
The Severed Streets
Publication Date: May 20, 2014
It’s modern day, London, summer, hot. The city is in the grips of social unrest: masked mobs march in protest of funding and service cuts while perceived graft and waste in government flows on unabated, the police are tired of seeing their wages stifled and their benefits chipped away while they labor in altercations that are ever escalating in tension and danger. They threaten to strike, and opportunistic groups jostle to take advantage of the public’s cynicism and fear.
And wealthy white men are dying. Gruesomely.
It starts with Michael Spatley, Member of Parliament, chief secretary to the Treasury, eviscerated while trapped in his car in the middle of a flash mob wearing “Toff” masks. Suspicion immediately goes to the chauffeur, or somehow, someone from the crowd breeching the car even though surveillance cameras and eyewitness accounts do not support such a theory. Options, however, are in short supply.
But Detective Inspector James Quill and his team – detectives Tony Costain and Kev Sefton, and intelligence analyst Lisa Ross – know that the crime was not committed by anything quite so mundane. Due to unexpected consequences of their last investigation (thrillingly related in the first book in Paul Cornell’s supernatural crime series, London Falling), Quill and his team have been “gifted” with the Sight – the ability to see the hidden, supernatural side of London. Its often not a pretty sight, and can, in fact, be downright horrifying both on a societal and personal level, laying bare even glimpses of Hell itself. However, the Sight can help with an investigation, even if trying to explain where information came from or how it manifests itself in today’s London can be an exhausting tap dance in and of itself.
To Quill and his team, it’s obvious that something is in play in the Spatley murder which has an unknown but extremely insidious agenda, and the grisly means to enact that agenda. How can you combat an opponent who possesses insane speed, can move through walls, and can disappear in a crowd without being noticed, even if you are open to the notion that the supernatural may be involved? And there are so many layers to the hidden side of London – why would this unknown apparition be so violently provocative now? For what purpose? To what end?
To answer these and other questions, the Sighted detectives go undercover to the source – the occult underbelly of London. In their search for the terror that has come to be known as “the Ripper” due to its similarity to famed serial killer Jack the Ripper, they discover that the occult community, and those who are considered the “Privileged” (those flesh and blood who are attuned to the supernatural or who can use the power of London to do things that most of us would deem impossible, magical or mystical) are in the midst of their own social upheaval. New elements are muscling in that are turning away from the old ways and forcing the use (and acceptance) of coin of the realm – money – rather than strictly sticking to the tradition of barter of emotion, body parts, energy, names, knowledge, favors, time, or blood as the basis of commerce. Battle lines are being drawn between the old and new, and the power that flows through London pulses along both.
The Severed Streets is a powerful continuation of London Falling, where we were first introduced to Quill and his team and witnessed their indoctrination into the Sight. Many plot lines were set up in that first book, and although the main and most immediate threat was closed, others hovered in the background or insinuated themselves in the personal lives of our characters, promising not only more to come, but also the “fleshing out” of a haunting and spectral world that most of us never even glimpse out of the corner of our eye. As we move further into this underground London in The Severed Streets, we learn along with Quill, Costain, Sefton and Ross just how much has been hidden, steeped in a cabalistic tradition and a brooding, arcane sensibility that existed on the banks of the Thames long before the London Bridge crossed its waters or Big Ben tolled alongside its shore.
It would be a good idea, in fact, to read London Falling before picking up The Severed Streets, if you haven’t already. While the main action of The Severed Streets stands on its own, there are numerous other plot strands that will suffer if one must piece them together without the help of backstory (some of these remain unresolved at the end of The Severed Streets, ensuring at least one more volume in the series – yay!).
And the book is complicated enough as it is – which is wonderful. There are many layers at play at any given time in the book and very few of them follow an obvious course; even the whodunnit plot line twists and turns, with an unfolding of understanding and eureka moments that come not from the unearthing of new evidence as much as finally comprehending the consequences – or even simply the workings – of knowledge that has passed from modern sensibility. Technology is used quite adroitly for both “good” and “evil”, but in the end, it’s good old fashioned police procedure that ends up saving the day. Well, this day, at least.
But in The Severed Streets, we see the main characters more intimately, as well. In London Falling, we witnessed them facing their greatest fears, but in The Severed Streets, we see them perhaps at their most human; what they chose to share with their teammates, what they chose to hold back often for tentative or fearful – or potentially selfish – reasons. These flawed and recognizable people are rational anchors in a very esoteric framework, the cement that holds the story together.
And I haven’t even mentioned the remarkable “cameo” that will leave you wondering how author Paul Cornell had the chutzpah to carry it off…
The Severed Streets is an intelligent, visceral thriller where a team of hardnosed, practical police detectives find themselves once again “standing against the powers of darkness”, but it is also a surprisingly tender exploration of how ordinary people respond when tasked with understanding the incomprehensible. Detective fiction, the occult, speculative fiction, magical realism: The Severed Streets is a worthy read regardless of the genre you approach it from.