Tuesday 27 May 2014

Book Review | The Severed Streets by Paul Cornell

Desperate to find a case to justify the team's existence, with budget cuts and a police strike on the horizon, Quill thinks he's struck gold when a cabinet minister is murdered by an assailant who wasn't seen getting in or out of his limo. A second murder, that of the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, presents a crime scene with a message... identical to that left by the original Jack the Ripper.

The new Ripper seems to have changed the MO of the old completely: he's only killing rich white men. The inquiry into just what this supernatural menace is takes Quill and his team into the corridors of power at Whitehall, to meetings with MI5, or 'the funny people' as the Met call them, and into the London occult underworld. They go undercover to a pub with a regular evening that caters to that clientele, and to an auction of objects of power at the Tate Modern. 

Meanwhile, the Ripper keeps on killing and finally the pattern of those killings gives Quill's team clues towards who's really doing this....


In London Falling, Paul Cornell introduced readers to Detective Inspector James Quill and his squad of oddballs, including undercover officer Kev Sefton, analyst Lisa Ross, and Tony Costain, a properly dodgy copper on the road to reform. In the course of investigating a series of mob-related murders, the aforementioned four were cursed with something called the Sight—the ability to see the supernatural forces underpinning the city—which has been driving them half mad in the months since they managed to overmatch Mora Losley.

Catastrophe strikes the capital a second time in The Severed Streets, a solid sequel to a satisfying, if slow starter, but on this occasion, the team is aware of what they're up against... though that isn't to say they're prepared.
Thanks to an interesting series of interactions between this government and certain classes of the general public, it was shaping up to be one of those summers. He and his team had been told that the Smiling Man had a 'process' that he was 'putting together,' and Quill kept wondering if he was somewhere behind the violence. He could imagine a reality where the coalition in power had done a lot of the same shit, but without a response that included Londoners burning down their own communities. Really, it was down to how the initial outbreaks of violence had been mismanaged and a strained relationship between government and the Met that was leaving him increasingly incredulous. (p.15)
Or so they think, in their innocence—for though they know that there's more to London than meets the eye, they don't know much... and who in the underworld is going to bring the police up to speed?

To wit, Quill's unit has been having a hard time of it since they nicked the wicked witch of West Ham. Come to that, just justifying their existence has been a challenge in the current climate:
His was a squad created within the budget of a detective superintendent, its objectives hidden from the mainstream of the Metropolitan Police while cut after cut reduced the operational capacity of every other Met department, and the riots and the protests and the outbursts of dissent in the force's own ranks were pushing the system to breaking point. His team needed a new target nominal—a new operation—before people in senior positions started asking questions about why they existed. (p.17)
A certain saying comes to mind: be careful what you wish for... you might just get it. Quill for one will rue the day he craved a case, because his team do indeed identify a new nominal target in time: some spectral entity the Sight lets them see that sets about slaughtering people in positions of power, which is to say members of parliament, bankers, managers and what have you:
"So our... our... suspect; it looks like Jack the Ripper, it leaves the Ripper's message—" 
"And it kills like Jack the Ripper. The single slash across the neck, followed by multiple incisions in the abdomen, done with some medical precision—that's pretty much the original Ripper's MO. Except that in this case the victims are male." 
"So this is actually what it looks like? Jack the Ripper is back, only this time he's killing rich white men?" (p.51)
In short, sure, though there is, I need not note, rather more to the story of The Severed Streets than this sliver of synopsis—a story which, excepting its speculative elements, struck me as being ripped from the headlines. Among other things, Cornell responds to the recent riots, the problems with the economy, the austerity measures intended to save said, the disastrous ramifications that resulted from these in reality, and, unrelatedly, the fame of Neil Gaiman.

You read that right, readers: the estimable author of Neverwhere serves a pair of purposes as a recurring character in The Severed Streets. He shares some supernatural London lore with our lot—most notably the strange tale of the Seven Dials—and is, in the interim, Neil Gaiman. Which is neat, initially—cute is how I'd put it—but the novelty wears off when we realise how contrived his role in the actual narrative is, and I fear the arcs of the central characters are only slightly more meaningful.

Quill and the Quillettes are likable, largely; the problem is—and perhaps this is down to the procedural nature of these novels—that they're too often reduced to roles. Each stars in his or her own subplot, each of which eventually feeds into The Severed Streets' foremost focus—the hunt for this spirit Ripper—but Cornell could have leveraged these moments more appropriately by developing precious character in his cast members, rather than layering on a little complexity and calling it a day.

The Severed Streets is substantially more satisfying as a narrative, on the other hand. It's far better off the bat than its predecessor, certainly, plus it's perfectly accessible; though returning readers will obviously appreciate the references to earlier events more than newcomers to Cornell's novels, both groups are sure to enjoy the book—if not for its characters then because the going proves gripping regardless. The plot is well paced and the stakes greatly raised; the mood is good and grim, providing a nice counterpoint to Ben Aaronovitch's superficially similar Folly novels; and while the notion of another riff on the Ripper mightn't excite, Cornell's execution of the premise is excellent.

The Severed Streets reminded me of a heavy Hellblazer trade before the ruination of The New 52—a reasonable point of comparison considering the territory the two texts tread, not to speak of Paul Cornell's experience in the comic book medium. The spectre of Vertigo's former frontman also reveals what this series really needs: a single character half as compelling as John Constantine.


The Severed Streets
by Paul Cornell

UK Publication: May 2014, Tor UK
US Publication: May 2014, Tor US

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