Whispers Under Ground by Ben Aaronovitch – Advance Review

Book Jacket:

It begins with a dead body at the far end of Baker Street tube station, all that remains of American exchange student James Gallagher – and the victim’s wealthy, politically powerful family is understandably eager to get to the bottom of the gruesome murder. The trouble is, the bottom – if it exists at all – is deeper and more unnatural than anyone suspects . . . except, that is, for London constable and sorcerer’s apprentice Peter Grant. With Inspector Nightingale, the last registered wizard in England, tied up in the hunt for the rogue magician known as “the Faceless Man,” it’s up to Peter to plumb the haunted depths of the oldest, largest, and – as of now – deadliest subway system in the world.

At least he won’t be alone. No, the FBI has sent over a crack agent to help. She’s young, ambitious, beautiful…and a born-again Christian apt to view any magic as the work of the devil. Oh yeah — that’s going to go well

You can read an excerpt here.


Here’s the thing about the books in this series – I can’t say they fully satisfy me, but I still keep coming back for more, and all for one very simple reason: the voice.

Oh how I love, love, love the voice of this series. Peter Grant’s inner commentary is just hilarious – and oh so very, very British. Dry, droll, cheeky wit oozes from every page, all delivered in an utterly deadpan manner:

The downside of not calling the BTP would be that, should anything happen to Abigail, it would effectively be the end of my career and probably, because her father was an old-fashioned West African patriarch, my life as well.

The downside of calling them would be explaining what I was looking for, and having them laugh at me. Like young men from the dawn of time, I decided to chose the risk of death over certain humiliation.

I love how Peter skewers everything equally, be it the magical, the mundane, or just himself – though I’ll admit my absolute favorite is when he pokes fun at modern day policing. More often than not I find myself chuckling out loud as I read these books.

Officially we’re the Specialist Crime Directorate 9 otherwise known as Specialist Assessment Unit otherwise known as the Folly otherwise known as “the ones you go to if things get weird.” At least that’s what we are this year – the Met likes to reorganize on a three year rolling program. Presumably because it makes it harder for the criminals to work out who’s arresting them.

But while the voice alone is easily enough to make these books worth reading, I still can’t help wishing for more every time I close the back cover of an Aaronovitch book, and here’s why: I read just as many mysteries as I do Urban Fantasies, and while I enjoy how this book juggles the two genres, I think it never fully delivers on the mystery side.

On the UF side, I love how Aaronovitch has taken what should be a ridiculously tired trope – the secret, magic-wielding police division that deals with the paranormal – and made it fun again. Aaronovitch’s strength is in how he plays variations on UF themes – he riffs on the tropes we all know, and manages to make something entirely his own out of the familiar melodies, all the while keeping up Peter’s hilariously droll commentary – and it all makes Aaronovitch’s London a delight to explore. Equally wonderful is how Aaronovitch contrasts the mundane with the magical, thoroughly grounding the magical elements in our dreary every-day world. That all works, and works well.

But as I said, it’s in the mystery department that these books fall short. Honestly the plotting is just not there – however much I enjoy the banter and the setting, there just isn’t enough of a mystery spine to carry it all. When I read a mystery, I want surprises, clues, Christie-style twists that I don’t see coming, all building up to a final reveal of some kind. Whodunits only work if we’re vitally interested in the investigation, if we don’t get ahead of the story, if we’re genuinely surprised by something that we missed – and sadly, this book has none of the above. Yes, it’s interesting, and entertaining, even – and certainly I had no trouble turning the pages – but in the end there was no sense of satisfaction, no pay-off, no final reveal. Frankly once I closed the back cover and thought about it for a minute, I couldn’t help but realize how little there was to it all – yes, the scenery was undeniably lovely, but I couldn’t help but feel like this story never really took me much of anywhere at all.

Now yes, I do understand how hard it is to mix these two genres successfully, to juggle the procedural with the paranormal – every failed Urban Fantasy TV show stands in mute testimony to that fact – but if you’re going to have a story about a policeman investigating a murder, you dang well need a rock solid murder-mystery. Solving the case should be the beating heart of the story, and frankly these books have everything but that vital pulse.

And yet, and yet, I will keep coming back for more, because as I said, the voice of this series is truly fantastic. So by all means, turn off your brain and enjoy the read – but just know that when you finish, you’re very likely going to realize that while you may have thought you were eating a meal, in truth you were only munching on popcorn.

Byrt Grade: B+/A-

As Levar Burton used to say – you don’t have to take my word for it…

Publishers Weekly says:

This fast, engrossing novel is enjoyable, cheerful, and accessible to new readers.

Love Vampires says:

…while I was reading it I was happy enough but once the last page was turned I felt that the story left me vaguely unsatisfied overall….

Fantasy Book Review says:

Whispers Underground is not the best in the series, but it was a book that I didn’t put down and read in a whole night. It was fun, and I loved spending time with Peter Grant again…