REVIEW: The October Man by Ben Aaronovitch
Trigger warning (for the book, not the review) Spoiler: Show
Dear Mr. Aaronovitch,
I’m a longtime reader of Rivers of London, your Urban Fantasy series featuring detective constable Peter Grant of the London Metropolitan police. When I heard you were working on a new, Rivers-of-London-adjacent short (216 pages) book set in Germany and centered around a different paranormal investigator, Tobias Winter, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I requested an advanced reading copy on the strength of my love for your voice.
Tobias Winter works for the Abteilung KDA, the “Complex and Diffuse Matters” department of the Federal Criminal Police in Germany. Tobias’s father is a local police chief, and Tobias has grown up steeped in policework and policemen. Maybe that is why he’s dedicated to his job—a job that requires him to keep mum about the magical dangers from which he and his boss protect the German public.
Tobias is on vacation, enjoying his father’s annual autumn bonfire party and lamenting his inability to trade war stories the way his father and his father’s friend Stefan do, when his father brings up Tobias’s tendency to overwork.
“Policing is a noble profession, Tobi,” he said. “But it’s still just a job, and you’re supposed to come home at the end of the shift to the important stuff.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“Family,” said Papa. “Friends. The house, the hearth—the dog.”
Not that Tobias, or even his father, owns a dog.
The next day, while Tobias is out for a run, his boss, known mainly as the Director, phones and instructs him to get himself to Trier and help the Trier police assess whether a recent murder has a whiff of the supernatural about it. In Trier, he’s assigned a liaison from the local police department to work with, Vanessa Sommer, and he quickly determines that the murder was most definitely magical in nature.
The murdered man, Jorg Koch, is covered in a fungus called noble rot, sometimes used to infect wine grapes. The fungus is not supposed to grow on humans, much less all over the body and even in the lungs, as the noble rot did in the case of the dead man.
Tobias and Vanessa visit Jacqueline Stracker, a winemaker who recently reopened a vineyard situated not far from where Koch’s body was found. Frau Stracker claims to know nothing about the murder, but she does let slip that her grandfather believed that the Strackers owed their prosperity to a spiritual connection with the River Kyll.
One year, the teenaged Jacqueline retraced her grandfather’s path to a tree on a nearby island and left a wine bottle offering there, as her grandfather had. A pale, naked woman walked out of the river and said, “Tell your grandfather thank you for the wine. But the compact was broken the day they killed my mother. It is a new age and the old ways have gone.”
Tobias and Vanessa leave some of the best wine they can find at the same location and wait for the mystery woman–possibly the location spirit of the River Kyll–to contact them.
The police investigation proceeds apace. A tattooist that inked the face of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, on the murder victim’s upper arm is identified and the police begin a search for a friend of Koch’s.
Vanessa and Tobias are inspecting the dead man’s apartment when Tobias gets a call from the wine’s recipient. He and Vanessa race to meet up with her. The woman introduces herself as Kelly and she is indeed a river goddess. With Kelly is a French-speaking little girl—also a location spirit, and furious at Tobias—Morgane, the new goddess of the Mosul River. The previous goddess of the Mosul, Kelly’s mother, was murdered by Nazi magic practitioners during World War II.
Because her mother died at the hand of Tobias’s organization, Kelly is not inclined to help Tobias at first, but Koch’s friend, once located, and eventually Morgane, too, give Tobias clues that open up the case.
The October Man has snarky, witty narration that is similar enough to Peter Grant’s that at first I had to remind myself that Tobias wasn’t Peter. But a few chapters in, it became very evident that despite the similarity in their narration style, Tobias was a wholly different character.
Whereas Peter is curious and scientifically minded, Tobias is less interested in the nature of the magical beings he encounters and his attention is more directly on the crime. Where Peter stumbles occasionally but makes up for his mistakes with dedication and hard work, Tobias is equally hard-working but more focused. For all that he claims, at the end of the book, to be having too much fun to quit his job, Tobias also seemed more somber about it.
Peter starts Rivers of London as a newbie to policing and paranormal investigations, while Tobias is experienced in both. His liaison to the police department in Trier, Vanessa Sommer, has all the curiosity and inexperience that Tobias doesn’t. I ended up liking her a bit better than Tobias, though she was more professional and ambitious than Peter.
I am looking forward to seeing where Tobias, so far almost all work and no play, goes. He has one skill outside of police work: cooking. Otherwise there aren’t really quirks to him. And since he is a serious type, the book is less humorous.
Besides Tobias and Vanessa, there are other intriguing characters. Most of them, too, are more serious and less funny than the Rivers of London crowd. Kelly is understandably angry and bitter over the death of her mother. Morgane is at least as furious and kicks Tobias when they first meet.
Tobias’s boss, the Director, is chilly, ambitious for her department and occasionally caustic. I got the feeling that she might be Machiavellian, too, but one conversation she had with Tobias made it clear that there’s more to her than these simple dimensions.
Interestingly, the Director and Tobias are well aware of “the Nightingale” and his apprentice, Peter, but their British counterparts don’t know about them. Tobias’s department has an auxiliary unit of people who lack magical abilities but can be deployed to help out, and its leader was one of the funnier characters.
We also meet the murder victim’s friends, members of a wine club whose luck is a little too good. I loved this aspect of the story—how their group came together and how they ultimately parted.
Frau Stracker was interesting as well, and had a painful backstory that was important to the plot.
The novel has one of the best mysteries you’ve constructed. The setup is interesting, the conflict compelling and the plot has a twist or two. It’s intricate and substantial and it kept me guessing as to who the killer was almost up until the end. The motive for the villain’s obsession with another character could have been explained more clearly, but I love the procedural aspect of the book, the way Tobias and Vanessa are shown doing the actual legwork of investigating a crime.
It was nice to read an urban fantasy set in Germany; while I have never been there and cannot judge the authenticity or accuracy of its depiction, the book’s Trier had a distinctly different feel than the English locales in the Rivers of London series. That made the book feel fresh.
Further, Germany’s history came up more than once, and in interesting ways. There was some nice resonance to the way the events of World War II were described, but the German characters were human rather than villainous, which is to be commended.
The pacing is excellent, too. There’s a nice combination of action and downtime, and the book remains engaging from beginning to end. It never drags, and it also doesn’t feel frenetic, as some of your other books do. It’s cohesive and your voice is wholly appealing to me.
There is less diversity here than in the Rivers of London series, and I wonder if that is reflective of the change in setting. Is Trier less diverse than London? I would not know.
I enjoyed The October Man very much, though Tobias, while likable, isn’t yet as lovable as Peter. B+.