REVIEW: The Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch
Dear Mr. Aaronovich,
The sixth book in your Rivers of London series, The Hanging Tree, begins with a phone call. Peter Grant, police constable and wizard’s apprentice, is asleep in his river goddess girlfriend Beverley’s bed when his cell phone rings. On the other end is Beverley’s sister and fellow river Cecelia Tyburn, a sometime nemesis of Peter’s. And she wants a favor.
“One of my daughter’s friends has had an accident,” said Lady Ty, “I want you to ensure my daughter is not implicated in the subsequent investigation.”
Oh shit, I thought. That kind of favor.
She gave me the address and what she knew of the circumstances.
“You want me to prove your daughter wasn’t involved?” I said.
“You misunderstand,” said Lady Ty, “I don’t care what her involvement is—I want her kept out of the case.”
She really had no idea what she was asking for, but I knew better than to try and explain.
“Understood,” I said.
“And Peter,” said Lady Ty, “Nightingale is not to know about this—is that clear?”
“Crystal,” I said.
As soon as she hung up, I called the Folly.
Nightingale, Peter’s supervisor and trainer in all things magical, agrees to play ignorant until Peter needs his aid, and after a quick, sweet pause to take his leave of Beverley’s river, Peter hightails it to the crime scene, One Hyde Park, a luxury apartment building attached to a posh hotel.
There Peter meets up with fellow police constable Sahra Guleed and his boss Seawoll, neither of whom wants him or what he symbolizes—the supernatural activities police division known as the Folly’s involvement in their investigation.
Initially, the case appears to be a simple drug overdose by a seventeen-year-old girl, at a party held by a group of teens who broke into an unoccupied apartment. But forensic investigation of the girl’s brain by Dr. Walid and his trainee Dr. Jennifer Vaughan (a new addition to the Folly) shows that the dead girl, Christina Chorley, was a practitioner of magic. This puts the case squarely on Peter and company’s turf, especially since Tyburn’s teenage daughter Olivia must be arrested by Guleed and Peter once she confesses to having bought the drugs that killed Christina.
Christina’s grieving dad, Martin Chorley, doesn’t seem to know much about his daughter’s activities, but he does mention her sleepovers at her friend Albertina Pryce’s. The jazz band Peter’s dad belongs to has a gig that night, and there Peter is approached by a supernatural being named Reynard Fossman who offers to sell him Jonathan Wild’s final ledger—Wild having been an eighteenth century thief taker.
Questioning Albertina Pryce yields mention of Reynard; apparently Christina was involved with him, despite the age difference. After explaining that “Reynard the Fox” may be the embodiment of a French fairy tale trickster, Nightingale adds that Jonathan Wild’s final ledger is thought to reveal the whereabouts of Isaac Newton’s Third Principia, which in turn contains a much-coveted spell.
“Don’t tell me,” said Seawoll. “Lead into fucking gold?”
The Third Principia belonged to the Folly in an earlier era, and Nightingale wants to recover it. Seawoll and Stephanopoulos, Peter’s other boss, want Reynard Fossman as a potential material witness. So Peter sets up a meeting with Fossman for purchasing the ledger and (hopefully) then arresting Reynard. Unfortunately, said meeting is crashed by some unexpected guests, one of whom is none other than Peter’s former partner Leslie May, who betrayed him to the Faceless Man, and all hell breaks loose.
Reynard escapes, but a certain Lady Caroline Linder-Limmer, adopted daughter of Lady Helena Linder-Limmer, is captured by the police in his stead. Both ladies practice magic, and they work out a deal with Peter and Nightingale. All four will work together to obtain the ledger, and then share the knowledge in it once they have it.
But can Caroline and Helena be trusted, or are they secretly collaborating with the Faceless Man? Is Leslie and the Faceless Man’s interest merely in the ledger, or are they somehow connected to the Christina Chorley case? And what exactly is Tyburn’s daughter Olivia’s involvement, or that of FBI agent Kimberley Reynolds, from whom Peter receives an unexpected phone call?
These questions and more are answered in The Hanging Tree, and as usual for this series, it’s an entertaining outing. There’s a lot to praise in this book, from the witty humor in Peter’s narration, to the appealingly competent female characters (and there were more of them than ever in this book) to the diversity of the cast of characters—Beverely, Tyburn, Olivia, Lady Caroline, and Peter’s mum are all black, Sahra Guleed and Dr. Walid are Muslim (Guleed wears a hijab), and Stephanopoulos has a spouse who shares her gender. I appreciate too, that Peter is shown encountering bigotry from others because he is biracial. For example, in this book, he is stopped by police while driving for no reason.
As a narrator and central character, Peter is absolutely lovely – snarky but honorable, curious and just the right amount of suspicious, capable but still human enough to make mistakes or find himself outgunned on occasion. The secondary characters are also terrific. I especially enjoyed Guleed and Lady Caroline on this outing, as both are smart and good at their jobs / roles while neither one plays the role of a damsel in distress. There is even this great this great little exchange on who, between the male and female characters in the series, comes to whose rescue:
“Does this happen a lot?” asked Caroline.
“Nope,” I said. “Sometimes Beverley rescues me, sometimes Lady Ty, occasionally Molly—I think there’s a rota.”
“Shit,” said Caroline. “You’re not joking, are you?”
“Don’t be daft,” I said. “There isn’t really a rota. We’re not that well organized.”
If there’s one thing to be desired in these books that isn’t always there, it’s the plotting. The series follows a pattern where the odd numbered books revolve around self-contained police cases that are resolved in a satisfying way, while the even number books suffer from the involvement of the series arch-villain, the Faceless Man.
Such is the case with this, book six, for a few reasons. (1) The Faceless Man is so powerful relative to Peter and Nightingale that he tends to dominate the books he appears in, and this is true here too, (2) I’m still smarting from Lesley’s defection, and (3) the resolution of this novel felt particularly dissatisfying in a way that came across as contrived.
I also have a couple of more minor peeves, the first of which is that though I have no interest in keeping up with the related Rivers of London graphic novels, there were some references to previous cases that have their roots in those, and that was distracting. I wasn’t always sure whether a reference came from something I’d read in one of the novels, or not, and trying to puzzle it out stopped me in my tracks.
The second peeve is that at one point it is stated that practicing magic doesn’t require any special abilities but is something that anyone can learn. That is not consistent with what was said about it in the first two or three books. In most ways though, the books are consistent.
Fortunately, The Hanging Tree also has a big development in the overarching series plot that comes at around the three-quarter mark of this book, and it was extremely satisfying and made up for most of the book’s weaknesses.
Additionally, there is talk of expanding the Folly which gives me hope that Guleed might be trained in magic and we might see more of her and of Caroline in the future.
I also hope you continue to include Beverley in future books as I loved seeing her with Peter in this one, even though it was a small thread. I agree with a certain character who states that Peter and Beverley “are so suited,” so please, Mr. Aaronovich, don’t mess up this good thing.
In summary, though the plot structure of this novel didn’t feel all there, the ride was still quite entertaining, enough that I’m giving it a B.