Monday, April 15, 2013

London Calling—Paul Cornell Calling Back

Paul Cornell, London Falling

When an invisible assailant kills a criminal kingpin inside the police nick, four London coppers get tasked to arrest a supernatural suspect. When their digging uncovers connections to an urban legend surrounding one of London’s rougher football clubs, they realize they’ve uncovered a serial crime going back a century. But when they touch a mysterious artifact, and become infected with The Sight, mere murder starts to seem like small beer.

Paul Cornell made his chops writing Doctor Who, and you can tell from this, his first non-franchise novel to appear in America. It has a similar “hidden reality” texture that Whovians will recognize, in which seemingly abstract events conceal a cryptic history underlying one of Earth’s major cities. But unlike the crafty, experienced Doctor, he deploys heroes here who are as adrift in their massively complex milieu as his readers.

These plainclothes coppers uncover a serial killer whose Brothers Grimm operation is matched in gruesomeness only by the damage she has done herself. But rather than a city eager to bring her in, they find London so bespelled by its own passions that a child murderer can hide in plain sight. And the underworld (in every sense of the word) has been so lawless, for so long, that they practically turn into Wild West marshals overnight.

Cornell incorporates a procedural bent not much used in American urban fantasy. Where novelists like Jim Butcher or Melissa Olson favor off-the-grid solo heroes, Cornell’s protagonists work within a government hierarchy, against a largely lawless underworld. Early on, his heroic quartet establish that they are not interested in justice; they intend to enforce the law. Even if it means they must bend the letter of the law to do so.

This gives his heroes a Fantastic Four quality, probing the margins of law and ethics to pursue an enemy who doesn’t share their compunctions. They can see magic, but they cannot control it, especially as they see the toll it takes on their enemies, who have become self-involved and subhuman. Throughout, they must fight the temptation to become as depraved as the supernatural degenerates they swear to bring to justice.

As with many of Cornell’s works, themes of religion and supernaturalism permeate his story. Believing in magic and witchcraft opens the door to something larger than human experience. Though DCI Quill barks early, “We don’t do theology,” they struggle with issues of Hell, transcendence, and eternal consequence. What does supernaturalism imply in a largely agnostic nation? (In interviews, Cornell calls himself a mildly observant Anglican.)

Cornell’s heroes establish early that the enemy they fight, and the Sight they use to fight it, is very London-specific. This villain could exist nowhere else, and their ability to fight derives from the city and its people. Thus, even for Anglophiles, this book assumes a distinctly British character. When DCI Quill lays into his subordinates in distinctive London idiom, you can practically hear him speaking in Jeremy Clarkson’s voice.

Fans of British television will recognize Cornell’s storytelling style: episodic, with shifting viewpoints and great personal angst. His story proceeds through an alternation of long, sometimes talky exposition, followed by sudden revelations designed to propel audiences into the next episode. We can practically hear the intertitle music. Nobody should feel surprised that, in his acknowledgments, Cornell admits he first conceived this story for TV.

This television quality translates well into Cornell’s prose style. His characters waste little time on introspection, proceeding through the tactile nature of the crime and their world. They reveal themselves through their words and actions, revealing their inner thoughts only as the investigation requires. Not for them the gradual intellectualism of Tolkien or Lewis; these heroes have a job to do, and no time for melodrama.

More cerebral fantasy devotees may not care for Cornell’s storytelling. Exposition centers on what characters see, hear, and do. Soul-searching bores him. He creates the kind of earthy, grounded, laconic characters familiar from classic British crime dramas like The Bill and Z-Cars, not the musing visionaries favored in current paperback fantasy. Cornell picks his audience in the way he tells his story.

But if that audience includes you, Cornell’s active narration and spare, muscular style may make a nice change. Like Rowling before her, Cornell may reawaken a love of reading in audiences grown numb on television. Having written both TV and novels, his storytelling feels almost bilingual that way. He sets the stage for an interesting series in this book; we’ll see if he keeps that momentum going.

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