Published by Del Rey on July 31, 2012
Quantum entanglement is just pixie dust with the word quantum thrown in. That, at least, is Constable Peter Grant’s explanation of magic. Whether magic is caused by quantum entanglement or pixie dust, Grant is slowly learning to master it, a hobby that serves him well in his career with London’s Metropolitan Police. He is assigned to the Folly, the hush-hush department (known more formally as the Specialist Assessment Unit) charged with investigating cases when “things get weird.” Things get weird when an American named James Gallagher is stabbed to death with a sharp bit of pottery in London’s Underground -- weird in part because it isn’t clear how Gallagher got into the tunnel (his staggering exit at one of the platforms is captured on CCTV).
Something odd is taking place beneath the surface of London and it’s up to Grant to connect the underground madness to Gallagher’s death. The mystery takes Grant (together with boss Nightingale and apprentice Lesley) on a tour of the Underground’s tunnels and London’s sewers. A variety of magical types turn up to provide assistance or trouble (or both), including river goddesses, an Earthbender, and a half-fairy (on his father’s side). And then there are the mysterious dwellers below London’s surface….
Grant is sort of a neophyte magician so the novel is relatively light on magic -- a good thing, from my perspective. I’m more partial to detective work and/or humor than spell-casting and ghost-busting. The familiar elements of a police procedural give the novel its shape and keep it moving forward at a steady pace. Still, I recommend Whispers Under Ground not so much for its convoluted whodunit plot but for Ben Aaronovitch’s humor. Aaronovitch’s take on law enforcement officers is consistently amusing and his good-hearted American-bashing (like his French-bashing) is priceless.
Whispers Under Ground is written with enough attitude to keep the story interesting even when it lags, as it does from time to time. Unlike the London Underground, the plot doesn’t consistently stay on track. Grant’s burial by the Earthbender, for instance, leads to an extended scene of no clear relevance. It is one of a few passages that add nothing to the narrative. Still, Aaronovitch’s snappy prose held my attention even when the story didn’t.
Aaronovitch makes occasional references to events that occurred in earlier novels in the series. Having not read the earlier installments, those references baffled me. I don’t think it’s necessary to read the earlier novels to understand this one, but doing so would provide helpful context. Fortunately, although I sometimes felt like an outsider who didn’t understand the novel’s in-jokes, Aaronovitch coaxed a smile or a snicker on nearly every page, and that sufficed to earn my recommendation of this offbeat novel.