In the third part of Rivers of London … Who dunit?!
This review will cover chapters 8-10. Major spoilers below!
Warning: contains a lot of talk about puppets. A lot.
So of all the possible explanations for the string of murders and assaults going on in this book, I did not even catch a glimpse of this one coming. It surprised me so well it actually took me a minute and a quick reread of chapter 8’s first paragraph before I caught on.
Punch and Judy. Fucking Punch and Judy?!
… Actually, once I got over the brief shock of “wait, what?” and thought it over, it struck me that this plot twist is pretty damn clever. You know, in a sick and (heh) twisted sort of way.
In case anyone isn’t familiar with the, er, time-honoured tradition of Punch and Judy shows, here’s the rundown. And in the other time-honoured tradition of something that’s best known as harmless children’s entertainment (Disney movies, I’m looking at you), when you really stop and think about it it gets less harmless, very quickly. And when you take the puppets out of the equation and cast human beings in their places … Well. What it becomes is pretty fucking disturbing, to put it bluntly.
And yet I have to tip my hat to Aaronovitch, because damn. I really did not see it coming. At all.
Days later and I’m still bothered by it. I mean, spiritual possession/infection of the populace by the ghost of a violent man and serial abuser who is running around London re-enacting a puppet show? THAT REALLY IS FUCKED UP. On the other hand, I think it’s also kind of a clever tactic on the writer’s part, beyond how well he pulls off the twist itself. If you read this as commentary on how easy it is to overlook the normalisation of despicably violent behaviour by claiming it’s “just harmless fun!” or “kids love it!”, then that’s more to the author’s credit than a straight up absurdist plot twist, minus such nuance, would be. And in this particular day and age, the dangers of such normalisation are more apparent than they’ve ever been. I won’t say they’re greater, because I know they’ve always been present, but they are – and should be – much harder to ignore, and we should not be ignoring them. So if you can see this plot twist in that light, regardless of whether or not “Mr Punch” was ever real, then it’s worthy food for thought.
(On that last point, an additional note: My research into the origins of Mr Punch turned up the interesting fact that he’s a representation of the mythological Trickster figure, or the Lord of Misrule. I like mythology, and I’m endlessly fascinated by the evolution of myths and folklore such as this. It doesn’t help to make this murderous puppet plotline any less twisted, of course, but I find it interesting!)
And to get back to the disturbingness of this whole scenario for a minute – I still need to/kind of don’t want to know what is up with the damaging physical side effects of being possessed by this guy. Anyone who gets puppeted (pun totally intended and I’m not even sorry) for a significant length of time has their brain rotted by malevolent magic and their facial structure so warped and damaged that it basically falls apart. THIS GHOST WRECKS FACES. What the hell. How? I mean … I know that Mr Punch is usually portrayed as a hunchback with a hooked nose, and he always has a manic grin – and being a puppet, that is one permanent grin. Is this some sort of unfortunate side effect of this killer ghost trying to physically manifest in these people’s bodies somehow? Because this really was grotesque enough already, thank you.
Elsewhere (she said, moving swiftly and gratefully on), Peter’s investigation is up the creek when it ends up with Nightingale being shot and hospitalised, and Peter himself under suspicion. The second complete surprise to me in this section came in the form of Seawoll and Stephanopolous actually working to help him stay free enough to continue hunting the killer. This was a considerably more pleasant surprise – Seawoll has a decent side! – but I also have a fresh concern, which somewhat annoyingly brings me back to a bothersome aspect I’ve talked about before: the problem with Peter’s POV. In this instance, it concerns the apparently sudden flipping of Stephanopolous’s personality from Angry Lesbian to Cute and Fluffy:
I made a werelight. It was pale and insubstantial under the fluorescent strip lighting and Seawoll wasn’t impressed, but Stephanopolous’s heavy face broke into such a wide smile of unalloyed delight that for a moment I saw her as a young girl in a pink room full of stuffed unicorns. ‘It’s beautiful,’ she said.
Now I’m not saying Stephanopolous shouldn’t be allowed to have layers to her personality. She absolutely should, and I welcome it! Having more depth to her character than she seemed to have previously certainly makes her more interesting to me. My problem is that this switch seems to take her from one perceived extreme to another, with not much in between. The fact that we only have Peter’s perception of her to go on – and he hasn’t exactly established himself as being the type to look very far below a woman’s … surface layers – means that I still don’t know for sure how much of Stephanopolous’s projected personality is genuine, and how much is simply Peter’s take on her. And if this sudden turnaround is us getting a peek at what she might really be like under the Angry Lesbian, then what bothers me isn’t that she has a softer side – it’s that Peter seems to automatically make a mental connection between “softer side” and “childish little girl”, here. Stephanopolous was just presented with proof that magic is real; why on earth would she NOT be delighted, if it isn’t threatening to her in any way? Are we not allowed to smile and be moved to feel delight at something without being labeled child-like? Her joy here might be innocent, but Stephanopolous is still a grown woman, and it bugs me that Peter seems to disregard that fact so easily when he’s presented with those aforementioned layers. Grown women are allowed to like pink and collect stuffed toys. I do, and I know plenty of others who also do! So yeah, this makes me frown. Again.
Get it the fuck together, Peter.
But that is, for all that it’s irritating, an issue that can wait, because apparently he’s come up with a plan to catch the killer (and can I just say AAAAAAH LESLEY NO) before things escalate further, and it is apparently a terrible plan. PETER WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO?
I need it to be Sunday now. I need to finish this. I need to know things.