In the second part of Rivers of London, Peter gets his science on, and Beverley just wants a sandwich, for heaven’s sake.
This review will cover chapters 5, 6 & 7.
Content note: for discussion of misogyny, mention of suicide.
So this section of the book is focused more upon gathering information than making investigative progress, which might ordinarily begin to bore me; thankfully, Aaronovitch doesn’t spend too long fixated on any one thing, but rather just long enough to give the reader some little nugget of Something Interesting to keep us intrigued.
Like the amateur science. Peter is not a scientific genius, and doesn’t pretend to be, but he knows enough about the process of experimentation to put it to some interesting use in his magical studies, when Nightingale isn’t drilling him relentlessly (and amusingly) in the practical aspects. It isn’t enough for Peter to know how to do something; he has a driving need to figure out why he’s able to do it, and for all that it seems to exasperate Nightingale I suspect the old man is finding himself impressed and intrigued as well. Tempting an old dog with new tricks, Peter? I approve.
Then there’s the social downtime, in which our somewhat disparate character elements are starting to come together into something that could, if encouraged, eventually resemble a functioning whole. A functioning, rather heartwarming whole. Peter’s efforts to clean up the disused old coach house on the grounds of the Folly, so that he can install a TV and have internet access, result in not only Lesley and Beverley turning up for a night in front of the telly, but in Nightingale and Molly also, more endearingly awkwardly, venturing in to see what the fuss is about. There’s absolutely nothing dramatic about such a scene, but sometimes that’s precisely what a story needs. If all Aaronovitch ever focused on was the procedure and the murder mystery plot beats, the story might be left feeling rather empty. Instead I get to be charmed by Molly eating pizza, and the considerably more old-fashioned Nightingale trying to pretend he isn’t agog at the wonders of a plasma TV.
It did my heart good, and I’m glad of that, because it gives me something to balance a certain persistent nitpick against. Namely, Peter’s (thankfully strictly internal) view of the women he interacts with.
It was getting the side-eye treatment last week, and this week it’s been upgraded to the occasional yet severe frown. Two examples stand out. First, there’s this remark, made when Peter visits the home of someone he needs to question in his investigation:
The voice belonged to a plump round-faced woman of the sort that develops a good personality because the alternative is suicide.
… I’ve discussed this just about to death with the others in this reading group, and while we can basically agree that it likely boils down to a poor choice of words rather than actual malicious intent by the author, the fact remains that THIS IS A REALLY FUCKING POORLY CHOSEN DESCRIPTION.
To be as fair as possible, I do think that this is nothing more than an example of Peter Grant’s internal monologue throwing out what’s probably just a harmless joke, at least in his view. But it rankled like hell with myself and at least one friend, because a joke about suicide is not fucking funny. It isn’t funny, and doesn’t make Peter look clever. Aaronovitch needs to do better than that. He also needs to do better than this:
A DS from the Murder Team arrived and took charge. She was a squat, angry-faced, middle-aged woman with lank brown hair who looked like she fought Rottweilers for a hobby. This was the legendary Detective Sergeant Miriam Stephanopoulos, Seawoll’s right-hand woman and terrifying lesbian.
On the surface, this looks to me like another case of a poorly judged attempt at humour missing its mark. Stephanopoulos is middle-aged, unattractive by Peter’s standards, and oh look she’s a lesbian. Hilarious. But it’s OK because she’s fierce enough to be really good at her job even if she evidently has no sense of humour, right?
The only joke ever made at her expense goes: “Do you know what happened to the last police officer who made a joke about DS Stephanopoulos?” “No, what did happen to him?” “Nobody else knows either.” I said it was the only joke, not a good one.
So Peter can in fact identify a bad joke. That’s something, at least?
Look, I get that he’s young and he’s flawed as a character, and that this is still very early days in my understanding of him. Plenty of things can change, and I hope that they do! But when you’re hoping for change of this sort, this early on … It’s just not exactly the best start you could hope for. So if this is just Peter Grant running his internal mouth, or a couple of unfortunate thoughtless moments on the writer’s part, then he/they can have the benefit of the doubt, because I’ve known plenty of men who failed at good humour. The thing is, though, I eventually had to distance myself from those men for my own good. I’d hate for that to happen here, when I am otherwise really enjoying this book.
And I am really starting to enjoy it! I am still not entirely sure what to make of Beverley’s role in things, given the decidedly objectified introduction we got to her – it hasn’t exactly improved since, but we are at least seeing her come a little more into her own even if she does feel a little superfluous and male-gazey. For example, we get to see her show some (rather entertaining) substance in a scene involving an argument about Peter’s sandwich-based integrity.
‘If I eat these, you’re not going to expect an obligation, are you?’ asked Beverley.
‘Don’t worry about it,’ I said. ‘I have an air freshener in the bag.’
‘I’m serious … I want to know what your intentions are with this sandwich.’
‘I assure you, my intentions are honourable,’ I said, but part of me was thinking about how close I came to eating that custard cream back at Mama Thames’s flat.
‘Swear it on your power,’ said Beverley.
‘I don’t have any power,’ I said.
‘Good point,’ said Beverley. ‘Swear it on your mum’s life.’
‘No,’ I said. ‘This is childish.’
‘Fine,’ said Beverley. ‘I’ll get my own food.’ She got out of the car and stomped away, leaving the door open. I noticed that she’d waited for the rain to ease up before throwing a fit.
Beverley’s got a point, Peter. Obligations are a serious business when you’re a river goddess. It might be just a humble sandwich to you but it’s a potential trap for her. Show some consideration!
… Look, I’m Scottish. The hills are full of fairies up here. You think we don’t grow up knowing these things? We know these things.
So, I like Beverley. I would like more of this kind of thing and less of the objectification, but I’m still giving it a fair chance. I just hope we see fewer thoughtless ‘jokes’ as we go on.