In the first part of Moon Over Soho, I am one happy nerd.
This review covers chapters 1-4, with potential spoilers!
Content note: For a mention of autism.
When I was a kid, I was in charge of changing my dad’s records while he lounged around and drank tea – that’s how I know my Argo from my Tempo. And that’s why, when Dr Walid called me down to the morgue to listen to a corpse, I recognised the tune as ‘Body and Soul’ – something violently supernatural had happened to the victim, strong enough to leave its imprint on his corpse as if it were a wax cylinder recording. The former owner of the body, Cyrus Wilkins, was a part-time jazz saxophonist and full-time accountant who dropped dead of a heart attack just after finishing a gig.
He wasn’t the first, but no one was going to let me exhume corpses to see if they were playing my tune, so it was back to old-fashioned police legwork, starting in Soho, the heart of the scene, with the lovely Simone – Cyrus’ ex-lover, professional jazz kitten and as inviting as a Rubens’ portrait – as my guide. And it didn’t take me long to realise there were monsters stalking Soho, creatures that fed off that special gift that separates the great musician from someone who can raise a decent tune. What they take is beauty. What they leave behind sickness, failure and broken lives.
And as I hunted them, my investigation was getting tangled up in another story: a brilliant trumpet player, Richard ‘Lord’ Grant – my father – who managed to destroy his own career. Twice.
That’s the thing about policing: most of the time you’re doing it to maintain public order. Occasionally you’re doing it for justice. And maybe, once in your career, you doing it for revenge.
So here we are at the beginning of book 2 in this series, and everything about its description speaks to my nerdy soul. I will freely admit that I am not even a little bit musically gifted, but that’s never stopped me from appreciating the hell out of music and being endlessly curious about its history, whatever the style. In this case it’s jazz, and thus I spent the opening chapters of this book curled up, content to fall into this story and the history lessons it brought along. So far, I haven’t been disappointed.
Nor am I sorry in the least to see Lesley May get her dues as a returning character after the horrific trauma she suffered in the first book. Moon Over Soho opens with Peter paying her a visit at her family’s home in Brightlingsea, where she’s recovering on leave and, if this scene between them is anything to go by, becoming determined to find a way to restore herself, physically. She doesn’t waste any time asking Peter if there is a magical means of healing herself, and seems to be sticking stubbornly to the ‘logic’ that if magic can damage her, then it can damn well fix her too. Naturally it doesn’t work that way, but it’s heartbreaking to see Lesley so fixated on a magical cure-all.
We sat in silence for a moment, then she poked me in the arm. I sighed and produced another werelight. I could practically do it in my sleep by this time. She copied the gesture and got nothing. I’m not joking about how long it takes to learn.
The OAPs on mobility scooters returned drag-racing past on the esplanade. I put the light out, but Lesley carried on making the gesture, the movements becoming more impatient with every try. I stood it as long as I could before I took her hand in mine and made her stop.
At this point her injuries mean she can’t even speak, and she appears to meet with Peter with her face entirely covered: hoodie, sunglasses, scarf over her face. Despite her physical withdrawal, however, she remains connected to the plot when Peter continues seeking her advice via texts, and I was glad to see that he doesn’t leave her out, or leave her alone, entirely in her convalescence. Injured or not, traumatised or not, Lesley’s still his friend and still a copper. I’ve got my fingers tightly crossed that she does manage to recover enough to make a full return at some point.
Elsewhere in the book’s opening chapter, though, some content is less welcome. I’ve talked before about Aaronovitch’s poor choice of phrasing at times, and the mis-steps continue in Moon Over Soho. In this case, what got my attention – and by that I mean that this really glared off the page at me – was the following description:
She typed in keyboard mode and the iPad spoke – somebody in her family must have installed a speech synthesizer. It was a basic model with an American accent that made Lesley sound like an autistic surfer dude, but at least we could have an almost normal conversation.
This raised a pretty lengthy debate with a couple of friends when I brought it up, which I won’t go too far into except to say that it made me think a lot about why I found this seemingly throwaway line so hurtful – and I did find it personally offensive. As I noted, I don’t think the author (or Peter?) is being intentionally offensive, just a bit thoughtless with this remark. That said, thoughtless remarks can still do harm, and while I can attest that it is not always easy to monitor yourself and your opinions (in fact I think it’s impossible to do it successfully all the time), I’m bringing this up here for the same reason I brought it up in last night’s group chat: I just don’t feel like I would be responding honestly to it if I didn’t make it clear that it offends me.
I don’t expect any book to be perfect in this respect, but when a comment like this turns up in the early part of the first chapter … Yeah, I’m not going to ignore it. So there it is.
For all of that, though, it is my only complaint about the book at this point. As I also previously mentioned, this one’s plot is wonderfully rooted in London’s jazz scene, and it’s a good excuse for Peter to share his knowledge of the history of that musical movement. What it also does is bring Peter’s father, Richard ‘Lord’ Grant, into the spotlight – though at this stage it’s not clear what sort of involvement he’ll have beyond Resident Jazz Expert. I’m excited to see the two of them share more page time, and to learn more about ‘Lord Grant’ and his own history as part of this music scene. At the same time, though, I’m already a bit nervous about whatever trouble might be coming his way, because you know there is trouble coming. And I suspect it’s coming in the form of Simone Fitzwilliam, jazz kitten, ‘grieving’ girlfriend and unnerving potential villain.
Let’s review the facts: she was apparently shacking up with one of the established victims of whatever is bumping off jazz musicians, despite the fact that he was engaged before he met her. When Peter interviews her following that death, she isn’t wasting any time packing up and moving out (or moving on). And when he goes digging for more information about her afterwards, it’s revealed that she has next to no internet presence. No criminal record, but also no social media footprint.
Who lives like that in this day and age? Nope. She’s definitely suspect. Whether or not she’s A suspect, I don’t know yet. But I don’t trust her. Not even a little bit.
So here we are, and I am (mostly) impressed by this book so far. Certainly enough that I’ll keep reading, but it’s unfortunate that I’m probably going to be a little guarded, rather than straight-up enthusiastic, about doing so.