Magic Cops: A Conversation with Author Ben Aaronovitch
London is seemingly a treasure trove of ideas for authors – none more so than those of the crime variety.
From Dickens to Conan Doyle, Chesterton to Wodehouse, London has provided a treasure trove of ideas for writers. When covered with enough depth and detail, generations of readers have lost themselves forever in its streets, so when a new London based novel is released it undoubtedly has a lot to live up.
Author Ben Aaronovitch and his Sunday Times best-selling Peter Grant series of novels achieve that feat, and so much more. The books weave London’s rich folklore and Metropolitan Police procedure in a series of charming, witty and exciting adventures set in a magical world not all that different to our own.
The novels revolve around the escapades of Peter Grant. On the surface, Peter look like an average, everyday young London police officer, but he is in fact, a part-time wizard in a very elite branch of the Metropolitan Police.
Following an unexpected encounter with a ghost, he is recruited into the small branch of the Met that deals with magic and the supernatural. Under the tutelage of the enigmatic Detective Inspector Thomas Nightingale, Grant, becomes the first English apprentice wizard in over 70 years.
It’s his job to investigate those crimes that regular police don’t like to talk about because they often involve twisted wizards, vampires, fairies, some pretty prickly local river spirits or strange things in Underground tunnels.
Absorbing, addicting and delightfully escapist, the series is one of the most entertaining and satisfying fantasy thrillers to hit bookshelves in quite some time. But where does the inspiration for a magic-infused police procedural set in Modern London, come from?
Originally called ‘Magic Cops’, “like most ideas, it came from several places at once”, says author Ben Aaronovitch.
“I’m a professional writer and have been for a while now. You just sort of develop this kind of attic full of junk in your head. It’s full of ideas thought up when lying on the bed or sitting on the train. What you do is pick up ideas and see if they fit together in interesting ways.”
“I like crime and I like science fiction and fantasy, and I am too lazy to write two books so I thought, right I’ll do a supernatural crime thriller” he says, with a chuckle before elaborating further. “I’m not a horror fan. Most supernatural crime leans itself toward the horror genre, and tends to be mishmash of procedural and horror where a detective gets sucked into a world with malevolent forces at work, where nothing makes sense.
I thought what if it’s not like that. What if there is magic but it’s just as messy and ambivalent as everything else in a policeman’s life. I like the idea of cops going in and thinking, ‘not more magic’.”
Ben was born and raised in London, where he still resides, and his love for the city is reflected throughout his brilliantly funny fantasy crime series. The depiction of London and exploration of its rich history is achieved with such vivid detail, it will broaden the knowledge of any Londoner. He is also keen to present the real London, one of multi-cultures that he has always known.
“London has always been this way, I grew up like this. I didn’t realise that it [multiculturalism] was unusual until the first time I went outside into the countryside and all the shops are run by white people. I’m a Londoner you see, and I have constantly been writing my city the way I see it. In my television work people were constantly taking the characters out but I’m afraid that’s the way it goes”.
Through his books however, Ben has been able to portray and explore the many vibrant cultures that make London the rich and diverse melting pot that it is.
This affection for – and knowledge of – London is born out through our narrator and main protagonist, PC Peter Grant. He has a passion for architecture and history, that historical and mythological knowledge of London and the Thames Valley seeps into the narrative, making it engaging and interesting.
This is a vital component to the story, as Ben explains: “If you’re going to describe the urban environment, you need someone who knows what things are called.” Peter knows his “1930s semi from his Victorian terrace. You can take any Londoner, blindfold them, drive them and drop them off and they can probably tell you how far out of the centre they are by the architecture. But the difference is Peter can tell you why the architecture is different.”
Peter is an informed observer just like the police officers in his stories. “If you think of one characteristic police have, it is a tendency to just spot things. I asked about this when doing my research, I said ‘how come policemen are such good observers? The answer is simple, because people work at it.”
“There’s nothing more embarrassing than sitting down for a drink in a pub and finding later that some known criminal that everyone is looking for was sitting in front of you and you didn’t spot them. You will never hear the end of it. You bloody well make sure you know who everyone is and I thought, yeah, that makes perfect sense. It’s not a natural skill, it’s something they pick up”, he added.
Another key aspect of these books is Peter’s funny and (occasionally) sarcastic voice and how he often dwells on the rules of being a police officer, and how he tries to understand the magic while attempting to make it fit into police procedurals. The depiction and description of Police work is true to form, with an emphasis on the systematic procedural side of the job which Ben has always had a fondness for.
“I’ve always liked police procedurals, with an emphasis on the procedurals. I never liked people who break all the rules. I like watching people painstakingly solve crimes through doing things. But the other aspect of that is, if you are going to write a supernatural thriller, the more realistic the policing, the more interesting the clash between the supernatural and the policing is”, he says.
“If there is one thing that Peter wants to do, it is to bring order out of chaos on impulse. He will make these two worlds fit together whether they want to or not. That’s his mission in life”, he adds.
“The more realistic the policing is, the easier it is to sell the supernatural. People just accept because Peter has to fill in the paperwork about how he fought a vampire. It somehow sells the vampire.”
Ben’s preference for police procedures and methodical detail has paid dividend; not only has the public received a fascinating and unique series of supernatural thrillers but he is chuffed by the feedback he has received from people connected to policing.
“The best feedback I got was from a woman at a signing quite early on; the first book I think. She came up to me and said, ‘my old man, he worked in the MET for over 30 years and he read this and he said he worked with every policeman in the book’. So never mind the procedurals or anything else if I’ve got the basic characters right and people are recognizing those they have worked with in the characters. That’s the best thing that anyone’s ever said to me as a writer, it’s the best compliment.”
With six books already released and a seventh due out in the next 12 months, the series is fully established and future tales of Peter Grant look destined to continue. While there is no plan set in stone for the series, Ben is enjoying writing the books and has no intention to stop penning them.
“I will probably keep writing them until I’m dead. I very carefully made sure Peter Grant is much younger than me. I don’t have to write that tricky story when he turns 55 and has to retire. By the time he reaches mandatory retirement age I will be dead so it’s not something I have to worry about it”, he jokes.
Adding: “I would like to write some other stuff sooner or later, provided I get some time that is. I’m really enjoying it [these books] and if people want to keep reading them, I will keep writing them. It will go on and on until people become sick of them.”
Ben Aaronvitch’s Peter Grant series and graphic novels are available from all good book stores.