Believe it or not, I've just read yet another contemporary urban fantasy featuring supernatural doings in London! You could (almost) fill a shelf with books which fall into that category – as I've said before, it's creating a sub-genre all of its own.
This one is called London Falling and is by Paul Cornell. Unlike most of the others, the story starts out as a straightforward (and rather gritty) police procedural featuring undercover police officers pursuing a mysteriously untouchable gang leader, and remains that way for the first few chapters. Then the police are shocked and baffled by a spectacular death for which they can find no practical or medical explanation, and a special unit is set up to investigate the circumstances.
We know, of course ('cos we've read the blurb), that the explanation for the death is decidedly supernatural, but the police have no idea that such a thing is possible. Not until they stumble across a horrific find when searching for the potential killer do they begin to realise what they are up against, and then they become involved in a way they had never dreamed (or rather, nightmared). As the only people who have any understanding of what is going on, they battle against the odds to catch the formidable killer. They have to adapt their normal police procedures to try to track down the villain, who has a close and decidedly macabre connection with a certain London football club. The tension racks up as their struggle becomes intensely personal, stretching the team to the limit.
The four members of the special unit – two undercover officers, an intelligence analyst and a senior officer in charge – are thoroughly realised and complex characters, with their histories and motivations gradually emerging as the story develops. Although the senior officer (Detective Inspector Quill) is given "top billing", they are in practice given equal treatment by the author, the story's viewpoint switching between them. Even the principal villain is given space for a not unsympathetic explanation of the events that had resulted in the development of this terrifying individual. The conclusion is satisfying while at the same time setting the scene for the next book in what is planned to be a series, under the overall heading of Shadow Police.
London Falling is the first novel by Paul Cornell, but he is by no means new to SFF. To quote from his website: "Paul Cornell is a writer of science fiction and fantasy in prose, comics and TV, one of only two people to be Hugo Award-nominated for all three media. He’s written Doctor Who for the BBC, Action Comics for DC, and Wolverine for Marvel. He’s won the BSFA Award for his short fiction, an Eagle Award for his comics, and shares in a Writer’s Guild Award for his television." He brings all of this experience to bear in a most impressive way and I am very much looking forward to reading the next Shadow Police instalment, The Severed Streets, already out in hardback.
How does this compare with the other London fantasies I've been reading? Not an easy question to answer, as they are all very different. Jacka's Alex Verus stories are the most fun – relatively light, quick reads – with Aaronovitch's Rivers of London series being the closest in style and content to Cornell's work. London Falling manages to stay more in touch with reality than the others, with the team remaining more or less grounded in the real world of police work, even though they are permanently changed by their experiences. Looked at as a piece of literary craftsmanship, Cornell clearly has the edge on the others, and I'd be surprised if he didn't pick up some more awards to add to his collection.