I swear I don't go trawling for mystery novels with operatic content: they just seem to find me. The latest, which I finished at an unspeakable hour this morning, is Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London, the first in his Peter Grant series and sent to me in Kindle form by my friend Marian, the most voracious reader I know and possibly the only person left in the world who's game enough to give me books for Christmas. So far she has always been spot on.
This one, as she warned me, was not exactly my usual style. Which is to say: it was published within the last decade, is set in the present (not the Wimsey-Poirot-Alleyn '30s) and features magic. I'm not really a magic kind of girl – Harry Potter excepted – but the blurb made it sound like grown-up Harry meets Thursday Next, and since it came with Marian's recommendation, I plunged right in.
She told me I might like the London-centricity of it and she was right. I've always loved the little frisson of recognition when you spot a place you know in a work of fiction; I still remember how excited I was a decade or so ago when I read The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas while actually in Paris, and realised – from the book rather than my own explorations – that Gertrude and Alice's house was just around the corner from the Alliance Française building where I was doing daily battle with le subjonctif.
Likewise, then, the game of Been There Bingo I could play with this book. Because as it turns it out, the bulk of the action takes place in the one part of London I know better than any other: the streets between Covent Garden and the ENO, basically. Aaronovitch apparently used to work at the Covent Garden Waterstones – one of my favourite places for pre-show loitering and last minute purchase of opening night cards – so I guess it's no surprise he started there. New Row, Henrietta Street, St Martin's Court and the Piazza itself all provide the backdrop – and a fairly detailed and interactive one at that – for various Bad Things. The magic elements might be fantastical, the setting is deliciously real.
All of this would have been fodder enough for my London fetish but it gets better. I don't want to spoil anything, but let's just say there's a fairly key scene which takes place actually in the ROH during a performance of – of all things – Billy Budd. Not that it's ever identified by its title (at least I don't think it is) but opera types will pick it straight away. To be fair, it's more for the necessary presence of a particular prop than for a love of Britten that Aaronovitch has chosen this particular piece, but still: kudos to him for doing his research and, it would appear, actually attending the opera before writing about it. His descriptions of the audience, while not entirely cliché-free, are preferable to some, and I particularly liked the semi-quasi cameo by someone I choose to believe was Neil Fisher. Ruth Elleson's probably in there somewhere too, come to think of it.
In the end, the operatic content here is more about local colour than music, and there's just as much esoteric geography – probably more – for experts on rivers and mythology as there is for opera buffs. But still. It was an excellent surprise in a book I would have thoroughly enjoyed anyway: it's well written, funny and handles the magical components with a clever mix of invention, science and literary tradition. Aaronovitch is also a screenwriter with a few Doctor Who connections, and both those things are reflected in his writing; there are scenes in Rivers of London which just scream out to be filmed, and at least one direct nod to the Doctor, not to mention a not-dissimilar sense of humour even in the face of unfathomable cosmic peril.
A magical mystery for opera buffs? Not really. But for opera buffs who like police procedurals, lighthearted fantasy, and London – in whatever configuration – the Covent Garden antics are a delightful bonus.