What is it about London? It’s gone from tribal village to Roman outpost to symbol of Britain. There are thousands of stories about the city and its people. The very stones bleed history, it seems, and you can’t dig foundations for a new building without accidentally hitting a coin cache or a tomb or forgotten temple. Paul Cornell takes that sense of history and runs with it in his stellar novel, London Falling.
The novel begins with a scene from the grittiest of mysteries. Undercover police officers Costain and Sefton are in a car with crime lord, Rob Toshack. Toshack’s rise has been unprecedented. He’s consolidates gangs and rackets and scams all across London. No one stands against him. The police have been investigating him for years, but they can’t find any evidence against the man. As the book opens, it’s New Year’s Eve and the plug is about to be pulled on Operation Goodfellow. It’s Costain and Sefton’s last chance to get Toshack to admit to something. Toshack is panicking, but refuses to say what he’s after as he races with his team across the boroughs of London. When the clock hits midnight, the Metropolitan Police move in and arrest everyone. Toshack is brought into the interview room. Startlingly, he ignores his lawyers advice and starts to confess to all his suspected crimes. Detective Inspector Quill is eagerly taping the whole thing then Toshack’s head explodes.
Toshack would never speak of his “freelancers,” the people he called in to take care of the special jobs that always ended up with someone dying messily. DI Quill, Costain, Sefton, and analyst Ross are pulled into a new, covert team to continue investigating Toshack. Ross is brilliant at finding patters in mountains of data and—being Toshack’s niece—she knows for a fact that he was guilty. The evidence they have been able to find leads the team into strange territory. They discover that Toshack was merely the public face of a greater terror. The freelancer was a witch, a warped, unreasonable spellcaster who also uses her powers to kill footballers who score a hat trick against West Ham United.
As Operation Toto (because they’re not in Kansas anymore) digs even deeper into the mystery of Mora Losley, they find that they’re afflicted with the Sight. They can see the ghosts of London. They can see the corruption that Losley has spread during her very long life. They don’t even have first principles to fall back on. Sefton and the rest have to figure out how this new ability works as well as find a way to destroy an apparently immortal witch.
London Falling was a fascinating read for me. I love stories about the mythical side of London. (Neverwhere is one of my absolute favorites.) The characters are distinctly and beautifully drawn. Cornell shows a deft hand as he lets the members of Toto take turns telling this story, giving the whole tale a rich feeling of depth and history.