Imagine you are reading a developed, dark mystery series, tracking a killer brutally slashing his victims until they die. Say you are following around Matthew Scudder as he walks the streets of New York City, questioning prostitutes, greasing a palm or two and generally throwing back a whiskey whenever able. Then imagine Scudder gets a lead, goes to the meet in a dark alley, and discovers the informant is James Patterson. Worse, Patterson lurks in the corner of the alley, watching while some toughs beat the stuffing out of Scudder.
Cornell did something similar in The Severed Streets, and for the life of me, I cannot let it go. It’s a messy, fourth-wall-breaking action that destroys the both the atmosphere of danger and the serious emotional tone of the story. Even worse, the guest star reappears not one but twice later, with an implication of involvement in future events.
Until that appearance, The Severed Streets was shaping up to be a notable improvement over the first book, London Falling (my review). It begins when London’s supernatural police team hears about a messy locked-car murder of a prominent politician and is sure the details fit one of their special cases. Investigation of the scene proves they are right, but as they start to make extensions into the hidden world of London’s occult practitioners, another message leads them to consider Jack the Ripper as prime suspect. The team will have to go undercover chasing leads from seedy bars to Parliament in order to find the cause of the killings, and the increase in London’s unrest.
Narrative is limited third person, switching primarily between the four members of the team: lead Detective Inspector James Quill, undercover specialists Kev Sefton and Tony Costain, and support from intelligence analyst Ross, but occasionally including viewpoints from victims, informants and suspects. As a device, I generally dislike it, feeling it’s a cheap technique to develop tension and provide information in one easy shot, but Cornell does it better here. Congruity is obtained by focusing primarily on Quill and Ross, and by limiting the non-team viewpoints to a few pages.
“So today was going to be a bit different and he was now in the mental space he associated with being undercover, lightly wearing a role which could basically be described as ‘definitely not a policeman.’”
The writing stood out this time. At one point early on I had thought of taking notes, as several phrases impressed me, but talked myself out of it on the theory I would re-read. Since re-reading is most definitely out, I’ll have to resort to skimming. Such a good job of developing atmosphere, complexity of emotion and the London setting. Sigh. There is a sense of humor in the mix, but it is the dark humor of someone who sees too much of the callous, selfish side of humanity. I certainly smiled at points, but as I’m a practitioner of that school of humor, it appeals. I did think it avoided poor taste.
“A few of them were, even now, giving each other high fives and laughing. But most of them looked grim. Quill looked at their emotion and again felt distant copper annoyance at bloody people. He used to joke that without people his job would be a lot easier. But now he supposed he couldn’t even say that.”
There’s political undertones in the setting, with masked protestors appearing in flash mobs throughout the city. Quite a bit of the vernacular is British slang and British police speech, so it takes a little extra though process if you are an ignorant American. It wasn’t incomprehensible, however.
So, do I recommend it? I don’t know. Besides breaking that fourth wall, there’s a bit that was an emotional shocker. I guess that’s a compliment, right, an author that can evoke that kind of emotion? It really was a four star plus read until that guest came along and ruined the world-building. I can’t imagine what Cornell was thinking, except perhaps that he could treat a two-book UF mystery series like a Dr. Who special? I don’t know, but can attest that it didn’t work.