In Stephen Greengard’s essay “Cover Story”, which can be found in The Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts (Vol. 7), he states: “It seems ironic — so many great, important ideas, the products of the finest minds of humanity, wrapped in pieces of whimsical, brilliantly coloured paper which determines the value, rather than the quality of the thought it was originally meant to protect.” When I received Paul Cornell’s London Falling I was expecting a simple, understated cover. Instead, I got a glossy jacket with raised lettering and George R. R. Martin praising the author in a blurb on the back. My expectations were instantly heightened, and if I had done my homework on the already famous Cornell, who is maybe best known for writing episodes of Doctor Who, I wouldn’t have been so surprised by the mainstream qualities of this paperback. This is always an interesting factor to consider before reading any book — even on a subconscious level — but don’t let the slick cover fool you too much. Cornell’s effort here isn’t precisely mainstream material.
London Falling begins with James Quill and his team who successfully apprehend their prime suspect, Rob Toshack, in a major drug bust. Unfortunately, Toshack suffers a bizarre and grizzly death whilst in custody, and quickly Cornell turns crime fiction into urban fantasy as he takes us on a journey through London’s dark and spiritual underbelly. The question is: what works and what doesn’t?
What I like most about this book is it doesn’t take itself too seriously. A good example of this is Toshack’s mysterious death: “[Toshack] looked to be trying to scream without even being able to open his mouth. His face had gone purple, and he looked completely full of blood. Quill imagined cartoon steam coming off him and, just for a moment, he swore he actually saw it. […] The blood exploded into Quill’s face. […] Great gouts of blood, far too much, flew around him, covering the furniture, the tape recorder, the room, as if a bucket of it had been thrown over him.” This dark humour is reminiscent of early Stephen King — such as Carrie, Night Shift and Christine — and even Chuck Palahniuk (everyone laughs and cringes at the infamous “Guts” from Haunted, even if, like me, you’re not a Palahniuk fan). Yet when you consider that the author has written episodes of Doctor Who, not to mention an impressive bibliography of work for Marvel Comics and DC Comics, this tongue-in-cheek violence is perhaps not so surprising, but still a notable touch.
If there was one criticism of London Falling, however, it would be the dialogue. In On Writing, Stephen King states: “When dialogue is right, we know. When it’s wrong we also know — it jags on the ear like a badly tuned musical instrument.” For Cornell, his dialogue, at least here, does have a tendency to jag. It is, unfortunately, less believable than the other elements of his writing and for a story that is rooted so deeply in London and its distinctive culture, nailing down the dialogue is crucial. Although Cornell is incredibly talented at setting the scene, he isn’t as gifted in capturing dialect in the same way as, for example, a Truman Capote or a Cormac McCarthy.
Despite these shortcomings, I would still find it difficult not to recommend London Falling. It’s an interesting slab of urban fantasy, and with locations going from Croydon, to Gypsy Hill, to Nunhead Cemetery, there is something pleasantly familiar about the book’s geography. Sure, I was a little disappointed with the dialogue, but it doesn’t make this novel any less enjoyable. Not unless you take yourself too seriously, that is. It’s a fun story, so my advice would be just to roll with it.
London Falling is available now