Dave Probert review a new entry in the urban fantasy police procedural sub-genre.
Poison City • Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton • RRP: £14.99 • Author: Paul Crilley • Published: 2016-08-11
Gideon Tau is a detective in the Durban branch of Delphic Division which polices supernatural activity in South Africa. When assigned to the murder of a vampire, Tau discovers that the case may have links to his daughter’s kidnapping and uncovers a plot that has the potential to unmake the world. On the way he will raise the dead, fight with angels and offer himself up to gods. Then he is offered a choice. Stand back and let existence burn in return for taking his revenge.
The field of books within the sub-genre of supernatural police procedural is expanding with Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series leading the way. Now Paul Crilley has thrown his hat into the ring with this South African set novel that is by turns intriguing and disappointing.
The world that is built up in the first half is interesting and its use of Orisha as the primary source of supernatural activity marks it out from the European magical mythology of some other books in the genre. Some Orisha even work at Delphic Division as a means of serving out their sentence for crimes committed. This is not the small scale operation of books like Rivers of London or Paul Cornell’s Shadow Police series. Delphic Division is shown to be a fully functioning, fully funded department of the government and Tau is an experienced detective within it. This leads to the opening chapters of the book being a little exposition heavy as there is no audience insertion character to explain things to, but it is an interesting set up with plenty of background characters and has the feel of a functioning police force.
Unfortunately, and somewhat confusingly, having established all of this so well Crilley then puts it all up on a shelf somewhere and instead we get yet another troubled maverick cop story. Gideon Tau (who may as well be called Tortured McKickass) has stepped fully formed from the book of maverick cop clichés. He drinks, he’s estranged from his wife, he has a troubled past, he’s seen as something of a loose cannon but despite all of his flaws he gets the job done. There are a million characters like this out there and Gideon Tau has little to mark him out from the crowd and the elements that might are barely mentioned. For instance at one point Tau takes on an assassination squad single handed. Tau is a magic user and it is established that he carries a wand. You might think that this tactical advantage would be useful when you are outnumbered and out-gunned. Instead he just fights and shoots his way through them which, while showing how kickass he is, feels like a wasted opportunity to do something different.
About halfway through the book the story pretty much abandons any pretence of being a police procedural and instead reveals itself as an action thriller with supernatural trappings, and Gideon Tau to be the angel punching equivalent of Jack Reacher or Dirk Pitt. That isn’t to suggest that there is anything wrong with this, but the narrative leads the reader up the garden path before revealing its hand. Not knowing that this is where it is going, it can be a hollow experience. Tau goes from set piece to set piece taking on powerful beings with little sense that he is in any real jeopardy and no matter the battering he appears to take, he mostly walks away with little more than a bit of a limp.
What makes this extra frustrating is that while all of this is happening centre stage, Crilley has created a couple of characters who are really enjoyable. The first is Armitage, Tau’s boss at Delphic Division. Armitage is a middle aged woman from the North of England now heading up the Division in Durban. All of her scenes are a breath of fresh air as she stands for none of Tau’s nonsense. This is a woman who will throw things at him in briefings if he gives her any lip. While the plain speaking, chain smoking northern woman is a cliché in itself, putting it in this kind of story feels new and interesting. She becomes Tau's sidekick along with his familiar who is a dog. Dog, as he prefers to be called, is the creature from the other world ostensibly assigned to be Tau’s guide. In reality Dog drinks cheap sherry, watches trashy TV all day and getting any help out of him at all is hard work. There are moments in the book when Armitage and Dog are literally left waiting in the car while Tau does his thing. It is hard not to feel that the book would have improved immeasurably if Tau had been forced to wait in the car instead.
This is a rollercoaster ride of good and bad things. On the plus side the story explores some interesting ideas about the nature of sin and God’s relationship to it, as well as how the memory of sin affects people. On the negative side, it contains one of the most gratuitous and over-the-top fridgings of a female character you’re likely to read in a contemporary genre novel.
Poison City isn’t the hard boiled noir that its cover and marketing campaign would have you believe. It is an airport book with a clichéd lead character and increasingly outlandish action scenes. It is a genre that could do with a supernatural twist and it may have benefited the book to lean into those aspects more. There is certainly nothing wrong with doing that and indeed many will find it enjoyable for precisely that reason. Be aware of that in advance and you may have some fun with this.