While investigating a bizarre murder, young London police officer Peter Grant gets assigned to the department that handled the supernatural investigations in the city. Pete Grant is a probationary constable in the London police department, working on getting his permanent assignment. The night before his placing there is a brutal beheading in front of St. Paul's Cathedral. He and his fellow officer Lesley May are put on duty guarding the scene of the crime late into the night. During his watch Pete sees a ghost, who introduces himself as Nicholas Wallpenny, and claims to have witnessed the crime.
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Pete tells Lesley, who is skeptical but helps him investigate on the clues provided. They find CCTV footage that confirms most of what the ghost said; that a man walked past the victim, then suddenly returned and knocked his head clean off his shoulders. The weapon was a large stick that seemed to appear out of nowhere and the man's face seemed to transform into a strange mask just before the attack.
Needing more answers Peter goes back to the scene to see if he can find the ghost again, but instead runs into an odd Detective named Nightingale who doesn't seem surprised when Pete mentions the ghost.
Pete goes in for his placement interview, fully expecting to get a desk assignment, since he has a reputation for being easily distracted. Instead, he is surprised to get assigned to a division he hasn't heard of before, working under Nightingale. Nightingale quickly reveals to him that magic is real, and that this division is a sort of an X-files department, secret from the public but under the full authority of the police and government. Pete moves into his new workplace, an old mansion nicknamed the Folly where Nightingale works alone save for an uncanny mute housekeeper named Molly.
The investigation into the murder continues, with the CCTV footage seeming to reveal that the assailant was a man named Coopertown, who had received a dog bite from the victim's dog a few days earlier. Lesley and Peter visit Coopertown's home but he is away on business and his wife claims that the dog bit was not serious, just making Coopertown laugh at the time.
A few days later Lesley and Peter head over to Coopertown's house to question him when he gets back from his trip but arrive just in time to witness him throwing his infant child out of the window and murdering his wife. They manage to prevent him from escaping but he collapses and dies, his face a collapsed into a complete ruin.
Nightingale reveals that the cause is a spell called 'dissimulo' that alters the features, but which causes more damage the longer it is used. In the autopsy his brain is shrunken and shriveled, the effect of too much magic. Nightingale speculates that the spell must have been kept up for days, but can't fathom a reason the man would do this to himself. They conclude that the spell must have been cast on him by someone else.
On his new assignment Pete starts learning to detect magic residue known as 'vestigium' and to cast basic spells.
Meanwhile Peter and Nightingale are called on a few other supernatural incidents, one involving a household destroyed by vampires, and the other a turf war between rivers spirits. It turns out that each river has its own god or spirit, with the Thames currently divided into two sections; one ruled by Mama Thames and the other by Father Thames.
Pete is sent to talk to Mama Thames who turns out to be a Nigerian woman who took on the role in 1957 when Father Thames abandoned the section of the river encompassed by the majority of the city proper. He also meets one of her daughters, Beverly Brook, who is a river spirit as well of one of the rivers of London.
Later Beverly tips him off to a bizarre violent incident at a hospital, which resembles the Coopertown murder. A bike courier attacked a doctor for no apparent reason and then ran off. They investigate and determine that it'll probably end like the first murder, escalating to a beheading. They try to head off the attack by staking out the doctor and waiting for the courier. But when he shows up a second altercation erupts nearby with two bystanders getting into a fight for no reason. Pete is unable to prevent the attack, and the courier's face suffers the same catastrophic collapse that Coopertown's did. Pete now suspects that there's a sort of magical infection happening, and traces several other strange violent episodes involving strangers or people with no history of violence.
Meanwhile Pete is tasked with helping bring peace between the rivers. He and Nightingale go visit Father Thames and Pete meets Oxley, one of Father Thames' sons, and his wife Isis. They welcome him and seem wistful for the city, which the feud between the rivers has made off limits. Peter gets an idea and later takes Beverly to visit them, under a vague plan to broker a peace between the families, using the logic that the rivers are all ultimately connected. It seems to go well, but when he returns to London one of Beverly's sisters, the Tyburn confronts him and tries to subdue him with magic, displeased with his presumption.
Pete manages to escape from harm but knows he has to tread carefully with the rivers. Meanwhile his studies go forward, he can cast a few spells now and is trying to figure out why casting a spell messes with nearby electronics. He eventually figures out that magic follows similar laws that thermodynamics, and that casting a spell requires power source. That's why electronics, and given enough time, humans, are drained in the presence of a spell.
At a impasse in the original investigation Pete goes back to the start and finds Wallpenny again, who tells him about Henry Pyke, an 18th Century actor who was murdered by a fellow actor named Charles Macklin, whose ghost is said to haunt the Opera.
The next evening Pete is out with Lesley and they see a Punch and Judy show. He is stunned to realize the murders are following the same pattern as the classic Punch show. He tells Nightingale and they look up the story to see how it continues, there are multiple versions but in the most common Punch is arrested next. They decide to insert themselves into the narrative by getting a warrant and Pete playing the arresting constable.
They get a warrant from a ghost judge, who subsists off of the magic given him in return for these sorts of transactions. They go to the Opera House near where Pyke was murdered expecting to re-enact the next chapter in the puppet show, but instead Nightingale is shot in the back by a random, presumably possessed theatergoer. With Nightingale in a coma the Folly is put under armed guard and Pete under suspension pending an investigation, the other officers vary in their support or distrust of the magical elements and Pete's only official allies are now Lesley and the coroner.
Pete continues the investigation on the down low, with the rest of the police department turning a blind eye but unofficially wanting him to sort it out. Pete now figures someone had to have tipped Pyke off, knowing or unknowingly, since the only people who knew about the trap were police. He goes back and traces the investigation and realizes that Lesley was at every scene. He realizes she must have been possessed on the first night, nearly three months ago.
Pete calls Beverly and they go find to find Lesley, who is at the Opera. He tries to stop her, hoping to subdue her with drugs so she doesn't transform and lose her face the way the previous victims have. However she spots him and rushes the stage, the band starts playing Punch and Judy music and he realizes the entire cast and audience are under the influence of a spell. Pyke, in the body of Lesley, is clearly hoping to find and revenge himself on the ghost of his murderer, Charles Macklin.
Peter pretends to be a character in the play, Punch's executioner Jack Ketch, in order to get close to Lesley but is overcome. Pyke riles up the entire audience into a riot that spills out into the streets, causing mayhem and fires.
Pete eventually heads home exhausted, but wondering how it's possible that a simple ghost like Pyke has so much power, and why his revenge is taking such a strange turn. On the tube home a possessed man starts laughing and declares himself to be Mr. Punch, the spirit of riot and rebellion. Pete realizes that Pyke is just a convenient conduit for this spirit.
The next day Pete receives a call from the hospital, Nightingale is awake and asking for him. Pete goes to see him and they discuss the new revelations, Nightingale tells Pete there is a way to hunt Punch down but it will need the help of Molly, and therefore requires getting access to the Folly once more.
Pete visits Mama Thames with a tribute and gets her to order Tyburn to open the mansion to him.
Back at the Folly, Pete tells Molly the plan. She agrees and sinks her teeth into him, as under her influence he drifts back in time through earlier ages in London, He heads to where Pyke was murdered hoping to discover where his body is buried so they can exorcise it. However he is astonished to see that Pyke is in fact one and the same as Wallpenny. He has been playing him from the start.
He chases him down and they go farther back into history right to the very start of the city of London. There he witnesses a ceremony taking place at the river, and sees that the priest officiating it is none other than Father Thames. He looks as though he has been expecting him and hands Pete a spear. Pete uses it to kill Mr. Punch, effectively sacrificing him to the river.
Pete regains consciousness in the Folly, he is weak and retreats to his room where he finds Lesley, still possessed by Pyke. Pete confronts the ghost and realizes the spirit is mostly unaware of the mayhem he has caused, mostly obsessed with his performance and legacy. Pete convinces him that it's time to exit the stage and Pyke departs, leaving Lesley injured but alive.
Finally, Pete negotiates between the two Thames families, working out a hostage exchange in the medieval fashion. Beverly will go live in the country with her cousins, and one of the rural rivers will live in the city, both under equal threat and protection of the other's family. The new agreement seems to please everyone, particularly Oxley and Isis who are delighted to be able to travel into London for entertainment again.
Best part of story, including ending:
The mythology is very cool, and leaves a lot of room to tell stories about the power struggles between the rivers as well as the supernatural cop stories.
Best scene in story:
The initial outing with Nightingale and Pete when he starts learning about the rivers, and all the supernatural creatures that are real, is well done. The way they cover it up with mundane police jargon once it's sorted sets the tone for how the Folly and the rest of the authorities interact.
Opinion about the main character:
He's basically a nerdy guy with an action oriented job, which makes it interesting to see how his naturally inquisitive inclinations rub up against or work with his police job.