Matt Brown, editor of Londonist.com, tells us his thoughts on some of the captivating novels set in London:
No place on Earth has attracted the writer’s pen as enduringly, multifariously and emphatically as London. The city is intimately bound with its literature. Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, Mary Poppins and Peter Pan have all achieved super-icon status, and are familiar to billions around the globe. All are Londoners. Harry Potter, too, has strong capital connections. This is the city of Shakespeare, Dickens, Wilde and Woolf. Can you think of any other cities whose fiction reaches so far?
This pool is also unfathomably deep. Every month sees the publication of a dozen or more novels set in London, across all genres. Some bookshops have started London fiction sections, as though the city could form a major genre like ‘crime’ or ‘horror’. There are even books about the books (Merlin Coverley’s London Writing is an excellent example). Where does one begin?
I’m no literary critic. My tastes are quite mainstream. But I perhaps have an unusual perspective, given that my day-job and great passion in life is to explore London. I’d therefore like to share a few of my favourites. Not all are literary masterpieces, but every one presents a memorable vision of the city.
Let’s start with the kind of literature that wins posh awards, and always makes it into articles. I’d have to recommend two very different classics. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf drifts through a day in the life of the titular Mrs D as she prepares to host a party. Its emphasis on characters’ thoughts rather than actions, and the famous descriptions of London locations, lodge the book in the mind like a dark dream. London Fields by Martin Amis, meanwhile, is a gritty, horrible book of despicable characters, unreliable narratives, and an ending revealed in the first few pages - yet you’ll struggle to find a more masterly London novel. Patrick Hamilton’s two most famous works, Hangover Square and Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky (actually a loose trilogy), should also be read for his depictions of loneliness and the everyman’s struggle in the early 20th Century city.
Historical fiction is often forgotten in discussions about the capital’s literature. Although it wanders all over the world, Neal Stephenson’s sprawling Baroque Cycle has many key scenes in Stuart-era London, whether it’s courtly intrigue, members of the nascent Royal Society cutting up dogs, or a zip-wire plunge from the Monument (not involving Boris Johnson). CJ Sansom’s Shardlake novels, about a hunchback lawyer in the time of Henry VIII, are also nourishing.
The London crime genre is almost entirely dominated, at least in the popular imagination, by Sherlock Holmes (here’s a map I made of all the London locations from the stories, should you be interested). But there is room for other detectives. Among my favourites are Christopher Fowler’s Bryant & May novels, which feature two octogenarian sleuths who investigate London’s more peculiar crimes. Macabre whodunnits, these stories also incorporate London settings in almost tangible detail. I feel like I might one day bump into the aged detectives, who tend to visit my favourite pubs and hangouts.
The fantasy genre seems to be particularly bounteous, drawing heavily on our city’s surfeit of fogs, secret underground spaces and existing mythology. Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere is usually ranked chief among such books, and was recently adapted for radio. If you enjoyed that, check out China Mieville’s The Kraken, about the theft of the Natural History Museum’s giant squid specimen by a group of cephalopod worshipers - it’s a challenging read, but rammed with ideas. The Borribles trilogy by Michael de Larrabeiti is also recommended: the first volume is basically Lord of the Rings set in Wandsworth and Wimbledon, and features a bloody battle to the death with some thinly disguised Wombles. Mad, but brilliant.
I could go on. And on, singing the virtues of other favourite books from Sarah Wise, Ian McEwan, Monica Ali, Zadie Smith and Dickens himself. But I’ll finish on my absolute favourite work of fiction about London. From Hell, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Eddie Chapman, is essentially a graphic novel about the Ripper murders. But the complex narrative takes London’s biggest mystery and makes it yet more mysterious, weaving in Masonic rituals, Blakean visitations, suggestions of time travel, and (that now-cliched staple of London fiction) a pentagram of Hawksmoor churches. The appendix of notes at the back is almost as thick as the story, and just as compelling to read.
Matt Brown is editor of Londonist.com, a web site about London and everything in it. @MattFromLondon, @Londonist.
You can find out more about London-based novels in our event London Fictions on 18 April 2013 with authors Courttia Newland, Cathi Unsworth, Jerry White and Ken Worpole. The event will be chaired by Andrew Whitehead.
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