Best Of…No.2: London Novels

London, Reading & Writing

Here’s a fistful of great London novels, or rather great novels that happen to be set in London. It’s surprising how many of them have very dark subject matter, and all have a great atmosphere.

‘Our Mutual Friend’ – Charles Dickens
The obvious choice would be ‘Bleak House’, but I love this immense work almost as much, with its detective story structure, its corpse-robbers, dustheaps and lost wills – and of course the Thames winds through the tale, supplying work and snuffing out lives as the inherited money spreads out to all corners of London society.

‘The Tiger In The Smoke’ – Margery Allingham
The chase to track Jack Havoc, jail-breaker and knife artist, in the London fog is as densely confusing as the choking gloom through which he carves his way. Then there’s that central image of a hopping, running band of ragtag musicians silhouetted in the murk that stays beyond the conclusion. It’s a dark, strange ‘Deep London’ read.

‘Hangover Square’ – Patrick Hamilton
In Earl’s Court, poor hopeless George Harvey Bone waits hand and foot on the repellent Netta and her equally awful friends as they cadge fags and drinks from bar to bar. She’s forever asking him for money then ridiculing him, and we wait for Bone, who we know to be a schizophrenic fighting his impulse to kill, to finally snap…(Hollywood filmed it – above – and made it a period piece, weirdly)

‘Night and the City’ – Gerald Kersh
The grim downward spiral of Harry Fabian, Soho hustler, living off his prostitute girlfriend in a world of gambling and blackmail – much-admired key London noir, but rather depressing.

‘King Dido’ – Alexander Baron
A thrilling, heartbreaking gangster novel that explains how the East End got its reputation as Baron’s sympathetic hero fights for his street and family, and is eventually broken by the passing times, with a devastating coda. One of the greatest London novels, and the least well-known.

‘Caught’ – Henry Green
One of the great Blitz novels as the fireman hero finds heroism but also sexual opportunism and human weakness in fire-ravaged London. The end passage about the full horror of the Blitz is brilliant, although Green’s writing is characteristically cold.

‘The Great God Pan’ – Arthur Machen
This strange occult novella in which Villiers hunts down a demonic woman who supernaturally corrupts men and destroys them seems to be set in an alternative London, and is filled with nameless dread. I seem to remember that she turns into a putrid puddle of jelly at the end.

‘Toward The End Of The Morning’ – Michael Frayn
An utterly useless obituary writer in Fleet Street is invited to appear on a panel and seizes his chance of fame – but this is really a comic novel about a type of journalist who has now disappeared forever, and is effortlessly hilarious.

‘The Heat of the Day’ – Elizabeth Bowen
Another wartime novel, but one concerned like Virginia Woolf (whose ‘Mrs Dalloway’ should be here) with an upper class woman, in this case one facing life in a depopulated, bombed-out city haunted by its own past and the possibility that her lover is a traitor.

‘New Grub Street’ – George Gissing
Two writers in literary London face a bleak future; one struggles for his art, the other handles commercialism easily and plays the system. It all ends very badly, but the most interesting roles are taken by a range of well-drawn London characters in the background. Not my favourite London novel but I can see why many people like it.

I could easily have chosen another twenty great novels, but this is enough to be getting on with!

22 comments on “Best Of…No.2: London Novels”

  1. keith page says:

    How about ‘Mother London’ by Michael Moorcck?

  2. Dan Terrell says:

    The Great God Pan – Trying to remember, My recall is a muddle, But I think you are right, She ends up a puddle.
    The rest I haven’t got to, nut will print this one out.

  3. Dan Terrell says:

    Ah sigh.
    Well, I may be a “nut”, but was going for “but”.
    Perhaps, 6:22 without coffee yet is too early.

  4. Matt Brown says:

    We did a poll on the best London novel a while back. The overall winner was The Borribles…mostly because a naughty Borrible hijacked the poll.
    http://londonist.com/2010/02/which_is_the_best_london_novel_the.php

  5. Alan G says:

    “Tiger in the Smoke”. I recall it as being a little dense for a 13 year old (my Dad (who is having a pacemaker fitted in an hour or so – so please send wishes, prayers, goat sacrifice – whatever)- anyway my Dad always insisted that, since I could read, I should read whatever I wanted. With some strange exceptions. I Claudius was fine but the Reggie Perrin books were firmly locked in his study.

    But I still recall quite vividly the denouement of “Tiger” with the priest in the church at night – and the knife artist. Their discussion of “philosophy of luck” was fascinating and I suspect it led to my degree.

  6. Dan Terrell says:

    I for one will think positive thoughts.
    My Father had a mild heart attack that drew me back from Indonesia fast. Fortunately, he recovered well.
    Wish your father the best. The procedure he will have/had is usually not too difficult or dangerous now.
    I also was lucky with my reading, as my parents let me consume anything around. I Claudius at 9 was a lot for me to chew on. The only time I had a problem was when at 11 years I read The Case of the Half-Awakened Wife by Erle Stanley Gardner and my maternal grandmother slapped an embargo on it, until she could phone my Mother back in NY. Really.
    Grandmother soon became a Perry Mason fan and when they started adapting the books to TV she watched everyone one of them. Well, actually, every half of them. She usually fell asleep halfway through, woke up annoyed with herself, and had to be told how it ended. Such is the way with many Seniors or White Caps.

  7. agatha hamilton says:

    I haven’t got a goat on hand to sacrifice, but good luck to your father, Alan, for a swift recovery.
    For the London list, I thought John Lanchester’s ‘Capital’ was good, if only ( though not only) for the most sympathetic portrayal of a traffic warden ever. And although you have already got one Dickens there (and my favourite) shouldn’t ‘Little Dorrit” be on the list for the description of life in The Marshalsea, one wall of which is still standing?
    Also, if any of you are bored, which is probably unlikely, do look at Customer Reviews on Amazon for ‘BIC for Her Medium Ballpoint Pens

  8. J. Folgard says:

    I’m only familiar with ‘A Tiger in the Smoke’, but it’s a wonderful list for further reading. More, please!

  9. amber says:

    also, agatha, try the amazon reviews for “veet for men”, hope you don’t find them too shocking.

  10. Philip Jackson says:

    ‘Hangover Square’ is a work of absolute genius, and a fine choice for your London-centric literature. I’ve never read a novel which deals so effectively with the concept of schizophrenia – the click in the head which turns the world into a monochrome and alien landscape. Although the balance has been redressed in the last few years (largely thanks to a very fine adaptation of ‘Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky’), I still think Patrick Hamilton is sadly one of our most neglected authors. I’ll be interested to see if he made ‘Invisible Ink’.

  11. agatha hamilton says:

    Amber – I LOVED Veet for men reviews, nearly fell off my chair laughing, and have give self slight asthma attack, but I expect I shall recover.

  12. John Howard says:

    Hi Alan, much good wishes for your dad. Hope things went to plan.

  13. John Howard says:

    How about The Crucified City by Peter van Greenaway? Another one of those ‘thin’ books from the days when that was ok. (see previous blog)

  14. Dan Terrell says:

    van Greenaway was good. I’ve read several of his books and particularly liked Judas or The Judas Gospel. I wrote an extended piece on Judas for a religion class and researching him was very interesting.

  15. Jez Winship says:

    I definitely second Mother London, and The Borribles. The ill-starred Laird Cregar was excellent in Hangover Square (which also had a good Bernard Herrmann score), but I’m not sure how closely it resembles the novel. Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day may have been one of the influences on Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch, another good one. Christopher Petit’s Robinson is a good Soho based novel, and fed into Patrick Keiller’s film of the same title. Iain Sinclair’s White Chapell Scarlett Tracings, Downriver and Radon Daughters are all steeped in London lore, literature and mythology, although they can be a little impenetrable at times. I’ve just finished reading Tim Powers’ Hide Me Among The Graves which, like his earlier The Anubis Gates, evokes a fantastical mid-19th century London very effectively, as do Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart novels.

  16. Ken M says:

    I would also put in a word for Mike Ripley, whose Angel novels are set in a city I recognise as London. There is a set piece in Angel Hunt involving a jazz band on the back of a lorry circling central London at Christmas which is wonderful (and not as doom-laden as some work already mentioned, excellent though they certainly are).

  17. glasgow1975 says:

    Oh I loved The Anubis Gates Jez, will add Hide Me Among The Graves to my (ever growing) ‘to read’ list

  18. John Howard says:

    The worst – OK best thing about Admins blogs , is the ever, ever growing ‘books to buy and read’ list.

  19. Alan G says:

    “The Anubis Gates” I had to take a deep breath and dive into the piles of books which make my social life such a trial, but found it and now another addition to the teetering stack.

    And my thanks – my Dad is fine, tough old goat.

  20. Alan G says:

    Oh Dan?

    “Trying to remember, My recall is a muddle, But I think you are right, She ends up a puddle.”

    A little work and that could be intriguing…

  21. NB says:

    Hangover Square starred the brilliant Laird Cregar who sadly died at a young age. I strongly recommend acting buffs to check out his all too little body of work…he would have been a huge star

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