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!