Why Don’t Crime Novels Reflect The New London?


The new census data about Britain is revealing. Christians are down by 13% to 59%, people with no religion are up to 25%, the white population is down 5 points to 85%, whites in London are down to 59%, 1 in 3 Londoners are born abroad, the Muslim population is up to nearly 5%, property renters are up, mortgage owners are down, and yesterday a very proud Sikh guardsman worn his turban instead of a bearskin for the first time. Gay marriage is being approved by the Tories (who expected that?) although the Church of England has opted out, and  the UKIP party are frothing at the mouth about it all.

All in all, there’s a real sense that the country is changing, with economic mobility being the catalyst. Racism has comparatively become a thing of the past, crime is falling, but the gap between rich and poor has widened.


However, there is a part of England that forever has an alcoholic copper with a dead wife, investigating a murdered girl who turns out to be an Eastern European sex worker. This idea might have been surprising ten years ago, so why does it still turn up so frequently?

Lately there have been some terrific thrillers from Irish and Scottish authors that reflect the changing world – so why are there so few set in the nexus of all this transformation? In my review pile for January there’s not one single contemporary London thriller. The best new crime novel I’ve read lately is ‘Gun Machine’ by Warren Ellis, who lives in Southend, but his book is set in Manhattan. More novels in translation are arriving, plus a hefty stack from the US, but most of the London ones are set in the past.

One writer suggested that the ubiquity of CCTV has made it harder to construct a cat-and-mouse game between cops and criminals, but I hope I’ve already proven that wrong by having someone commit a murder beneath cameras on the London Underground (Bryant & May Off The Rails). Crime writers are supposed to enjoy challenges!

I’m currently pitching two contemporary thrillers, and already I’m concerned that they’ll find no takers in a time when TV shows about Sherlock Holmes, fifties’ midwives and titled families are all the rage. Yesterday I had lunch with twenty writers, most of whom seemed to have an idea for a modern twist on an old story set in London, but all are encountering resistance from publishers. What about Oscar Wilde catching Jack the Ripper, one publisher recently suggested. I wanted to him him with a cricket bat.

Well, we’ll continue to push for something different. I’ll let you know how it turns out…

7 comments on “Why Don’t Crime Novels Reflect The New London?”

  1. Alison says:

    I have nothing constructive to say other than I love the expression on Jatenderpal Singh Bhullar’s face. He looks wonderfully wide-eyed and innocent. I’m more than halfway in love with that face already.

  2. Ben Aaronovitch says:

    Dreda Say Mitchell
    Amongst others.
    I’ve been known to slip in a bit of multiculturalism from time to time – if I do say so myself.

  3. Dan Terrell says:

    What’s the average age of these writers writing in the past? And the average age of crime novel buyers? That may have something to do with it.(Other than yourself?)
    Do they live outside of London, as that may also have someting to do with it. If things are changing quickly in London, perhaps, they don’t feel they can get the city right without tripping up. And publishers probably believe there are more buyers for stories set in the “romantic past” with early crime fighting tools.
    Look at Edward Marston – he always writes about the G.B. of the past, even if the past is the First World War. He has produced a long list.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    There’s also the matter of keeping up with the change. I wouldn’t write a novel about our city (even if I could) set in current time because I’d never get the dialogue or the gadgets right. But your complaint was about publishers. Perhaps they don’t have modern readers or editors and they’re suspicious of new things. Oh – who knows? Perhaps they’re just trying to stay in the popular topics. Say, did you hear that the employees of the publisher of that dimly coloured trilogy (perhaps effulgent) are each receiving $5,000 Christmas bonus?

  5. John Howard says:

    Oscar Wilde catching Jack the Ripper…. ? That man needs a severe pelting with boiled sweets covered in fluff.

    As for the $5,000, my didn’t they have to work hard for their money. Gosh admin, this Bah Humbug stuff is catching.

  6. Ken M says:

    Couldn’t the publisher just buy “Wilde West” by Walter Satterthwait?

  7. Ken M says:

    CCTV is not all monitored in real time, so there is plenty of scope for cat and mouse. I am aware of one murder investigation which had footage of the murderer caught on CCTV walking strangely. He was wearing his victim’s shoes and they were too small for him.

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