Keeping Cities Mysterious



If you read much fiction about London (or any other old city that’s rapidly modernising), one term you keep coming back to is ‘mystery’. Almost every London-set thriller, fantasy, SF novel, crime novel or drama incorporates and/or augments this sense of otherness, and where it no longer exists it has to be invented. From ‘Harry Potter’ and its misremembered pasts seemingly stitched together from old films, favourite books, paintings and photographs, to Ben Aaronovitch’s ‘Rivers of London’ series, we want to take what’s fading from sight and restore it to full power.

It’s what I’ve been doing for years, albeit in a slightly more realistic way (i.e. no supernatural elements, most London oddities based on facts or established myths). We call this ‘fan service’ – giving readers what they would most like, and hopefully adding more to it.

As we age the world becomes less mysterious to most of us. We understand how things work. We meet people, travel more and learn more (in theory, at least). And in the process the world gets smaller. As architectural writer Deyan Sudjic points out in his excellent urban primer ‘The Language of Cities’, GPS means that no-one can ever again get lost, and sites like What3Words have mapped and named every square metre of the planet (although I’m still at a loss to understand what it’s actually for).

So if everything is now illuminated, what hope is there for writing murder mysteries, or any form of crime fiction? Should we write about how things are now, largely corporatised, or do we write about how we would wish them to be? What can we hide in the shadows of the metropolis that won’t simply make the reader yawn and snigger that they’ve seen it all before?


The answer is twofold; first, no-one can explain the workings of the human heart. People simply don’t do what you expect of them. The political turmoil of the last year is proof of that. It keeps fiction on edge. Second, even entirely new cities built from scratch develop strange quirks over time.

Even if we’re not particularly nostalgic, I’m sure we would all like there to be a bit more mystery in our cities. Los Angeles is the most photographed city in the world because of its movie industry, but most of it is horribly unphotogenic, so much so that the film ‘La La Land’ reinstated a number of settings that no longer exist (like the funicular) to make it look more interesting. It’s a pity they didn’t add the late, lamented Pan Pacific building. So we add baroque wonder onto London, with quirky shops and odd little alleyways, when in actual fact such quiddities are becoming  hard to find.

Luckily, we can usually rely on people to undermine grand architectural schemes to organise everything. If a new block of flats is designed with elegantly recessed window catches, you can bet someone will soon dangle clothes-hangers on them. My father used to use two pin plugs in three-pin sockets by wedging a pencil in the top hole. Arthur Bryant opens his car door with a fork. My business partner always reversed down two streets to save going around the one-way system behind Tottenham Court Road.

So long as messy, mixed-up, determined people continue to do things their way, the systems designed to make this a bright soulless world will have to adapt – and we can carry on writing about it. Below, Mae Klong’s famous market in Thailand.

8 comments on “Keeping Cities Mysterious”

  1. Helen Martin says:

    There’s one of those markets in India, in the Himalayas. If there is space available people will use it.

  2. Giles Rhys Jones says:

    If you wanted to meet someone in the railway market at a particular stall a 3 word address would certainly make things easier – – or if wanted to accurately describe the location of a body found on the playing fields of a South East London school… All the best. Giles. (Ps I work at what3words.)

  3. Ken Mann says:

    GPS means that a machine has a map reference. That isn’t the same as knowing where you are.
    There are also GPS spoofing apps so that people can cheat playing Pokémon Go. Conceivably someone could have a fake record of their movements on their phone, to the confusion of phone forensics people. Add a few photos with hacked geolocation data and some staged video clips and you can do a whole “man who never was” scenario on a smartphone.

  4. Steveb says:

    Our Lady of Darkness by Fritz Leiber with its Megapolisomancy manages to make cities mysterious and be romantic too…

  5. Thomas says:

    @Giles: It also means you need a device with an internet connection in order to know where exactly “shipped twin endings” is, which makes it a non-starter. “14 Brighton Rd”, however, does not suffer that little problem.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    @Thomas, we’re soon not going to be allowed out if we don’t have a smart phone and people concerned about phone towers on the roofs of schools are being shouted down by others who are glad of the money the schools get and who want universal coverage for their phones. Meantime they’re thinking of creating fines for people who can’t walk without having their faces stuck to their phones. A local mayor was riding his bike to work when he was confronted by a young woman who was paying no attention to where she was walking. She and the mayor were both injured.

  7. John Howard says:

    The two pictures of post appocalyptic London bring memories of Michael Moorcock and the Jerry Cornelius books fooding back

  8. Karl says:

    I’ve used What3words a few times – it can be very useful if you’re planning to meet someone inside a park or large venue or festival. Granted you can share coordinates, but they’re not usually in any way memorable, and that relies on having a GPS signal. It’s much easier to tell someone you’ll see them at “issued, empire, pages” than try to explain the topology of King’s Cross station, sort of around the middle in the bit on the side, not St Pancras…
    Apparently huge parts of the world don’t have the same level of standardised addresses that we have here, so it’s used for post delivery in other countries, too.

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