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.