by Nick Hornby
A novel of lists, music and loneliness in North London.
It’s dirty, it’s loud, it’s grumpy, it’s historic, it’s constantly being reinvented and it’s a great place to set a novel. London is full of authors and many of them are writing about the city, and it’s been that way for centuries.
Like the city itself, the list of books where the plot threads through London’s crowded streets is immense and rather overpowering. Where does one start when recommending books set in the city? We are assuming you have already read enough Dickensian literature although Oliver Twist is always worth revisiting. We’re deducing Sherlock Holmes is too obvious for this reading list.
Instead we have tried to fashion a list that reflects the real London although we’re thrown in a few distinctly old fashioned novels. This list is a baffling mix of violence and crime, immigrants and travellers, trouble-makers and politicians, lovers and the lonely-hearted, forgotten corners and famous places, and dingy bedsits and subterranean tunnels.
These novels are filled with characters that have almost no tolerance for fools (just like anyone who has lived in the city for more than 12 months) and others that have the ability to carry on regardless no matter how bad things become. Numerous novels are set just before, during or just after World War II when the city took the brunt of Germany’s firepower. Many books look at the London beneath our feet either through life on the Tube or in the sewers and tunnels under the busy streets. Crime is a reoccurring theme but, in reality, most visitors brought up on the Artful Dodger never see anything amiss.
London changes fast. Graham Greene’s London, battered and bruised from the bombs, is quite different from Monica Ali’s London where immigration is the key element as new communities replace the old ones. But perhaps a few things do remain the same – the ambition, the people in falling love and the city’s obsession with sport are enduring.
Isn’t funny how no-one writes about the weather?
I have forgotten how many times I have missed my stop on the Tube because of a good book, or sat in Green Park reading at lunchtime. London gave us Penguin, and Gollancz, and Faber and Faber, and the next great novel set in this city is just around the corner.
by Martin Amis
Set in 1999, a dark comic novel with a remarkable crook – Keith Talent.
by China Miéville
Miéville writes new wave ‘Weird Fiction’ – a fantasy in London’s sewers.
How the Dead Live
by Will Self
Lily Bloom dies and is transported to a new home in Northeast London accompanied by a spirit guide.
The Football Factory
by John King
A vicious story focused around Chelsea’s most vicious football hooligans.
The Living and the Dead
by Patrick White
Written by an Aussie, a novel where lives are changing as World War II approaches.
by Neil Gaiman
A subterranean fantasy that goes way beyond London’s Underground stations.
Up the Junction
by Nell Dunn
Forgotten novel from 1963 that details miserable slum life in Battersea.
King Solomon's Carpet
by Barbara Vine
A Ruth Rendell novel based around the London Tube and the people who use it.
by Monica Ali
Immigration defines modern London and this novel concerns the Bangladeshi community.
by Colin MacInnes
Published in 1959, one of the first books to define London’s youth culture.
by Keith Waterhouse
From the man who wrote Billy Liar, a Yorkshire student comes south in search of his girlfriend.
by Zadie Smith
A comic take on multicultural Britain from 2000, spanning 40 years.
The Ministry of Fear
by Graham Greene
Study in terror in the aftermath of the Blitz. Greene is a must-read for any Londoner.
The Great Stink
by Clare Clark
London doesn’t smell so bad now. This novel takes place in its Victorian era sewers.
by Patrick Hamilton
London pubs can be shady places, particularly when World War II is looming.
by Geoff Nicholson
A series of stories about Londoners are interwoven in this novel.
by Keith Lowe
A man must travel to every Tube station on the map in a single day in a pre-marriage bet.
by Gerald Kersh
Published in 1958, violence and humour in a ramshackle London community.
London Belongs to Me
by Norman Collins
A war is just about to kick off but Londoners are carrying on as usual.
Apes of God
by Wyndham Lewis
Written in 1930, a brutal satire on London’s literary and artistic community.
At Bertram’s Hotel
by Agatha Christie
A hotel (inspired by Brown’s) stuck in the Edwardian era is the setting for this murder mystery.
by Edward Docx
A serial seducer runs into trouble but then meets his new neighbour.
by J.B. Priestley
London seen through the eyes of the employees of Twigg & Dersingham.
The End of the Affair
by Graham Greene
Based on his own experiences of philandering, a novelist has an affair with a friend’s wife.
The Heat of the Day
by Elizabeth Bowen
Set in war-time London, Stella discovers her lover is suspected of selling information to the enemy.
Adrift in Soho
by Colin Wilson
London’s Beat Generation is described in this 1961 novel of Bohemian life.
A Severed Head
by Iris Murdoch
Set on the cusp of the sexual revolution, this is a satire set in and around London.
by Josephine Hart
Sex and politics, and a very public fall from grace for a Member of Parliament.
My Name Is Legion
by A. N. Wilson
Set in London this novel looks at the British gutter press and the Church.