A few weeks ago, I wrote about my favourite books about Paris to read while stuck at home. I lived in Paris for six years, so I have a pretty good idea of the books which realistically portray the city (and those that don’t but are enjoyable anyway).
I’m not, and nor have I ever been, a Londoner. So I’m not the person to ask about whether the books about London offer a realistic picture of their setting.
But I do read a lot, and I have read a decent handful of books set in London over the years. So, if you’re dreaming of a trip to London while stuck in lockdown (or indeed stuck in lockdown in London, dreaming of going outside), read on for a few of my favourites.
Psst! As with my last post, I’ve included an Amazon link for each book. However, consider supporting a local bookshop, many of whom are still able to offer deliveries.
1) The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)
The Cuckoo’s Calling is the first in a series of crime novels which Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, wrote, for some reason, under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Set in modern-day London, we follow protagonist Cormoran Strike, a war veteran turned private investigator, as his investigations take him through the quiet streets of Mayfair, back-street pubs of the East End, and the bustle of Soho. Even the most ardent of Harry Potter fans (me) must admit that Rowling’s writing can be annoying at times. She scatters adverbs and adjectives like there’s no tomorrow, and has an annoying obsession with spelling out dialogue to shove it in your face that, for example, a Scottish person has a Scottish accent. But, it’s worth battling through for the story, which has a fast-paced plot, an interesting mystery to be solved, and plenty of twists along the way (no spoilers here!).
2) Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
For a vibrant, colourful and lively picture of Victorian London, you can’t do much better than Dickens. And if admittedly intimidating tomes Dickens produced have always scared you, now might just be a good time to get stuck into one. There are several novels I could have chosen here, but Great Expectations, the classic coming of age novel, is as good a place to start as any. London, as contrasted to the dismal, marshy countryside where Pip, the main character, grows up, is clearly symbolic of success, prosperity and greatness.
3) SS-GB by Len Deighton
I’m not sure exactly when “alternate history novel” became synonymous with “what if the Germans won the war”. Certainly, it was already an established sub-genre in 1972, when Len Deighton’s SS-GB was published. A classic spy/crime thriller, the novel begins in a fictional 1940s London, adorned with Swastikas and ruled by a branch of the Nazi SS. Since the version of London portrayed is thoroughly fictional, this may seem a strange addition to a list of books to transport you to the real city. But its fast-paced, twisty story and foreboding atmosphere merit its inclusion here.
4) The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was published in 1892, and is the first collection of short stories published by Arthur Conan Doyle. There’s plenty of material in the Holmes canon: four novels and fifty-six short stories. And that’s without mentioning the numerous TV, film and radio adaptations, of which there are too many to count! But this collection, which contains four of the twelve Holmes stories Conan Doyle himself rated as his favourites, is a good place to start if you’re a stranger to “the world’s only consulting detective”. Some of the mysteries are somewhat silly (The Red-Headed League), but no less enjoyable for it. And the collection even contains Conan Doyle’s favourite of his own stories: The Adventure of the Speckled Band.
5) A Week In December by Sebastian Faulks
If you read my post about my favourite books about Paris, you’ll know that I’m a fan of Sebastian Faulks. This novel, set in London in December 2007 tells the story of seven very different characters: a bitter literary critic, a young student toying with Islamic extremism, a Polish footballer getting used to London life, and a Tube driver driving a Circle Line train, to name a few. It’s not my favourite of Faulks’ books, but as always, he skillfully weaves the stories together. And the varied, contrasting views of the city it offers make it a good addition to a list of books set in London.
6) About A Boy by Nick Hornby
Set in London in the mid-nineties, Nick Hornby’s About a Boy tells the story of Will, a feckless, career-less, yet somehow endearing bachelor, and Marcus, a troubled and uncool teenager. It’s a classic story of an unlikely friendship, with a backdrop of 1990s culture (read: drinking, clubbing and womanising). But About a Boy is also funny, silly, and, in the end, heart-warming. I suggest reading the book before watching the 2002 movie: although Nicholas Hoult makes an adorably dorky Marcus, the book is somewhat ruined if you’re picturing Will as Hugh Grant the whole time.
7) Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding
Did someone say nineties culture? Widely credited as the spark that ignited the entire “chick-lit” genre, it’s unlikely that you haven’t heard of Bridget Jones’ Diary. But if you’ve only seen the 2002 film and its sequels, the novel is a treat. As the title suggests, it’s told in the form of a diary, but the whole thing is clearly based on Pride and Prejudice. This is not lost on Bridget, who remarks on meeting the main love-interest, Mark Darcy, that it’s somewhat ridiculous “to be called Mr Darcy and to stand on your own looking snooty at a party”. Bridget and her friends also watch (and drool over) the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth, who would, of course, go on to play Mark Darcy in the film version of Bridget Jones’s Diary in 2002. Anyway, chick-lit snobbery aside, Bridget is witty, clever and fun. And if there was ever a time to not be afraid of people seeing the cover of your book…
8) White Teeth by Zadie Smith
Primary set in Willesden, London, White Teeth is the multi-award-winning debut novel by Zadie Smith. The story follows the later life of two wartime friends and their families, and is primarily concerned with the treatment of people from formerly colonised countries living in London. It’s an ambitious novel, spanning half a century with a dozen major characters. But the characters are well-fleshed out, and the links to history are fascinating. The book’s attempt to show London as a complicated, multi-cultural city (which it is) is also quite impressive. And, to a non-Londoner like me, it seems to show a pretty accurate version of suburban London.
More books about London…
Of course, there are far too many great books about London to include in one blog post. Here are a few others that I liked, that didn’t make the list:
Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd
The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
The Swimming Pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst
What did we miss?
I’m always looking for new reading material, so let us know your favourite books about London in the comments!
If you’d like more tips on what to do while you’re stuck at home, we have plenty of lockdown content here on the blog, from books about Paris to movies about travel and art, to art history lessons for kids and adults alike.
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Dear Annie, maybe it’s because I was born in the 1970s, but I love that you included so many books from the 90s and the 00s in your list. I’d like to add Brick Lane by Monica Ali to your wonderful list. Happy reading!
Wow, you’re right – I hadn’t realised! I wrote this mostly from looking at my bookcase, so I guess it must be skewed to the 90s and 00s! And yes, Brick Lane is a great addition.
Thanks for reading!
Annie, thanks for your great book recommendations. I have read a few and plan to check out a several others. But I also have a few suggestions for your list. For those interested in “classic” detective fiction, I recommend the Lord Peter Wimsey stories by Dorothy Sayers. Set in the early 20th Century, mostly between the first and second World Wars, the 11 novels and multiple short stories featuring Lord Peter and his valet-sidekick Bunter as they solve mysteries in London and the surrounding countryside. For more contemporary stories featuring an English aristocrat, I recommend the crime novels by Elizabeth George. Both series are beautifully written, with engaging and multi-dimensional characters.
100% agreed on the Lord Peter Wimsey series! I’ve only read two or three of the novels, but should have included here. I’ve never read Elizabeth George though, so happy to have another addition to my reading list. Thanks for commenting!