In the City: A Look at London Crime Fiction

            Lamentation         Front Cover                          In the City: A Look at London Crime Fiction

“In the city there’s a thousand men in uniforms. And I’ve heard they now have the right to kill a man.”       

In the City. The Jam. (Polydor Records. 1977)

A truly comprehensive map of the world’s fictional crime hot spots would be interesting to see (if there is one, then please contact me and let me know). I say this, and I know this is hardly going to get me a job as the Professor of Literature at Cambridge, that location can have a great effect on the narrative of a novel. Like any story, its setting can play a huge part in the success of a crime story. Not that it has to be a realistic. I mean, how many murders are there in the average Inspector Morse novel – three/four? That’s in a time span of a few days and matches what the real Oxford might see in a whole year. But of course, the Colin Dexter novels are not travel guides but crime novels. It makes me laugh when every so often TV or a newspaper digs up an ex-detective to denounce crime fiction as not being realistic; I always want to point out to the good ex-officer the fiction part of the description. Oxford is a brilliant location for using aspects of the town that it is known for, rightly or not, to add atmosphere. Aging professors, jealous academics, historic buildings full of secrets and ambitious public school boys come to mind when you think of the town. Ideal for murder! Other places have them too, but can they match the instant mental picture you get when you just say – Oxford?

The same is true of London. Just its name; its reputation; its history can save pages of description or explanation. Just the names, ‘The West End’ or ‘East End’ will evoke images sometimes far removed the reality. For most. ‘The East End’ will probably be the East End of the Krays; not the reality of over-priced ‘designer flats’ in the gentrifying social cleansing of the working class out of the area. It’s literary shorthand.

Take these quotes from Margery Allingham’s 1952 novel, The Tiger in the Smoke: “The fog was like a saffron blanket soaked in ice-water. It hung over London all day…” and “It oozed ungenially, to smear sooty fingers over two elegant people…” Magnificent; in just a few words your mind thinks of fog-bound London, by the Thames, in the streets. The same words could have been used for other places but would they have been as evocative? Replace London with Croydon or Portland or Melbourne and the picture is very different. For London has its baggage; and its fog, its smog, is one that is too big for mere hand luggage. Allingham’s uses it to surround, even hinder, her gentleman sleuth, Albert Campion, as he moves around London’ alleys and dingy pubs tracking his quarry. London is not just a place where it happens but is a major character of the book. Although this is post-war Britain, it so easily could be that of Charles Dickens.

I’d wager (using Dickensian language here for effect) that if you think of talented amateurs searching master criminals in the fog you are unable to avoid bumping into the gent with the deerstalker – Sherlock Holmes. The Sign of Four (1890) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is for me the best of the Holmes’ stories, ending as it does, with the chase down the Thames. The man from 221B Baker Street, who practised forensic detection when CSI were merely letters thrown together, is forever associated with Victorian London, even when his most famous novel The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), is set in Dartmoor.

The Sign of Four is not alone in using Thames as a major resource. Its banks were a byword for poverty and criminality as people battled to survive; for hundreds of years south of the river was home for prisons, polluting industries, dodgy taverns and asylums. Or in other-words a hot bed of crime. But it is even more than that with the river itself can be used to demarcate the city; suggesting no-go zones. Few think of crossing north to south or the other way. In Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs (2003) set in 1929, the narrator says of one character: “They must have thought that no one would recognise James south of the river. His sort rarely crossed the water”. Tom Thorne, a detective in modern Britain, in Michael Billingham’s novels (2001 onwards), feels much the same; being a right north London boy. Here’s a detective who spends much of his time (when not listening to Country & Western) chasing the most warped and brutal serial killers but cringes when thinking of going of crossing the Thames.

London has grown from a series of villages which have linked to become this huge metropolis. This localism within a capital still lingers today. Indeed, it has been requisitioned by the middle classes to name any recently gentrified area by tagging ‘village’ to the place name, thus assuring house prices and rents will rise. Being a city of an immense population (the largest in Europe) you get the very rich and the very poor living within its confines. And with the very rich you get the powerful, with London long being a centre of political, financial and legal power, thus opening up possibilities of crime in the better postcodes, these ‘villages’ with characters from such circles.

Oliver Harris’ The Hollow Man (2012) begins, “Hampstead’s wealth lay unconscious along the edge of the Heath, Mercedes and SUV’s frosted beneath plane trees, Victorian terraces unlit,” as detective Nick Belsey of Hampstead CID sees a missing person’s report come in from one of the most expensive streets in London.

That said, it might be suggested that in actual fact, much of the capital’s crime occurs in the City itself, within the financial services, but not only is it undetected but it is rarely included in detective novels.  Perhaps it is simply the fact that a white-collar crime resulting in the ruin of millions of lives is a whole lot less interesting or sexy than say, the murder of a fictional museum owner, as with PD James’ Murder Room (2003) when Neville Dupayne of the Dupayne Museum is killed in the same locale as The Hollow Man. Dead toffs being far racier stuff than bent hedge fund managers, means that Commander Dalgliesh investigates.

With a history dating back to AD50 London can provide a mouth-watering array of historical locations. Victorian times are a popular landing place with its class disparity, the massive growth of London as a modern capitalist city but without the infra-structure to cope. Holmes is not alone there. There is Sargent Cribb in the Peter Lovesey novels (1970-1978) and The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale (2009) for starters. The latter based on the true-life detective who was one of the founding detectives of Scotland Yard; the inspiration for amongst others, Morse; Charles Dickens’ Inspector Bucket (one of the first detectives in British fiction. Bleak House. 1853) and Sargent Cuff in Wilke Collins’ Moonstone (1868) generally regarded as the first detective story in English. But there are many others: for example, A Metropolitan Murder (2004) by Lee Jackson which involves Inspector Webb investigating a strangled body on the newly built Metropolitan line (London’s transport links could be added to the list of what makes London a selling point for fictional crime; for example, in Billingham’s Scaredy Cat (2002) the first victim is chosen at Euston whilst the second is found behind Kings Cross).

But although Victorian London can claim to have great pulling power there have been novels which have used periods before that. Hawksmoor (1985) by Peter Ackroyd includes a parallel story Nicholas Dyer, who builds churches in 18th-century London with one set in the 1980s. The wonderful Shardlake series by C.J Sansom is set in the mid-sixteenth century and although the lawyer travels Britain from Portsmouth to the north, he is based in London.  Lamentation (2014) has the hero coming to the aid of the beleaguered Catherine Parr. He like, so many detectives, private and state, traipses (they rarely stroll, with perhaps the exception of old Sherlock) around London:  “I rode under Temple Bar then turned up Gifford Street which led to the open space of Smithfield. Many people were travelling in the same direction along the dusty way, some on horseback, most on foot.” S.J Parris and Rory Clements have also written crime novels set in this era.

Into the twentieth and twenty first century and London grows ever more popular. The Second World War is a time which is useful for many novels, sometimes laced with a touch of espionage. Barbra Nadel, perhaps better known for writing murder mysteries set in Istanbul, wrote Ashes to Ashes (2011); a story of murder and kidnap during the blitz.  D.I. Stratton investigates a suspicious death of a silent movie actress in Stratton’s War (Laura Wilson. 2009) with the Luftwaffe once more making things even harder for everyone.

Performing a similar function as the Thames to divide sub-genres (south and north London), the war can similarly be used (pre and post WW2). Maisie Dobbs is set in the nineteen twenties; Cameron McCabe’s The Face on the Cutting Room Floor  (1937) is set in London between the wars. McCabe was the pseudonym of Ernest Bornemann, a socialist, who had fled Nazi Germany; whilst, The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark (1963) takes place in Kensington just after VE day. Michael Gilbert further looks in post-war Britain, this time, in the world of lawyers in Smallbone Deceased (1950).

And on we go past the 1960s and into modern Britain; as society gets ever more organised so do the criminals and gangs become more popular, the quaintness decreases and the brashness ups in volume, such as J.J. Connolly’s Layer Cake (2004). Indeed, his use of a Layer Cake as a metaphor for the different levels of crime could also be used to describe London as a crime fiction hub. In Dangerous Lady (Martina Cole. 1992) the London gangs are taken on by an 18 year old woman, which if that wasn’t enough, also has to contend with organised crime but also the police.

Ahh, the London police.  Of course, there’s the posh gentleman detectives whose hobby is to solve crimes and a few private eyes such as Cormoran Strike from the Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling) novels who in Cuckoo’s Calling (2013) hangs out in Soho, but in the main London crime novels are police procedurals. They are usually portrayed as hard working honest coppers. Some can be quite cultured, for example, Commander Dalgliesh, who can put writing poetry on his CV. Now, I might be wrong, I haven’t done the research, but I would hazard a guess that such a past-time is not the norm. Indeed, with scandals of corruption, some high-profile cases not being solved and several deaths of black people the hands of the police, that there are many people who would even question the ‘good honest cop’ mantle. Detective Sergeant Brant (Ken Bruen. Blitz. 2002) isn’t one to be worried by such a tag; he’s one of those brutal, uncompromising types who breaks the rules but gets results: Dirty Harry comes to Kennington.

Whether you like your fictional police officers (or indeed private eyes) to be Brant or Dalgliesh is a matter of personal taste. It does not necessarily even have to coincide with your personal view of the police. Paul Foot, the socialist campaigning journalist, was someone who could not be accused of being overly in love with them, writing several books highlighting miscarriages of justice (e.g. Who Killed Hanratty. 1971) but wrote a review of praising the TV adaptation of Morse, saying, “Morse is not real. He is most people’s role model of what a policeman/detective ought to be like” (Socialist Worker. 1993). For what it’s worth, I am one who likes their fictional detectives to be the good guys, although interestingly, I have a soft spot for American PI’s doing a bit of the rough stuff (I never said I was consistent).

This will not get me that professorship either, but Foot’s comment can be adapted to fit London fictional crime. It is not real. It may use almost mythical fears (for example, the clever sadistic serial killer who has the time, space and equipment to keep their victims for long periods of time) with faith in what a police officer should be. Even in the case of the ‘bad cop’ novels, what they ‘should be’ is still there – they punish the even badder guys.

London can provide a lot of inspiration for writers and it is still not done yet. One aspect of London which is puzzlingly under-utilized in crime fiction is the richness of cultures, religions and beliefs present. According to the 2011 census 36.7% of the population were foreign-born making it second only to New York for its size of immigrant population. As someone who lives in London that is a major reason for making it such a great city; for fiction writers its makes for a superb cast of characters so it is surprising that there have not been more crime novels using them more.

There’s a lot more London crime fiction to be written.

“In the city there’s a thousand things I want to say to you”

In the City. The Jam. (Polydor Records. 1977)


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