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10 of the best London novels (you probably haven’t read)

A shelf’s worth of under-appreciated stories set in the Big Smoke

Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Phil de Semlyen

London has been immortalised in the prose of Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf and Zadie Smith. But we’re not going to insult you – or your bookshelf – by suggesting ‘Oliver Twist’ or ‘White Teeth’. Instead, head for Muriel Spark’s ‘The Ballad of Peckham Rye’ or ‘The Lonely Londoners’ by Samuel Selvon. The former is a dark comedy that flaunts Spark’s mastery of character – in this case, the evil Dougal Douglas – while the latter is a daring tapestry of Windrush Londoners that’s perfect for anyone who loves ‘Small Axe’ or ‘Small Island’.

If you enjoy flights of fancy, head for GK Chesterton’s 1904 debut ‘The Napoleon of Notting Hill’. It’s set in a​n alt 1984 where a king picked by lottery decrees that every London neighbourhood flies its own colours. Obviously, Notting Hill takes it all too far in an absurdist fable peppered with its author’s trademark wit. It’s rumoured to be an inspiration for George Orwell’s ‘1984’ and is quoted at the beginning of Neil Gaiman’s ‘Neverwhere’, a more fantastical slice of London for anyone who wishes Diagon Alley was a real place. 

Best known for ‘Gaslight’, Patrick Hamilton digs into the underbelly of ’30s London in ‘Hangover Square’. It’s set on the ‘bleak plains of Earl’s Court’ and offers a juicy evocation of pre-war London and some nice insights into what pubs were like before any of them did food.
Neil Gaiman’s ‘Neverwhere’ is a fantastical slice of London for anyone who wishes Diagon Alley was a real place

At-war London, meanwhile, is brought to life in Sarah Waters’s ‘The Night Watch’. There aren’t not too many novels that celebrate queer love or that zip around the city as seductively as the bombs fall. It was nominated for a Booker, so it’s maybe not entirely unheralded. Closer to undeserved obscurity is Norman Collins’s ‘London Belongs to Me’, which takes place at the same time in a Camberwell full of larger-than-life, Dickensian characters.

Want to go darker? ‘Payment Deferred’, CS Forester’s macabre potboiler, follows a indebted City clerk who kills a relative and buries him in the garden. As you do. Or as John Christie probably would. The Rillington Place serial killer pops up in Dominick Donald’s crime yarn ‘Breathe’, which will have you groping through the Great Smog of 1952 in search of a murderer. 

If you’ve got time on your hands this Christmas, EF Benson’s beefy ‘Dodo’ omnibus offers plenty of fin de siècle glitz. It anticipates the Bright Young Things of 25 years later. NB: there are no dodos in it so, you know, caveat emptor.

There is a beetle in ‘The Beetle’, though. It was published in the year of ‘Dracula’ and outsold it by a factor of six, which tells you all you need to know about Richard Marsh’s horror tale. It’s about an Egyptian scarab-deity that might have crawled out of a Stephen King novel but for the Victorian setting and the odd scene of disturbing insect erotica. And who isn’t into that?

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