This weekend, Queen Elizabeth II celebrates her Diamond Jubilee. Whether or not you’re interested in the doings of that royal family, it’s quite a special occasion. I thought it also might be a good time to take a look at crime fiction that takes place in her hometown of London. London is so full of atmosphere, stories and legends, rich diversity, history, and all sorts of different neighbourhoods that it’s actually a terrific setting for a crime novel. There’ve been a lot of them so today’s post won’t by any means mention them all. Hopefully you’ll get an idea of what I mean though.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes of course makes his home in Late Victorian London at one of crime fiction’s most famous addresses – 221B Baker Street. Holmes is thoroughly familiar with London. In fact, one of his particular skills is that he can recognise both accents and clay or mud from all of London’s different neighbourhoods and the surrounding area. For example, in The Five Orange Pips, Holmes and Watson get a late-evening visitor John Openshaw who consults Holmes about what seems to be a curse on his family. Both his father and his uncle died unexpectedly after receiving a mysterious letter containing five orange pips. Now Openshaw has received a similar letter and is frightened that he may be the next victim. When Openshaw arrives at the Baker Street residence, here is Holmes’ reaction:
“‘Give me your coat and umbrella,’ said Holmes. They may rest here on the hook and will be dry presently. You have come up from the south-west, I see.’
‘Yes, from Horsham.’
‘That clay and chalk mixture which I see upon your toe-caps is quite distinctive.’”
Holmes takes this case, but he’s unable to prevent Openshaw’s death. In the end though he finds out what the five orange pips mean and who is responsible for the deaths and strange events in the Openshaw family. Holmes knows London better than any taxi driver and what he doesn’t know, he learns from The Baker Street Irregulars, a group of young “street boys” who go everywhere, see everything and can find out anything without being noticed. The Holmes novels and stories are full of the atmosphere of Victorian London.
Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot makes his home in London at another crime-fictionally famous address, Whitehaven Mansions. While he doesn’t have the deep knowledge of all of London’s neighbourhoods that Holmes does, we do get a sense of the city in the novels and stories that feature him. For instance, in Lord Edgware Dies, Poirot and Hastings are at a performance given by a new American sensation Carlotta Adams. Afterwards they go to supper at the Savoy where they meet another American “success story,” famous actress Jane Wilkinson. She wants Poirot to help her convince her husband, 4th Baron Edgware, to give her a divorce so she can marry the Duke of Merton. Poirot reluctantly agrees and he and Hastings make an appointment at the Baron’s home in the Regent’s Gate neighbourhood of London. To their surprise, Edgware says he has already written to his wife, agreeing to the divorce. Poirot begins to wonder whether there is more to this case than a straightforward divorce situation and he is proven all too right when Edgware is stabbed to death. His wife is the prime suspect but twelve people – guests at a dinner party at the home of Sir Montagu Corner in Chiswick – are prepared to swear that she was at that party. Edgware’s nephew Ronald is also a suspect since he is set to inherit both his uncle’s title and his fortune. But the new Lord Edgware claims that he was at the opera at Covent Garden at the time of the murder, and the people he was with are prepared to support that alibi. Then there’s another murder. And another. In the end, Poirot and Hastings find out what connects the murders and who really killed the victims, and it takes them through several parts of London.
Tony Broadbent’s The Smoke is an historical crime fiction novel set in post-World War II London. In that novel we meet Jethro, a cat burglar who saw service in the Merchant Navy during the war. He’s trying to convince the world that he’s gone straight and wants to make a decent life for himself. So he takes a job as a stagehand in London’s West End theatre district. That, he thinks, will prove a good cover for his real goal, which is access to London’s wealthy Mayfair and Belgravia homes. Most of the criminals in London’s underworld are quite sure that Jethro has no intention of staying away from crime and they’re right. But he’s working right out in plain view, so to speak, so nothing can really be connected to him. It’s a perfect situation for Jethro until he decides on a real coup – breaking into the Russian Embassy and stealing jewels that belong to the wife of the Russian Ambassador. That theft gets the attention of MI5, and soon Jethro faces off against them, fellow criminals and Scotland Yard as he plays a deadly game of “catch me if you can.” This novel takes readers all over post-war London and shows the real diversity of wealth and poverty as well as the “underside” of the city.
P.D. James’ Commandar Adam Dalgliesh is a member of the Metropolitan Police (the Met) and works at New Scotland Yard, so many of the stories featuring him take place in London. A Taste For Death, for instance, concerns the murder of Crown Minister Paul Berowne, whose body is found in a church in the Paddington area of London. Also discovered is the body of Harry Mack, a local tramp. Since Berowne’s death will cause a great deal of media interest, Dalgliesh and his specially-organised team DCI John Massingham and DI Kate Miskin have been assigned to this delicate case. There are several suspects too since Berowne had political enemies, a dysfunctional family and several secrets he was keeping. As Dalgliesh, Massingham and Miskin investigate, we go along and the route takes us from Dalgliesh’s Whitehall headquarters to the world-class Campden Hill Square area near Kensington Palace, to Holland Park, to Kate Miskin’s working-class roots in one of the not-so-nice areas near the Notting Hill part of London.
Contemporary London is more diverse than ever and we really see both its cultural/linguistic diversity and its variety in James Craig’s Never Apologise, Never Explain. In that novel, Inspector John Carlyle of the Charing Cross station is assigned to investigate the murder of Agatha Mills, a seemingly inoffensive elderly woman who lived with her husband Henry on Great Russell Street near the British Museum. At first, her husband is the most obvious suspect. He can’t reliably account for himself during the time of the murder, and his explanation for his wife’s killing is too fantastic for the police to believe. Henry Mills claims that his wife was killed by political enemies. Mills is soon arrested for his wife’s murder. Then Carlyle gets a critical clue. He’s at the Mills residence when he sees local tramp and drunk Walter Poonoosamy, who was actually at the building on the night of the murder. Poonoosamy gives Carlyle something that proves Henry Mills’ story about his wife’s death. Now Carlyle and his sergeant Joe Szyskowski start digging more deeply into this murder. Then there’s another death. And in the end, Carlyle finds out what connects the deaths and how the Mills family history relates to those murders. In the meantime, Carlyle is working on another case, this one less formally. An acquaintance of his, former prostitute Amelia Jacobs, now works as a housekeeper/maid for Sam Laidlaw, who’s still “in the business.” Jacobs is worried because she thinks Laidlaw’s son Jake is at risk of being snatched by his father, local thug Michael Hagger. Carlyle agrees to warn Hagger off but before he does so, Jake disappears. Now Carlyle has to search for both Hagger and his son, and as he searches we see the side of London that the tourists don’t generally visit. Throughout this novel, the London setting is a major focus. Readers visit Charing Cross, 10 Downing Street, Russell Square, the Chilean Embassy and a lot of other places too. And Craig shows us clearly what daily life is like in modern London.
London even finds its way into novels set in other places. For instance in Helene Tursten’s The Glass Devil, Göteborg police Inspector Irene Huss and her team investigate the murders of three members of the Schyttelius family. One night, schoolteacher Jacob Schyttelius is killed while on his way into his parents’ winterised cottage. A few hours later, both of his parents are killed in their home. At first it looks as though the murders might be the work of a Satanist cult but soon, the evidence proves that theory wrong. Now the investigation team has to face the possibility that someone is targeting the family itself for more personal reasons. Since the Schyttelius family also had a daughter Rebecka, the team is concerned for her safety and wants to know as much about her as possible. But Rebecka Schyttelius no longer lives in the area; she’s moved to London where she works with a computer development company. So Huss makes a trip to London where she tries to interview Rebecka Schyttelius. Her visit there gives us a fascinating “visitor’s eye view” of London as she tracks down Rebecka Schyttelius, interviews her work partner and her doctor and works with DCI Glen Thompson on this case. In fact (no spoilers here as to why this happens ;-)) Huss even convinces her boss Sven Andersson to take a holiday in London.
And it’s easy to see the appeal, really. London is crowded, expensive and in some places, dangerous. But it’s got a compelling and fascinating history, a rich and vivid diversity and some beautiful places to visit. Little wonder it’s such a popular place for crime fiction!! Got any favourite “London novels” to share?
I wish all the very best to Her Majesty and her family as they celebrate her Diamond Jubilee!
ps. The ‘photos are of the Russell Square neighbourhood near the British Museum and of the British Museum itself.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Clash’s London Calling.