Literary London: the capital through books

We all need an escape once in a while – to experience something new, and take a break from reality. When your next holiday seems worlds away, there’s another way to get your adventure-fix: by picking up a good book. Discover new places and new people without ever leaving your home, and live your life through the eyes of another, just for a short while. You could transport yourself anywhere you want, but there’s one place that has captured the imagination of writers for countless years, and that’s London. From Dickens’ smog-filled Victorian cobblestone lanes to the gleaming skyscrapers in modern-day fiction, it’s always been a source of inspiration. Why not explore your favourite part of London through another lens, and pick up one of these great reads below?

Baker Street: A Study in Scarlet, Arthur Conan Doyle

Anyone who’s passed through Baker Street underground station would’ve seen the silhouette of London’s most famous detective gracing the tunnel walls. Made up of brown tiles on a beige background, wearing a bowler hat and smoking a pipe, is the ingenious creation of Arthur Conan-Doyle. The super-sleuth made his first appearance in A Study in Scarlet, where his endearing eccentricities and meticulous attention to detail made him one of the best detectives in print. His famous residence, 221B Baker Street, is now a museum dedicated to the adventures of himself and his sidekick, Watson – but better yet is to pick up a book and transport yourself to his quirky townhouse, where Watson and Holmes investigate the death of Enoch Drebber. You’ll be in awe of Sherlock’s deduction skills just as much as Watson, and if you love murder-mystery novels, then there’s three more full-length cases you can get stuck in to. Of course, if reading isn’t your thing, there’s always the modern-day Sherlock to watch, or the american drama Elementary. 

Image: Baker Street (credit Oscarcaleroto via getty)

Brixton – Queenie, Candace Carter-Williams

For such a small capital, London is full of character – and this is no more evident than in Brixton, one of the most culturally diverse and vibrant neighbourhoods. Or at least, it used to be. Dive into Candace Carty-Williams’ bestselling novel Queenie and witness her protagonist lament over Brixton’s metamorphosis: gone are the majority of market stalls selling spiced patties and fresh Caribbean fruit, and in their place, minimalist brunch spots that wouldn’t look out of place in Fitzrovia. That’s not to say that Brixton has lost all of its heritage – Brixton Market still thrives, the nightlife is eclectic, and there’s a sense of community that still stands strong – a community that you’ll see rallying together in times of need, should you pick up this novel. Longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, follow Queenie as she navigates womanhood in the 21st century, amid the hustle and bustle of Brixon and beyond.

Image: Brixton village (credit to Stinger via Getty)

Covent Garden: Rivers of London, Ben Aaronovitch

At certain times of the year, Covent Garden can be magical – in the summer, where fragrant flower baskets hang overhead and live music rings through the market, to the twinkling Christmas lights at night on a winter’s evening. Take that magic to the next level with Ben Aaronovitch’s first novel from his Rivers of London series. Just as London is a melting pot of people, this book blends genres from all over the spectrum: you’ve got light comedy, a dose of the supernatural and topped off with a thrilling murder (in Covent Garden, no less). Walk in Peter Grant’s footsteps as he discovers he can see ghosts and perform spells, all to the backdrop of the London we’ve known to grow and love. A personal highlight: the goddess called Mama Thames living in London’s river.

Image: Covent Garden

Earl’s Court: Small Island, Andrea Levy

London is home to people from all walks of life, and has attracted people all over the world for decades. Mass immigration started in 1948 and shaped the city to what it is today – a thriving metropolis that celebrates culture, freedom and equality. Of course, the road here wasn’t always easy (and there’s still a way to go) – but see for yourself how the Windrush generation came to seek a better life after World War Two in Andrea Levy’s bestselling novel, Small Island. Hortense has moved from Jamaica to Earl’s Court to seek a teaching post, and soon her world and that of her white neighbour, Queenie, become linked. Glimpse London through both of their eyes, and how their world is slowly changing around them – it’s a heart-warming novel, excellently written and offers an authentic window into the past.

Image: Earl’s Court (credit to BrasilNut1 via getty) 

London Bridge: Bridget Jones’ Diary, Helen Fielding

Guilty pleasure, or just outright brilliant? Probably the latter. Everyone’s favourite single 30-something Bridget Jones is a go-to read, for its dry humour, modern-day take on romance, and a little bit of 90s nostalgia. How can it possibly be that the 90s were already 30 years ago? Relive them by picking up Bridget’s diary and see her juggling a career, love life and family troubles. Bridget embodies all the day-to-day anxieties that society imposes on us, but it also reminds us why London is such a great place to live: the people you meet can turn into your closest friends, you can chase success through your dream job, and you could find your Mr Darcy (or Mrs) in a sea of grey suits.

Shoreditch: Brick Lane, Monica Ali

While 1948 may have been the start of mass immigration, it certainly wasn’t the end. Changing the landscape of many a London neighbourhood, the culture, flavours and XX of South Asia found their way to East London. Eponymous with curry houses and beigels, Brick Lane has long drawn locals and tourists to its busy streets, in search of souvenir trinkets and food from street vendors. But take a small step back a handful of decades (three and a half, to be exact) and slip into the shoes of Nazneen, a Banglideshi woman who has travelled to London to marry an older man. The novel intricately weaves three characters, each living in the same imaginary council estate but all experiencing East London in its own way. It’s the story of cultures coming together, and carving out a new identity – something which many stories do, but one that this Booker Prize shortlist does exceptionally well.  

Image: Brick Lane (credit to Coldsnowstorm via getty)

St. Paul’s Cathedral: Ashes of London, Andrew Taylor

Vague recollections from your high school history lessons might come to mind as you start reading Ashes of London: set in the wake of the Great Fire (1666, remember?),  trace the path of a murder and reporter through the ashy streets of London, where a grey, smoky sky billows overhead and an intricate web of lies and deceit follow the two protagonists. This novel is the ultimate throwback of London, a London before regal Georgian houses and street lamps, where narrow streets and wooden houses (or what was left of them) stand. There’s plenty of mystery and intrigue packed into Taylor’s novel (the first of a trilogy), introducing James Marwood and Cat Lovett, one trying to hunt down a murderer, and the other being the culprit. This fast-paced narrative is perfect for history-lovers, which blends politics with a thrilling storyline in a London that now, is only a memory. 

We all need an escape once in a while - to experience something new, and take a break from reality. When your next holiday seems worlds away, there’s another way to get your adventure-fix: by picking up a good book. Discover new places and new people without ever leaving your home, and live your life through the eyes of another, just for a short while.
Image: St Paul’s Cathedral & Millennium Bridge