A very specific literary genre

My dad says that being a Londoner has nothing to do with where you’re born. He says that there are people who get off a jumbo jet at Heathrow, go through immigration waving any kind of passport, hop on the tube and by the time the train’s pulled into Piccadilly Circus they’ve become a Londoner.

Moon Over Soho,  Ben Aaronovitch,  Chapter  9.

As a non-native Londoner (I was born in Nottingham and dragged up in the West Country) and smitten arrival inside the nightmarish embrace of the M25 I’m grateful to Mr Aaronovitch (or rather to his protagonist Peter Grant) for this. Moon Over Soho is the sequel to Rivers of London, and is therefore another entry into the scrupulously-policed genre of the “supernatural London-based crime novel”.

I’ve joked with a couple of friends that if I ever ran a bookshop (this would be a bad thing for many reasons, not limited to my terrible customer service and examples from my family history that suggest none of us should be allowed to run anything more complicated than an electric pencil sharpener; my mother took over a cafe and ran it into the ground in seven months), I would have a specific section devoted to books of this ilk. I’d love to write one – I’m not sure that Pass the Parcel quite qualifies, although it has a lot of the requisite elements – but I’m not sure I’ve yet developed the writerly chops to do it justice.

The parameters for the genre are strict, in my mind. I explained this to my boyfriend while hopping around manically outside the bathroom with a cup of tea in my hand, which means that it’s clearly a very solid idea.

First:

Book/majority of book must be set in London, and recognisably either London now, or a London of the past. Alternate Londons must be close enough to this London to qualify. This excludes on this criteria alone the excellent children’s book Un Lun Dun by China Mieville, and the even more brilliant Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, as both are set in parallel Strange Londons.

Second:

Central plot should be about a crime, rather than a quest or a romance. This again rules out Un Lun Dun, and Neverwhere. It also rules out Pass the Parcel, which has a somewhat decentralised plot and while the whole thing is riddled with crime, it’s not a criminal investigation or a mystery plot.

Third:

“Supernatural” can over a multitude of sins, but the magic/weird should always be underground and unacknowledged by the general public, otherwise we get back into the realms of being either unrecognisable London or urban fantasy rather than supernatural crime. While Pass the Parcel could possibly fall under the aegis of the supernatural, as the bloody author I’m still grumpily calling it Urban Sci Fi rather than Urban Fantasy/Supernatural City. And my word on this matter is law!

What Qualifies?

Well, the Rivers of London books (Rivers of London, Moon Over Soho, and the forthcoming third instalment) by Ben Aaronovitch, which are about a young police officer from Kentish Town who is also training to be a wizard, and the magical crimes (often quite gruesome) that he solves. It’s fairly textbook.

Then there’s Memoirs of a Master Forger by William Heaney, which revolves around forgery, deception, and demons. It’s not about quite what it sounds like it’s about (fittingly), and views a slightly different, more bookish London to the London of the Rivers of London books. It is a London of more stylish and elderly bars, with more Bloomsbury and less Soho. But, as with films, Guy Ritchie and Richard Curtis both make films about the same city: a lot of cities fit into the urban gastric band of the M25.

Finally there’s the China Mieville books: while Un Lun Dun doesn’t qualify, King Rat (which suffers rather from First Novel Syndrome but which has such blinding localisation that I’m almost prepared to forgive it: it is very grotty, and very close to certain homes), and Kraken do. China’s work is louder, faster, less genteel and more violent than Heaney’s or Aaronovitch’s, more like a riot of the weird but still London enough to meet my requirements. It draws on recognisable landmarks, like the Natural History Museum’s Spirit Museum, and SOAS, and the London Stone. It also introduces the utterly compelling notion of Londonmancers, a species of soothsayer who read the rhythms of the city to predict the future.

All of these books treat the city to an extent both as an organism and as a divinity built of divinities, whether layering on demons as Memoirs does, or drawing out a whole bestiary of strange and wicked creatures as Kraken does. I think, personally, that’s the intelligent way to write about cities – any living city, not just London – which are magical places where the sheer weight of humanity distorts sanity rather like matter and space-time (my understanding of Relativity was gleaned from a comic book about Einstein’s cat).

It becomes apparent in books like these that all sorts of strange worlds and twisted beings are bumping into the average Londoner on the street or locked up behind a thin veneer of crumbling brick. Anyone who has walked the streets of this city at night a few times will tell you that is absolutely the case: entire nations flourish behind locked doors, and you can step from country to country by turning a key in a lock.

My infatuation with the city naturally leads me towards London-based literature, but I am quite sure that other cities carry a similar canon of works: it would be hard to imagine that Moscow or Mumbai or Rome had somehow escaped a torrent of adoring stories celebrating their strangenesses and charms. The romance of the urban grips writers like a fever.

Other books in this genre?

I think that’s up to you, dear readers: can you think of any others that fit the criteria? I’d love to hear from you if you can, because I’m making it my mission to read more of them.

Books mentioned in this post which you might like to read: Un Lun Dun by China Mieville, Kraken by China Mieville, King Rat by China Mieville, Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, Memoirs of a Master Forger by William Heaney, Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch, Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch, Pass the Parcel by Delilah Des Anges

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8 thoughts on “A very specific literary genre

  1. “a divinity built of divinities” – I love this phrase. I really must get around to actually reading some Mieville. I’ve got Un Lun Dun on the kindle, but no novels that fit the supernatural London crime model as yet.

    Also my phone is being a complete arse-flag so sorry if this posts three million times :S

  2. The Mathew Swift series of novels by Kate Griffin is about a man trying to resolve his own murder. It’s sequel is about the same man first trying to work out who killed someone, and then stop the kiiller from destroying the city, and the third book is about said bloke trying to work out who killed someone and why entire postal districts are vanishing.

    The guy is not a copper. He’s just mixed up in far too much rubbish. The books are, respectively: A Madness of Angels, The Midnight Mayor and The Neon Court. The next one is due out this week and is called The Minority Council.

    If no-one has recommended these to you already, I am a) amazed, and b) sorry I haven’t mentioned them sooner.

    They are my favourite magical London books to date (although I have high hopes for “The City’s Son”, coming out later this year), even though the first one is a bit ropey. (A Madness of Angels lacks dramatic tension in places, but the ideas and description were enough fun to carry me through. The other two are better.)

  3. I have never been to London but I am fascinated by your topic and that magnificent extract which whets my appetite to read the book so perhaps I shall; tomorrow I’ll order it. thanks

    1. Oh, excellent! Check out some of the other comments on this post, there have been a few more book recommendations which also look really good.

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