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5 Underrated London Novels That You Need to Read
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5 Underrated London Novels That You Need to Read

Picture of Alice Barber
Updated: 27 December 2016
London has always provided a vast source of inspiration for the imagination. So many literary gems featuring this great capital however, remain relatively undiscovered. Take a break from that barrage of newly published literature, and delve into our classic selection of the best of these hidden delights that take London as their setting. Experience each unique representation and enviably well-written plot, and you may never look at the capital in the same way again.
'The Secret Agent' |© Methuen & Co
‘The Secret Agent’ | © Methuen & Co

The Secret Agent | Joseph Conrad

‘Sir Ethelred opened a wide mouth, like a cavern, into which the hooked nose seemed anxious to peer; there came from it a subdued rolling sound, as from a distant organ with the scornful indignation stop.’ This vivid caricature is just a taster of the linguistic treasure trove that is Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel ‘The Secret Agent’. His tale is much more than the simple piece of espionage fiction the title implies, for the gripping plot is as swathed in mystery as the event around which the story is loosely based, the mysterious attempted bombing of the Royal Observatory of Greenwich in 1894. In a world where a lingering terrorist threat hangs over London, and in which all but two of the characters we meet are morbidly obese, one might easily mistake this eerily anticipatory novel for one published last week as opposed to last century. The reader is taken on a journey of investigation and discovery through Conrad’s London, which almost becomes an individual in its own right.

'The Man Who Was Thursday' | © Penguin Books
‘The Man Who Was Thursday’ | © Penguin Books

The Man Who Was Thursday | G.K. Chesterton

If you were to make ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’a little grittier, and a little smellier, mix it with ‘James Bond’, and then add a pinch of Dalí’s artwork, ‘The Man Who Was Thursday’ is what you might get. Bizarre and whimsical literature has always been popular, but for many, as far as wackiness goes, this one will take the biscuit. Another plot with a clandestine conspiracy at its core, the story follows double agent and poet Gabriel Syme, or ‘Thursday’, who after sitting at a revolving table and shooting through the floor, as if swallowed by some sort of anarchist rabbit hole, infiltrates the dark workings of the London underworld. Syme soon discovers that not everything is as it seems, which is hardly surprising in a novel that so overtly plays with the boundaries of nightmare and reality. It is a world where anarchists openly discuss political assassination over breakfast on a balcony terrace in Leicester Square, and one where motifs that have since become clichés reign. A ridiculous prosthetic nose can disguise a whole face, an angry mob yielding pitchforks and torches doesn’t seem at all out of place, and an exciting pursuit of the villain across Europe at the climax seems only natural. If you’ve ever wanted to see a fairy dancing with a pillar-box, this is the novel for you – witty, philosophical, and totally original, Chesterton’s masterpiece is criminally captivating.

'What a Carve Up!' | © Penguin Books
‘What a Carve Up!’ | © Penguin Books

What a Carve Up! | Jonathan Coe

The Winshaw family is made up of what every fictional aristocratic family needs: a batty old aunt, a homicidal maniac, a politician, a pervert…and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. This relatively recent novel documents the struggles of pathetic protagonist Michael, a hopeless writer who is obsessed with the cheeky Sid James comedy horror film that provides the title, as he attempts to piece together a manuscript charting an investigation into the formidable Winshaw family. Michael’s narrative recounts his personal endeavours as he battles through the Britain of the early nineties, whilst the interspersed individual stories of each member of the Winshaw brood – all of whom are atrociously corrupt and vile in their own special way – glances back a decade, into the eighties. London’s political sphere in both these periods is never far from the scene, and is skillfully interweaved into each story alike. Coe certainly writes with a political edge, but this in no way obscures the humour and intrigue of his style, which has Spitting Image-esque parody and blunt British comedy at its core. He is a master of genre, his fiction being one that is at once stark political realism, detective fiction, and pastiche, but eventually descends into sensational pantomimic chaos, as each Winshaw receives their comeuppance in a darkly ironic manner.

Bleak House | Charles Dickens

We’ve all heard the story of ‘A Christmas Carol’, all seen the BBC adaptation of ‘Great Expectations’, and all know the plot of ‘Oliver Twist’, but what of Charles Dickens’ brilliant novel ‘Bleak House’? It is, of course, alive with Dickensian clichés, such as the protagonist’s chance meeting of a benevolent stranger, coincidences that seem to suggest London is petite, stark caricatures, and a generous helping of social commentary. But there is something uniquely captivating about this novel. Perhaps it is the imaginative powers that permeate from the very opening, as the reader is invited to picture ‘a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn-Hill’. Perhaps it is the sensationalist excitement of a plot enriched with Victorian taboos like illegitimacy, concealed identity, crime, and murder. Perhaps it is the touching selflessness of the heroine, Esther. Although a plot centred around the satirisation of the inefficient Court of Chancery (which was used to settle issues such as inheritance, land law, and guardianship) may sound a little trying, this tale certainly isn’t set at the slow pace of that plodding Megalosaurus. A London engulfed in fog is the scene for a compelling discovery of the self, along with stories of love and tragic loss, and mysteries to be solved; there is comedy along the way, and a twist that defies the passé convention that is the beautifully flawless heroine. In short, Bleak House is a novel that has it all

'The Drowned World' | © Berkley Books
‘The Drowned World’ | © Berkley Books

The Drowned World | J. G. Ballard

The globe’s latest craze for dystopian and science fiction is growing ever stronger, with the recent popularity of books such as ‘The Hunger Games’ series and films like ‘Interstellar’, but the concepts are, of course, nothing new. J. G. Ballard was there first with his novel ‘The Drowned World’, and all before The Beatles had released ‘Twist and Shout’. Unlike your typical sci-fi novel, Ballard rejects notions of epic space battles and alien invasion, but instead focuses on the most alien planet of all: Earth. In Ballard’s vision, an eco-catastrophe has rendered the arctic circle the only habitable place on the planet, and the protagonist, Dr Kerans, has been sent to the tropical lagoon that is London to partake in a scientific survey documenting its wildlife. Ballard paints a vivid picture of the submerged city, haunted by a newly dawned Triassic era, bringing it to life with descriptions of the gargantuan anemones that grow in what was once Leicester Square, of the enormous water spiders, and swamp starfish. This hallucinatory environment of giant Iguanas and intense heat, where every city is now ‘like a discarded crown overgrown by wild orchids’, soon initiates a parallel in the mental states of the novel’s characters, as Ballard explores the terrifying notion of devolutionary descent. He has been praised for prophecy in the past, but hopefully his vision will remain content with coming to life only through the imagination of those who read this innovative novel.