Is there really a distinction between crime fiction set south of the river and that set anywhere else in the city? The gang in Nick Barlay’s innovative Hooky Gear could as easily be operating out of Brixton as Ladbroke Grove. In Barbara Vine’s King Solomon’s Carpet, Jarvis Stinger’s squat is in West Hampstead but it could be located near almost any Tube station — the Underground itself is the star here. Yet, even post-gentrification, there is still some sense in which the Thames marks a divide between official London and the rest. Look at any vogueish reinterpretation of the London map, its bottom edge hovering on a line between Southwark and Battersea, and you’ll see what I mean.
When I first moved to London twenty-plus years ago, a look of existential dread would pass across the face of the average cabbie if you asked him to cross Vauxhall Bridge. And there is a subset of crime novels that feeds into that sense of ‘South of the River’ as a kind of Wild West or, at the very least, a cultural and moral wasteland.
The reality is, of course, that South London is no more homogenous than any other part of the city. Thanks to German bombing raids and the post-war building boom, everyone is mixed up together cheek-by-jowl down here — sink estates and leafy avenues, Sarf Londoners and recent immigrants. In drawing up this list, I’ve sought examples of books (crime and crime-ish) that make the best use of a South London location, whether that’s a particular physical place, a moral climate or a social milieu.
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
Although much of the novel takes place outside the city, the crucible of the action is ‘the Borough’, just south of London Bridge. Home to the queen olive and smoked almond, in Victorian times this area of London was regarded as a nest of vipers. The idea of a location where criminality is bred in the bone is neatly expressed in Mrs Sucksby’s baby farm. Here, it seems, everyone is trapped — so there is something particularly amoral in the idea of escaping the cycle by setting a trap for another. Before she leaves London, Sue has never travelled beyond Cremorne Gardens and she fears the black hills beyond — with reason, as it turns out. If you enjoy historical crime, I’d also strongly recommend The Unseeing, last year’s debut by Anna Mazzola, for its convincing evocation of period and deft use of the legal evidence in one true–life Camberwell murder case.
Lie with Me by Sabine Durrant
‘Cheat,’ you cry. ‘Most of this is set in Greece.’ Well yes, but that’s not really the point. We are on holiday with a particular kind of South London middle-class family, and their social milieu is the book’s true location. Durrant brilliantly demonstrates how worth in such families is tied up with achievement. The sociopathic Paul – a failure on most reckonings – is unable to keep up, and lies compulsively to make himself seem (and feel) better than he is. Two key scenes in the book see Paul presenting a version of himself at the dinner table of these people, once in Dulwich and then again in Pyros — the Greek paradise that isn’t. This is atmospheric, psychologically astute writing that captures precisely a particular South London breed.
The Treatment by Mo Hayder
Hayder tends to be a bit too hard-core for me, but she merits inclusion for the manner in which she gets to grips with the surreal juxtapositions of life south of the Thames. Her designation of Brixton in this description of Brockwell Park seems pretty outdated now, but she was writing this a decade and a half ago. ‘On its western perimeter, the badlands of Brixton – where some mornings council workers have to drop sand on the streets to soak up the blood – and, to the east, Dulwich, with its flower-drenched almshouses and John Soane skylights.’ Hayder’s work follows in the wake of Derek Raymond and his extremely violent crime novels set in a South London that was beyond the pale in terms of racism and sexual cruelty (and a handy place to dump a corpse).
Tastes Like Fear by Sarah Hilary
Third in the excellent DI Marnie Rose series, this novel immerses the reader in the world of the homeless and vulnerable young people eking out a living in the shadow of Battersea Power Station. Harm – a collector of strays — echoes the kind of character who might well have preyed on waifs in ‘the Borough’ a century before. This is the city of the lost, of those who have fallen between the cracks in a place where people are busy and heedless. Compassionate writing, but razor-sharp too. For two other female DIs, check out Let the Dead Speak — the latest in Jane Casey’s popular DI Maeve Kerrigan series, a bloody surburban nightmare set in stolid Putney — and the most recent novel in Sheila Bugler’s DI Ellen Kelly series, All Things Nice, set further south-east in Blackheath.
The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
Crime novels are always to some extent morality tales, and Greene is the novelist of moral torment par excellence. This one earns a place in the annals of South London crime on the basis of its strong dose of noir (and its private detective!). I chose this for its brooding evocation of a south London common in wartime, and for the manner in which the Common itself takes on an emotional resonance. For another atmospheric book set on Clapham Common, this time in the immediate aftermath of World War II, try Elizabeth Buchan’s compelling and sharply-written 2016 novel, The New Mrs Clifton. There is a fine sense of menace to this mystery rooted in a wartime crime.
What’s your favourite crime novel in which location plays a key role? Let us know in the comments below!