Criminal London – why the capital still thrills us
London may no longer be a place of opium dens, vile alleys and gin holes, as it was in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s day, but it is still an attractive proposition for a crime writer. From Robert Wilson (‘Capital Punishment’) to Mark Billingham (‘The Dying Hours’), from Ben Aaronovitch (‘Rivers of London’) to yours truly (‘Three Steps Behind You’), writers continue to choose London as the scene for contemporary crime and thriller fiction. So why is this?
Part of it is the legacy, both in terms of the literary canon and what the city itself has been through. The fiction of Conan Doyle, Dickens and Graham Greene created such evocative pictures of a murky, corrupt and unclean criminal society that any crime thriller set there is instantly imbued with that same atmosphere, however bright the sky or modern the setting. In terms of what the city has actually historically gone through, this is a place that witnessed the Great Fire, the Plague, the Blitz; has seen the Krays, the IRA, and Al-Qaeda; whose physical features range from a tower for traitors, to former duelling greens, to streets prowled by infamous murderers. In short, the place is rich with conflict, bloodshed and trauma. Novelists can use those physical locations to evoke that mood in their books, to draw out that history (expressly or otherwise) in their modern work.
But it’s not just the ‘famous’ spots that are interesting for the London thriller writer and reader. The more local, more domestic settings intrigue and thrill too. London is big enough to allow for a real contrast in how people live and work. And where there is contrast, there is often conflict, aspiration and envy. Crime. In ‘Three Steps Behind You’, I focus in on three areas: North London, the City and Soho. And by North London, I don’t just mean the stereotypical pavement cafes and yummy mummy brigade. I mean pitting the drab grey houses along the North Circular against the leafy splendour of West Hampstead – because within North London, there are those divisions in affluence that can breed the resentment and longing that lead to the most shocking acts by characters. And then see those contrasts again in the City – for some, the shiny towers can be a slick sign of success; for others, a barrier to keep out the anonymous failures. Soho can be a place of entertainment for some, debauched danger for others.
Conan Doyle sometimes used ‘fake’ or invented locations in London, as many other novelists have done. And often, of course, that can be necessary. But I made the conscious decision in ‘Three Steps Behind You’ that I would use real streets and real locations. Because that is the London that we know. It is entirely possible you could be in say, Old Compton Street, feet away from a murder scene. Not based in London? Say you’re visiting. How do you know you’re not emerging from Liverpool Street tube station in the company of a psychopath? And so the very fact that this is our shared capital, such a familiar city, makes it all the more frightening. These may be fictitious crimes, but it’s so easy to imagine they are real, and happening in the London that you know.
Amy Bird’s psychological thrillers, debut ‘Yours is Mine’ and her second novel ‘Three Steps Behind You’ (published by Carina UK, the digital imprint of Harlequin), are available now from Amazon (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Three-Steps-Behind-You-Bird-ebook/dp/B00IG9Q2EA; http://www.amazon.co.uk/Yours-Mine-Amy-Bird-ebook/dp/B00DP220YY) and other e-retailers. You can find more details at http://www.amybirdwrites.com and also follow Amy on twitter @london_writer