The Best London Novels: A Reading List

By M@ Last edited 6 months ago

Last Updated 10 November 2023

The Best London Novels: A Reading List
Famous London novels - four volumes of Sherlock Holmes and three by Charles Dickens share a book shelf
Image Matt Brown... clearly likes his Classics to be expensively bound

We asked Londonist readers a simple question: What's the best novel set (or partly set) in London?

Looking for a London reading list? You've come to the right page. Using Facebook and Twitter, we asked Londonist readers to nominate their favourite London-set works of fiction.

Below, we've set out the responses in two lists. The first list shows novels that got multiple nominations (and 'likes'), while the second list mentions all other nominations. Having read about 90% of the suggestions, we can't fault any of them*

*Except perhaps Peppa Pig in London, which is a heavily bowdlerised version of the TV episode, and suitable only for preschoolers.

Your 16 favourite London novels

Absolute Beginners, by Colin MacInnes: Second in a loose trilogy of novels, Absolute Beginners chronicles the life of a young photographer in Notting Hill during the year of the race riots (1958).

Bleak House, by Charles Dickens: The classic tale of legal wrangling, disputed inheritance and... spontaneous combustion. See our map.

The Buddha of Suburbia, by Hanif Kureishi: A rare novel to be (partly) set in Bromley and Penge, Kureishi's coming-of-age novel is laugh-out-loud funny in places.

Hawksmoor, by Peter Ackroyd: Perhaps best known for his non-fictional London A Biography, Ackroyd is also a successful novelist. Hawksmoor remains his most popular novel, set in both the 20th and 18th century and featuring the remarkable churches of the sort-of-eponymous architect (we say 'sort of' because the architect's name is changed to Dyer within the novel, with Hawksmoor used instead as the name of a 20th century detective).

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke: Set in the early 19th century, this is a sprawling work of pseudo-historical fiction which sees the two titular magicians squabbling over the future direction of practical English magic.

Little Dorrit, by Charles Dickens: Digs deep into issues of poverty and debt, drawing on the author's own childhood experiences. London features prominently, with key scenes in Borough and Holborn's Bleeding Heart Yard. See our map.

Literary gate: a wrought iron gate in a brick wall. It has a quotation from little Dorrit on it
Many of the streets in the Borough area have names of Dickens characters, particularly those from Little Dorrit, which was partly set hereabouts. The Little Dorrit playground is entered through this beautiful gate carrying a quote from the novel. Image Matt Brown

London, by Edward Rutherford: A novel that spans a thousand years, tracing the development of London through the lives of several families.

London Belongs to Me, by Norman Collins: The fictional 10 Dulcimer Street in Kennington is the main setting for this wartime novel. The comings and goings of its residents read like a sophisticated soap opera. "It brings you so close to the lives of Londoners that I feel quite the voyeur," says reader Brendan.

London Fields, by Martin Amis: A quirky, character-driven yarn set in west London, and not Hackney's London Fields as the title might have you assume.

Mrs Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf: A day in the life of a well-to-do lady living in Westminster as she prepares for a house party. It's not about the plot, though; more the introspective style and reflections on post-war society. See our map.

Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman: A secret other London exists beneath the streets of the metropolis, populated with eccentric characters.

Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens: Lowly orphan falls in with wrong 'uns; is eventually rescued. It's a story everyone knows, though perhaps more through the musical and film adaptations than Dickens's original text. That's a pity, because his depictions of the more squalid parts of London in this novel are particularly well sketched.

Our mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens: Perhaps not the superauthor's most famous novel, but certainly one of his most Londony. It begins on the foggy Thames, and visits 73 named London locations during its sprawling web of a plot. See our map

Rivers of London, by Ben Aaronovitch: A series of novels and comics chronicling the adventures of Peter Grant, who serves in the Met police department concerned with magic and the supernatural. The stories are rich in London lore and legend and very specific in geographic detail.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, by John le Carré: Cold War espionage reaches its fictional apogee in le Carré's 1974 novel. Much of the mole hunt takes place in London, both in the novel as well as the TV and movie adaptations.

White Teeth, by Zadie Smith: Smith's multicultural, multi-award-winning, multi-million-selling novel is almost entirely set in Willesden.

Other London novels recommended by readers

The following novels were all recommended by one reader. In alphabetical order.

1984, by George Orwell

20,000 Streets Under the Sky, by Patrick Hamilton

All Passion Spent, by Vita Sackville West

Bleeding London, by Geoff Nicholson

The Borribles, by Michael de Larrabeiti

Brick Lane, by Monica Ali

Bryant and May novels, by Christopher Fowler (Fowler sadly passed away in the week this poll was conducted, so it's a pity he didn't receive more nominations. We'd highly recommend this series of peculiar detective stories.)

The Bryant and May novels of Christopher Fowler lined up in a row | Londonist
These beauties deserve a bit more praise. Image Matt Brown

Capital, by John Lanchester. Set in Clapham, it's "A brilliant look at the financial crisis."

A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, by Henry Williamson

The Crimson Petal and the White, by Michel Faber

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, by Mark Haddon

Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham

The Diary of a Nobody, by George and Weedon Grossmith

Downriver, by Ian Sinclair

The Enemy, by Charlie Higson

Fever Pitch, by Nick Hornby

Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters

Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens

The Great Train Robbery, by Michael Circhton

Hangover Square, by Patrick Hamilton

Harry Potter novels, by JK Rowling

High Fidelity, by Nick Hornby

The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Arthur Conan Doyle

Howards End, by EM Forster

JS Fletcher's mystery novels

Kalooki Nights, by Howard Jacobson

Laura S Robinson's novels

The Lowlife, by Alexander Baron

Mary Poppins, by PL Travers

Moll Flanders, by Daniel Defoe

Penguin classics: a set of book shelves brimming with orange paperback Penguins
You'll probably find a few of the classics in this list among this marvellous second-hand Penguin collections in the Bloomsbury Waterstones. Image Matt Brown

Mr Men and Little Miss in London

Murphy, by Samuel Beckett

Nicholas Nickleby, by Charles Dickens

The Night Watch, by Sarah Waters

One Day, by David Nicholls

Ordinary Thunderstorms, by William Boyd

Peppa Pig Meets the Queen, by anon. Erm...

The Physician, by Noah Gordon. "Educational and a great story."

A Place Called Freedom, by Ken Follett

Queenie, by Candice Carty-Williams

The Quincunx, by Charles Palliser

The Rats, by James Herbert

Remembrance of the Daleks, by Ben Aaronovitch. A novelisation of Aaronovitch's much-loved McCoy-era Doctor Who story.

The Rising of the Moon, by Gladys Mitchell. "Written in 1945 but documents a lot of Brentford that still exists — the gauging lock, The Butts, the library and The Brewery Tap!"

Rogue Male, by Geoffrey Household. "Makes good use of the old Holborn-Aldwych branch line."

The Secret Agent, by Joseph Conrad

The Screaming Staircase (Lockwood & Co.), by Jonathan Stroud

Shardlake novels, by CJ Sansom

Slough House novels, by Mick Herron

The Thirty Nine Steps, by John Buchan

To Sir, With Love, by ER Braithwaite

Transit, by Rachel Cusk

Under the Net, by Iris Murdoch. "Evokes London of the '50s with bomb damage, bus routes and lots of pubs."

Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Vile Bodies, by Evelyn Waugh

Walking on Glass, by Iain Banks

The Way we Live Now, by Antony Trollope. "Although it is too long."

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

Your favourite novels in 2010 and 2015

This isn't the first time we've ran such a poll. We also asked for your opinions in 2010 and 2015. The 2023 favourites are broadly similar to 2015, with Ben Aaronovitch remaining a popular choice, along with Gaiman, Rutherford and Woolf.