Reading underground, part I

Passengers leaving Baker Street on a trial trip on the Underground. Imaage property of Westminster City Archives.

The Metropolitan Line was the first underground service to be opened, 150 years ago. Here’s a picture of passengers leaving Baker Street on a trial trip, courtesy of Westminster City Archives.

As the London Underground celebrates its 150th Anniversary, we’ve gathered together a bunch of books set on the venerable Tube to thrill you as you go about your subterranean journeys. Given the Underground’s vital role in transporting people around the city, it’s hardly surprising that it has featured in many of the novels that have a London setting written over the last 150 years.

In some novels though, it is not just background but the principle feature around which the story is constructed. In particular, crime novelists, from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the 1890s to Ben Aaronovich in 2012 have chosen to use the Tube as a setting for nefarious deeds (although in practice the Underground remains one of the safest means of travelling around the metropolis).
Here’s a selection:

Whispers under ground by Ben AaronovitchWhispers under ground, by Ben Aaronovich
Something horrible is happening in the labyrinth of tunnels that make up the tube system that honeycombs the ancient foundations of London – delays on the Northern line is the very least of it. Time to call in the Met’s Economic and Specialist Crime Unit 9, aka ‘The Folly’. And time to call in PC Peter Grant, Britain’s Last Wizard.

Metroland, by Julian BarnesMetroland, by Julian Barnes
Chris and his soulmate Toni had sneered at the stifling ennui of Metroland – the strip of suburban dormitory Christopher calls home. They longed for life to begin – meaning sex and freedom – to travel and choose their own clothes. Then Chris, at thirty, starts to settle comfortably into bourgeois contentment himself. Luckily, Toni is still around to challenge such backsliding.

Victoria Line, Central Line, by Maeve BinchyVictoria Line, Central Line, by Maeve Binchy
Millions of people travel on London’s tube every day, yet we usually give our fellow passengers only a cursory glance. But each one of these nameless passengers has their own story to tell. At Notting Hill, the mysterious secretary, harbouring her secrets, travels to work; at Highbury and Islington, Adam has a sudden change of heart; and at Holborn, a disastrous reunion is about to take place…

The man in the brown suit, by Agatha ChristieThe man in the brown suit, by Agatha Christie
Pretty, young Anne came to London looking for adventure. In fact, adventure comes looking for her – and finds her immediately at Hyde Park Corner tube station. Anne is present on the platform when a thin man, reeking of mothballs, loses his balance and is electrocuted on the rails.

His last bow, by Sir Arthur Conan DoyleThe Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (published in His last bow)
The body of Arthur Cadogan West is discovered by the tracks just outside Aldgate Station, then the eastern terminus of the Metropolitan Line. He was in possession of some secret submarn plans, but some of the pages are missing. How and why did he have the plans, and where are the missing pages?

A Week in December, by Sebastian FaulksaulksA week in December, by Sebastian Faulks
London, the week before Christmas, 2007. Seven wintry days to track the lives of seven characters: a hedge fund manager trying to bring off the biggest trade of his career; a professional footballer recently arrived from Poland; a young lawyer with little work and too much time to speculate; a student who has been led astray by Islamist theory; a hack book-reviewer; a schoolboy hooked on skunk and reality TV; and a Tube driver whose Circle Line train joins these and countless other lives together in a daily loop.

Bryant & May off the rails, by Christopher FowlerBryant & May off the rails, by Christopher Fowler
Arthur Bryant, John May and the Peculiar Crimes Unit are lured down into the darkest recesses of the London Underground on the trail of an enigma – a young man named Mr Fox. But his identity is false, his links to society are invisible and his home yields no clues. All they know is that somehow he escaped from a locked room and murdered one of their best.

Underground, by Tobias HillUnderground, by Tobias Hill
A literary thriller in which, in a sense, the London Underground becomes the central character. Among the rush hour crowds and abandoned levels of the London Underground, someone is pushing women under trains. Hunting the killer, Casimir the Tube worker goes ever deeper into the subterranean world, and into himself.

A Metropolitan Murder, by Lee JacksonA Metropolitan murder, by Lee Jackson
The last train of the night pulls into the gas-lit platform of Baker Street underground station. A young woman is found strangled, her body abandoned in a second-class carriage. The brutal ‘Railway Murder’ brings Inspector Decimus Webb to the new Metropolitan Line on bleak winter’s night. Lee Jackson’s second novel brilliantly recreates the sights, sounds and smells of Victorian London, taking readers on a suspense-filled journey through its criminal underworld.

The End of the Line, edited by Jonathan OliverThe end of the line, edited by Jonathan Oliver
In deep tunnels, something stirs, borne on a warm breath of wind, reeking of diesel and blood. The spaces between stations hold secrets too terrible for the upper world to comprehend and the steel lines sing with the song of the dead. This is a collection of stories set on, and around, the Underground and the Metro.

253 by Geoff Ryman253, by Geoff Ryman
252 passengers and one driver on the London Underground. They all have their own personal histories, their own thoughts about themselves and their travelling neighbours. And they all have one page devoted to them. It’s a seven-and-a-half minute journey between Embankment and the Elephant & Castle. It’s the journey of 253 lifetimes…

Without Warning, by Carol SmithWithout warning, by Carol Smith
Rush hour on the underground and a killer is at large in London, striking apparently haphazardly in a series of vicious attacks. So far the victims have all been women with no apparent connection. Andy Brewster, working undercover for the Metropolitan police, must find the killer before he strikes again. But danger comes not just from knives and bombs. Murder is deadlier when the heart is involved.

King Solomon's Carpet, by Barbara VinevineKing Solomon’s carpet, by Barbara Vine
Jarvis Stringer lives in a crumbling schoolhouse overlooking a tube line, compiling his obsessive, secret history of London’s Underground. His presence and his strange house draw a band of misfits into his orbit: young Alice, who has run away from her husband and baby; Tom, the busker who rescues her; truant Jasper who gets his kicks on the tube; and mysterious Axel, whose dark secret later casts a shadow over all of their lives.

Part two – the non-fiction list – to follow…


PS: If you’re wondering why A Week In December gets a bigger picture than all the rest in this post, it’s because it’s the Cityread London book this year – you might want to get a head start! More on that later.


6 responses to “Reading underground, part I

  1. A great complement to many of the nonfiction bibliographies about the Tube.


  2. Thanks – lots I fancy reading here.


  3. Pingback: Reading underground, part II | Books & the City

  4. Pingback: CityRead: London’s Biggest Book Club | Books & the City

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