English crime fiction is generally associated with the middle-class murder mysteries of the Golden Age, Inspector Morse, or Midsommer. But there’s another less cozy seam of British detective writing. In these stories, cream teas and country houses are replaced with beer and back street boozers, and interfering busybodies like Hercule Poirot and Lord Peter Wimsey are likely to end up getting their teeth knocked out. Here are five of Britain’s grittiest crime novels.
Ted Lewis’ taut 1970 novel is set in the grim Lincolnshire steel town of Scunthorpe, the sort of rough blue-collar place where men have fistfights simply to fill the time before the pubs open. The formidably hard Jack Carter works as an enforcer for a London mobster. He returns home to investigate the violent death of his niece, and he quickly uncovers a pornography and prostitution ring run by the local crime boss—with the help of corrupt public officials. Violence ensues.
The Manchester-born Lewis was a terrific writer with a knack for penetrating the criminal psyche. He wrote a handful of powerful books including the bloody and disturbing GBH, before drinking himself to death at 42. Mike Hodges’ excellent 1971 adaption starring Michael Caine moves the action north to Newcastle upon Tyne, but captures the dirty, darkness of the original nicely. The less said about the 2000 Sylvester Stallone version, the better.
Night and the City
Gerald Kersh ended up becoming a U.S. citizen and living in New York City, but he began life in the London suburbs. A big, powerful man from a rugged working-class Jewish background, Kersh worked variously as a debt collector, bodyguard, and professional wrestler while struggling to kick start his writing career. He used his experiences in the ring and on the rougher side of life in his violent 1938 novel Night and the City.
This tale follows sociopathic pimp Harry Fabian and his attempts to muscle his way into the world of wrestling promotions via blackmail and bloodshed. Kersh brilliantly captures the sweaty, smoky world of London’s pro-wrestling circuit, and Fabian is a genuinely chilling villain to whom every life is disposable. The novel has been filmed twice, first with Richard Widmark and later with Robert de Niro taking the role of Fabian.
Wide Boys Never Work
Like Hersh, Westerby ended up moving to the U.S. where he became a successful screenwriter at Disney Studios, working on feel-good family movies such as Greyfriars Bobby. There’s nothing cuddly or cute about his debut novel, Wide Boys Never Work, which was published in London in 1936.
A native of Hackney in East London, Westerby was a keen amateur boxer, and it was the fast-talking, ducking-and-diving characters he met around the boxing circuit who inspired this bare-knuckle tale of London’s criminal underworld and the attempts of wide boy Jim Blankley to rise within it (a “wide boy” is Cockney slang for a sharp-witted smartly-dressed young man who lives by his wits, usually on the wrong side of the law). It’s a book that sharply evokes the rough side of 1930s London, a city in which gangsters fight for a slice of the action around race tracks, nightclubs, and brothels using cut-throat razors for weapons.
He Died With His Eyes Open
Praised by everybody from Joyce Carole Oates to Ken Bruen, Derek Raymond (real name Robin Cook) was a posh Old Etonian who’d become a "low-life bohemian beatnik", hung out with Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, ran illegal gambling dens in London’s Soho, and spent time in a Spanish jail for smuggling before finally settling down in rural France. Turned 50 and with no means of support, Raymond decided to start writing. He Died With His Eyes Open, published in 1984, was his debut.
This book is an unconventional police procedural with an unnamed narrator, a police sergeant who works for a crime unit based in London’s West End that’s known simply “The Factory”. In a tale of twisted love and murder, Raymond writes brilliantly of the seedy side of English life, with its grim public housing, sordid strip clubs, and collapsing infrastructure. His work so perfectly evokes 1970s London you can practically smell the stale beer, cheap cigarettes, and Brut cologne.
They Drive by Night
Featuring a lorry-driver serial killer who preys on sex workers in the North of England, Curtis’ 1938 novel sometimes reads like an eerie premonition of the real-life Yorkshire Ripper murders of the 1970s. Starring an unlikely hero in recently released felon, Shorty Matthews, Curtis' fast-paced novel is notable for its entertaining use of genuine 1930s working-class British slang, and the fact that the police are portrayed not as paragons of a slow-witted honesty, as they are in most Golden Age of Crime novels, but as brutal, devious, and corrupt.
Curtis had written half a dozen well-received, hard-boiled crime novels when World War Two broke out. He saw combat in the Far East and rose to the rank of Major, but his writing career stalled, and he wrote very little after the conflict ended. He died in London in 1977.