From Julie Burchill to Jane Austen, the crime novelist picks his favourite fiction featuring a city ‘perpetually helping police with their inquiries’Noël Coward once described Brighton thus: “Ah, dear Brighton, piers, queers and racketeers.” And Keith Waterhouse said: “Brighton has the air of a town that is perpetually helping the police with their inquiries.”
A smuggling village in the middle ages, Brighton evolved into a racy spa town patronised by King George IV. He commissioned its most spectacular building, the Royal Pavilion, to impress his mistress, Mrs Fitzherbert. It must surely be the world’s grandest bespoke venue for illicit liaisons.
Brighton has a long criminal history, dating back far before 1932 when, following the discovery of a series of dismembered bodies in railway lockers, it was dubbed the murder capital of Europe.
Three past chief constables of Sussex police each confirmed to me that Brighton is one of the favoured places in the UK for first-division criminals to live. It has a major seaport on either side, and at the western edge of the city lies Shoreham airport; there are miles of unguarded coastline. Plus there are lots of escape routes: all the Channel ports, and Eurotunnel. Gatwick airport is just 25 minutes away. London is 50 mins by train. It also has the largest number of antiques shops in the UK – perfect for fencing stolen goods and laundering cash.
The city has an affluent young middle-class population, two universities, and a huge number of nightclubs, providing a big market for recreational drugs. It has a large transient population, making it hard for police to keep tabs on villains and easy for drug overlords to replace any of their dealer minions who get arrested. And of course it is a fabulous city to live in – and to write about.
It is surprising therefore that so few people have written about it over the centuries – something I’m now trying hard to redress! But here is a selection of books wholly or partially set in and around this amazing, beautiful, vibrant place.
1. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Although Brighton is not directly described in the novel, it plays a key role in the plot. Austen herself clearly had a poor view of the place, as shown in a 1799 letter to her sister Cassandra: “Here I am once more in this scene of dissipation and vice, and I begin already to find my morals corrupted.” And here, from the book: “In Lydia’s imagination, a visit to Brighton comprised every possibility of earthly happiness. She saw, with the creative eye of fancy, the streets of that gay bathing-place covered with officers. She saw herself the object of attention, to tens and to scores of them at present unknown. She saw all the glories of the camp – its tents stretched forth in beauteous uniformity of lines, crowded with the young and the gay, and dazzling with scarlet; and, to complete the view, she saw herself seated beneath a tent, tenderly flirting with at least six officers at once.”
2. The Clayhanger family novels by Arnold Bennett
Bennett has long been one of my favourite writers – and the book of his I love best is The Card, set mostly in the Potteries. Bennett lived for a time in Rottingdean, a village immediately adjoining Brighton, and began writing this trilogy in Brighton’s Royal Albion hotel in 1910. In the second part of the trilogy, Hilda runs a boarding house in Preston Street.
3. The West Pier by Patrick Hamilton
Born just outside the city and educated in it, Hamilton wrote a great deal about Brighton. Many agree his finest work was in his last novels, written in the 1920s – The West Pier, Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse and Unknown Assailant, all featuring the memorable psychopath Ernest Ralph Gorse. Graham Greene hailed The West Pier as “the best book written about Brighton”, with JB Priestley describing his fictional landscape as “a kind of No Man’s Land of shabby hotels, dingy boarding-houses and all those saloon bars where the homeless can meet”.
4. Brighton Rock by Graham Greene
This book, written in 1937, is hands down not just the best book ever written about Brighton, but in my view one of the top five crime novels of all time. It has surely one of the most arresting opening sentences ever: “Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to kill him.” The detective is no longer the key character, it’s the villain himself – Pinky, a 17-year-old killer in charge of a bunch of middle-aged misfits, and a devout Catholic terrified of eternal damnation. There is no cosy puzzle to be solved, no happy ending. You put the book down with your emotions floored, your imagination soaring.
5. Murder on the Brighton Express by Edward Marston
Marston is a wonderful writer of historical detective fiction, and this investigation of a rail crash, set in 1854, is a gem of period detail. The opening of the London-Brighton railway line in 1846 transformed Brighton and Hove – in both good and bad ways. It has been a symbol of the place ever since.
6. The Brighton Trilogy by Peter Guttridge
An on-off resident of the area, Guttridge is best known for his comic crime fiction. But this lovingly written trilogy explores Brighton’s criminal past and present through serious, engaging fiction.
7. The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave
Cave lives in Brighton and this dark and gripping novel has some wonderful depictions of the city’s seamy side. Bunny Munro makes a living selling beauty products door-to-door to lonely housewives – and bedding them. In between he cruises Brighton in a bright yellow Punto, leering out of his window or fantasising about Kylie Minogue’s hotpants.
8. Dirty Weekend by Helen Zahavi
A clever, seamy and savage story of revenge by Bella, a former sex-worker living in Brighton, who begins murdering abusers. Her death toll is seven by the end of the story. Yet another strong and well written novel on Brighton’s dark side.
9. Sugar Rush by Julie Burchill
And now for something almost completely different. Burchill is almost Brighton royalty, so strong are her ties with the city. Sugar Rush was her first YA novel, and charts the journey of Kim Lewis, forced to leave her posh high school and move to a Brighton comprehensive. It is a no holds barred, but beautifully written, account of teenage trials and tribulations.
10. Brighton Rock Picture Book: The making of the Boulting Brothers film 1946-8 by Maire McQueeney
Few have done more for literature in Brighton in recent decades than McQueeney – who began by holding literature classes for commuters on the London-Brighton railway line. I think this film of Brighton Rock (not to be confused with the dreadful 2010 version) is one of the very best screen adaptations ever. McQueeney has created a wonderful tribute to it – and to Brighton.