A Los Angeles Times Best Mystery
"An exhilarating read . . . refreshingly lighthearted, urbanely witty, and evocative of place." Sunday Telegraph
"[Stevenson's] shrewd smarts and stinging way with a phrase are in ample evidence . . . She makes palpable the layers of history waiting to be discovered in the very fabric of the contemporary city." Chicago Tribune
"London Bridges is White Teeth as it might have been written by Agatha Christie or A. S. Byatt or Evelyn Waugh." Los Angeles Times
A superbly entertaining, high-spirited novel, London Bridges gives a modern spin to the classic English detective thriller. Set in 1990s London, the plot centers on a treasure lost in the Blitz and newly discovered by an unscrupulous lawyer, who is tempted by greed to commit a series of crimes leading to murder. A very contemporary cast of characters assembles to confound him, among them a charming and flamboyant gay academic, a community activist, an Australian graduate student, a young Indian lawyer, and an endearing dog named Alice. But, the main character is London itself, lovingly depicted in all its rich variousness. With elegant wit, keen social observation, and dazzling intelligence, Stevenson explores the way that people's lives intertwine in a great city, often with startling results.
Jane Stevenson is the author of the acclaimed novella collection Several Deceptions and The Winter Queen, the first in a trilogy of historical novels. Born and bred in London, she teaches comparative literature at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.
1. The novel's title, London Bridges, refers to the unexpected ways that lives, events, and interests intertwine in the great city. How are these connections forged in the novel and in the larger world?
2. Jane Stevenson has said that she wrote the novel in part as a homage to the classic English detective caper. One of the conventions of that genre is to begin a story in medias res, usually in the act or upon the discovery of a crime that will be solved in the remainder of the book. How does the opening scene in London Bridges converge with and diverge from this convention?
3. Another way in which London Bridges diverges from the traditional English detective novel is by offering astute social commentary on issues such as the intersections between liberalism and conservatism, wealth and poverty. How are social themes explored in the novel?
4. One of the novel's themes is the conflict between progress and preservation. Must the two always be mutually exclusive, or is there a way to preserve history without impeding change? How do the characters in London Bridges resolve this conflict?
5. At one point, Dilip Dhesi notes, "Social justice and self-interest coincide, if you think about it." How is this idea supported by the events of the novel?
6. Each character has an eye on a different treasure. All of their collective treasures may be traced back to the Mount Athos Lavra, but the characters regard their treasures as such for wholly different reasons. What do the characters want, and why do they value what they do?
7. The classic thirties thriller represented an England that was cozy because it excluded everyone who didn't assent to an upper-class English value system. London Bridges takes that idea of pleasure, shared values, and community into a modern urban milieu in which people have to learn to trust one another. In what ways does the concept of trust come into play? What is the significance of the St. Michael's Graecorum trust? How is that connected to the trust that Eugenides places in Sebastian and Lupset?
8. The classic game-theory conundrum of the Prisoner's Dilemma demonstrates that even self-interested crooks need to learn to be social beings. How does this idea play out in London Bridges?
A Conversation with Jane Stevenson about London Bridges
Q) Why did you start writing fiction?
A) I've always wanted to, from as early as I can remember. I used to frighten my little brother into fits when we were something like six and four, respectively, telling him stories about horrible little creatures who lived in the legs of his bed. From a bit later, my teenage notebooks are full of scenarios and plots. But as I got older, I veered off into the academic life, and although I continued to write from time to time, nothing quite jelled. In the end, what happened to push me in this direction, I thought at the time (almost seriously), was that I had been possessed by the spirit of Sir Walter Scott. Almost no one reads Sir Walter these days, but he is a wonderful storyteller, and, as a fiction writer, I am more interested in storytelling than anything else.
Q) Why this particular novel?
A) I had a very strange childhood. My parents lived abroad for long periods, though we kept coming back to London, and from about age five to age eight, I was in Germany. I learned to read very early, and I was very nearsighted, so I had a natural tendency to live in a world of my own. I rapidly went through all the English-language children's books that I could get hold of, from English Ladybird Books to Marvel Comics (which we used to swap with the American kids on the school bus). Then I graduated to adult books at a ridiculously early age because I had run out of things to read. I came across the detective stories of Margery Allingham, which both my parents liked, and devoured them in the way that only a child can do. I loved the stories, the feeling of being somewhere in particular, the wide sympathy with all different kinds of people I can say only that I felt at home in these books.
Once I had started writing fiction in a serious way, I thought that one of the things I very much wanted to do was to write something that was as much fun as one of Margery Allingham's prewar thrillers, as aware of London as a strange and attractive place, as engaging and, in a similar way, partly serious, partly playful and above all I wanted to learn from that master craftswoman and tell a really good story.
Q) Where did the characters come from?
A) The really important thing about a detective story is the plot, and it seemed to me that the first thing you need to sort out in order to make an interesting plot is people who can move from one social group to another (which is one of the basic ways in which you start out with a mystery, and someone, usually the detective, is able to produce some piece of information to straighten things out). I had two close friends who let me use aspects of their lives. One is now a lecturer at the University of Leiden, but she started her life in the Australian outback and then did a Ph.D. in Old English philology at London while working as a pharmacist to support herself. I didn't want to tell her personal story, but it struck me that the basic scenario that in a pharmacist's you can easily find a very intelligent, observant person, whom customers think of as a shop assistant and therefore will talk in front of in an uninhibited way was a really good ingredient in a detective story, especially if the pharmacist had more than one side to her.
Therefore, I turned her into the classicist Jeanene Malone in order to mesh her story with that of another friend of mine, who is an Egyptologist but is also involved with the academic world and the world of dealers in antiquities, and who has a knack for making all kinds of odd friends in unexpected places: he is Sebastian Raphael in the novel. Again, from a storytelling point of view, he was a person to whom coincidences could come naturally. The character of Hattie Luke is an affectionate homage to Margery Allingham.
Mr. Eugenides is also based, up to a point, on someone I knew. She was a really marvelous woman, a very old lady. Her three great passions were the Catholic Church, the Communist party in Great Britain, and the Railway Preservation Society. She was full of loving kindness, absolutely realistic about people, and completely independent. I loved and admired her. Eugenides, of course, is a lonely person, whereas my old friend could hardly walk down the street without meeting someone, but she was a fabulous London eccentric, and she taught me something important about how older people in London can just go on with a completely obsolete way of life, without really having to notice how everything has changed.
Q) Why did you want to write about London?
A) I love London. It has all kinds of problems, but it's a complex, interesting, satisfactory place. I have friends with teenage children in London, and it seems so different from when I was young. At fourteen or so, I was able to spend a summer Saturday walking for miles and miles, looking and listening, with the equivalent of a dollar in my pocket for the bus if I got tired. I don't think that's possible anymore, but it was in the seventies, so London is very much part of me. A bit later in life, at twenty or so, I think it's easy to get seduced by developing your own fascinating personality, but if you have the freedom to wander in your midteens, and if you have an interest that way, you are perhaps less involved with the impression you are making on the world and more involved with the impression the world is making on you. Be that as it may, London is, in my life, the city I was first conscious of being much, much bigger and more interesting than I was.
Q) Why London Bridges?
A) Two reasons. The really important one is that it's a story about human "bridges" if you move to a big city on your own, one of the first things you think about is the impossibility of ever meeting anyone. Hundreds of people brush past you, and none of them says hello. So this is a story about how people meet; that is, metaphorically bridge the gap social activism, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, common workplace and somehow end up finding others they really like or, in the case of some people in the story, fall in love with. The other reason has to do with the way the story started. I heard a lecture whose key statement for me was that the upkeep of London Bridge was funded by an endowment set up by William the Conqueror in 1066 and was perhaps the oldest capital fund in the country. I was greatly struck by this and started thinking about the way that ancient trusts, because of the changing value of money, can sometimes generate incredibly large sums.
Q) How did you research this book?
A) I gave myself the huge pleasure, in my middle years, of walking around London as I had as a teenager, AZ in hand, soaking up atmosphere. My brother, who had long since forgiven me for my early experiments in fiction, is now a lighting designer for several London theaters; he introduced me to some areas I hadn't known, such as the Columbia Road flower market. I have friends now in Islington, Hampstead, and other areas that weren't part of my personal "village," so I got to know a variety of regions.
I spent a lot of time in Southall, where my hero, Dilip, comes from: it was a very mixed community when I was growing up, but it has become very strongly Asian. It's now one of my favorite bits of London. The Asian community is mostly very well integrated and strongly upwardly mobile: I've very often found, eating in Southall, that the waiter is a college kid helping out the family during his vacation, and it's that upward mobility that I've looked at in this novel. That's not to say that there aren't problems, but Dilip is, I hope, a fair portrayal of some of the attitudes of British Asians I knew at Cambridge University, seen in the context of various people I have talked to in Southall itself.
The only place described in the novel which I haven't personally seen is Mount Athos the monks claim that nothing female larger than a bee has set foot there for fifteen hundred years. But I do have a friend who makes retreats on the mountain, and he vouches for the details!