PD Smith

A literary city

18 July 2017 | cities, Detectives, Winchester | Post a comment

I've written a piece for the Guardian about Winchester to mark the anniversary of Jane Austen's death in the city two hundred years ago today. As well as being a very historic city, it has links to many other authors, including John Keats and Thomas Hardy. Even the great detective Sherlock Holmes travelled down by train from the Big Smoke to solve a mystery...

You can read my piece here.


15 June 2017 | cities, Guardian, London, Reviewing, Writing & Poetry | Post a comment

I've reviewed a wonderful book on the green belt for the Guardian. Outskirts: Living Life on the Edge of the Green Belt is by John Grindrod, author of Concretopia, a celebration of postwar British architecture (“I do love a bit of concrete”).

Part history and part memoir, Grindrod’s evocative and intelligent book explores the green belt and its place in our national consciousness. As well as explaining the history of the green belt, one of the great strengths of the book is that Grindrod tells his own story of growing up on a council estate in New Addington, developed during the 1930s on an exposed Surrey hilltop. Grindrod’s family moved from a flat in Battersea to New Addington in 1969: “a modern phenomenon: the once urban poor transplanted back to the edge of the city, to the country”. Their home was on “the outskirts of the outskirts” and opposite the green belt. His brother said it was “like everything a child could want! There were trees, fields of wheat … It just blew me away.”

Grindrod's wonderful book struck a chord with me. I also grew up on the fringes of London in the 1970s, near the green belt. My parents lived in a rather unlovely 1930s semi on the outskirts of Romford, not far from the rather more desirable garden suburb of Gidea Park, which was inspired by Ebenezer Howard's idealistic vision of a decentralised urban future. "Town and country must be married," Howard had gushed, "and out of this joyous union will spring a new hope, a new life, a new civilisation."

As Grindrod shows, it was largely Howard's vision of garden cities that inspired the green belt, an urban planning compromise designed to limit the growth of big cities such as London, a barrier to save the countryside from an all-consuming tide of subtopia. I was never particularly keen on Romford (although its raucous, colourful market was memorable) but I loved the sense that green spaces were never too far away.

Today 13% of England is designated as green belt – a striking figure when you consider that only slightly more than 2% of land is actually built on. But Grindrod shows that we need a new approach to the green belt to deal with the current housing crisis: “To city dwellers, the green belt is tightening around our throats. To country folk we are ignorant barbarians, intent on its destruction.”

Read my review here and do buy Grindrod's book. You won't be disappointed...

The Autonomous City

16 March 2017 | cities, Guardian, Reviewing, Writing & Poetry | Post a comment

I've just reviewed a fascinating new history of squatting - The Autonomous City by Alexander Vasudevan.

Here's a paragraph from my piece:

'Vasudevan sees his book not merely as a dry contribution to urban history, but as celebration of the vital ideas and achievements of those squatters who dared to imagine an alternative vision of life, an alternative to the neoliberal city and the urbanisation that is still engulfing the world. His highly original argument is that the history of squatting reveals “the potential reorganisation of our cities along more collective, socially just and ecologically sustainable lines”. Using archives created by squatters themselves, documenting their evanescent experiments, Vasudevan demonstrates that “the squat was a place of collective world-making: a place to express anger and solidarity, to explore new identities and different intimacies, to experience and share new feelings, and to defy authority and live autonomously”.'

Vasudevan's book is essential reading for anyone interested in the recent history of cities or indeed how we can improve them in the future. Read my review on the Guardian's website.

The Prince of Tricksters

14 November 2016 | crime, Detectives, Guardian, Reviewing | Post a comment

Netley Lucas was a debonair and charming con man, described by the press as the "prince of tricksters". Matt Houlbrook has written a remarkable study of this extraordinary character who died in 1940, aged just 36. He was a notorious confidence trickster, convicted thief, concocter of fake crime news stories, and the writer and publisher of bogus royal biographies.


Lucas changed identities as easily as others change their clothing. Houlbrook admits being fascinated by the motivation of this gentleman crook: "I'm obsessed with making sense of you."

He began his criminal career aged just 14. A friend later recalled how convincing Lucas could be: “I had no idea that he was other than he pretended to be…he had a fascinating way with other men and women. He would look you straight in the face and assure you that he was lord somebody or a hero of the war – and you believed him.”

Lucas monetised his genteel manners and appearance, sweet-talking hotel managers and shopkeepers, turning charm and class into credit. By 17, he was driving around in a chauffeur-driven Daimler from Harrods and socialising with duchesses and chorus girls. Later he went on to reinvent himself first as a crime journalist and then as the author and publisher of royal biographies. After he published a biography of Queen Mary in 1930, she went through a copy of the book highlighting the errors: “I have annotated this book to show what a number of inventions are written about one.”

For Houlbrook, Lucas’s life-story reveals deeper truths about the period after the Great War in which the boundaries between class and gender were shifting. New forms of mass culture and democracy were changing how people viewed the state’s institutions and offered greater possibilities of social reinvention: “Lucas’s crimes were unusual, but his aspirations echoed those of countless ordinary men and women in a period when advertising encouraged dreamlike fantasies of social mobility.”

Lucas’s success as a confidence trickster suggested that in an "age of disguise" all you needed was money and a veneer of class to pass yourself off as a gentleman. In a society of strangers, his crimes were deeply subversive.

You can read my Guardian review of Houlbrook's book here.

Crime Fiction in German

01 September 2016 | Detectives, German culture, Reviewing, TLS, Watching the Detectives | Post a comment

I've just reviewed a new collection of essays on Crime Fiction in German, edited by Katharina Hall who, as well as being a Professor of German, blogs on international crime fiction at Mrs Peabody Investigates. Apparently it's the first study in English “to offer a comprehensive overview of German-language crime fiction from its origins in the early nineteenth century to the post-reunification Germany of the new millennium”.


It's an absolutely fascinating collection, one which has proved very useful to me in my research for Watching the Detectives. You can download Professor Hall's introduction to the volume for free here. Unfortunately you will have to buy a copy of the Times Literary Supplement to read my review. Or if you have a subscription you can read it here.