I was born in Brighton. I went to school here. I went to University here. I live in this city still (I have never lived anywhere else). So when I decided to write a detective novel, inspired by my love of Raymond Chandler, Chinatown, and so many other great hard-boiled private detective stories, there was only one place I was going to set it. It is therefore with some irritation that I find myself being asked on a regular basis “what makes Brighton such a great place to set a crime thriller?” I find this an achingly difficult question to answer because I never chose Brighton, the decision was already made. But still they ask; so I thought it was about time I looked for an answer.
It has been reported to me that Peter James, creator of the long-running Roy Grace series (and the city’s most famous working author), has a pithy little response to this: “Everyone in Brighton has either committed a crime, or been a victim of crime.” When pushed to elaborate, the eternally erudite James explains that with nearby ports, and with a thriving drug culture, Brighton presents something of a great opportunity for criminals. But is that really all the appeal is: low-hanging fruit? Surely that would explain things if Brighton was riddled with crime, but it isn’t. Certainly not more than many places where crime novels are seldom set.
Could it be the opposite then? From Agatha Christie’s big country houses, to Midsomer Murders, through to the Scandi-noirs of recent years, many crime writers have taken great pleasure in placing their crimes in seemingly peaceful locations. But anyone who has wandered down West Street on a Saturday night would be mad to describe this city as “peaceful”. On the contrary, the place is buzzing with life. This is clearly what appealed to the team behind 2015’s not-at-all-smash-success and since cancelled police procedural Cuffs: they chose to present the city as a canvas of quirky types living colourful lives whilst often running or driving in the opposite direction to place they were heading.
Many crime writers have taken great pleasure in placing their crimes in seemingly peaceful locations
So maybe it’s something in the city’s past? Brighton does of course have a history of crime (my Grandad loves to tell me stories of all the dodgy characters from back in the day) as immortalised in Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. Is that all it is then: the fading legacy of one searingly powerful crime story, played out again and again across novels, television, and film?
I didn’t think so. At least, I hoped not. Desperate by this point in my search, I decided to re-read my novel; to try and figure out what had allowed me to set this story in Brighton so successfully. And suddenly passages started to leap out at me. They had flowed out of my own pen, and yet they contained the answers I couldn’t articulate when asked. In the opening chapter, when private detective Joe Grabarz is called to an unidentified body that has washed up on the beach, it is a misty January morning. He gives this summary:
“A cold, wet winter always strips the city back to its foundations. And so much of the city’s reputation is surface. The clubbers, the Pride marchers, the eco-warriors are all summer creatures. In the winter the city is just another grey, miserable seaside town like all the others. The same shut-up shops, the same graffiti, the same kids. The same neighbourhoods you avoid, the same streets you don’t walk down at night. The same problems.”
You Can’t Make Old Friends, p.7
Perhaps the answer is something we avoid; perhaps it is the fact that behind the sheen of Britain’s Most Tolerant City™, lies just a regular city, like all the others. But there’s more to it; in Chapter 2, when Joe describes having to search through drug dens to track down a missing student, he remembers a government survey from 2015 that said Brighton & Hove had some of the least deprived and most deprived areas in Britain. One area was so bad it was just outside the bottom one percent, whereas others were some of the most affluent in the country.
This was the answer: Brighton is such a great place for crime thrillers because it is a place of great contrasts. In this city you can find luxury apartments and social housing within fifty metres of each other. You can find the well-off London commuter and the down-at-heel desperate criminal. The Green Party activist, the Rotary club, and the Conservative councillor. Is it any surprise that we have three MPs from three different parties? It is not that Brighton is different to anywhere else, in fact it’s the same as everywhere else, but it’s all here. It’s all here! And for a writer, that’s like having every single type of Lego brick, just waiting to be used.
It is not that Brighton is different to anywhere else, in fact it’s the same as everywhere else
And not just all of life, but all of history too. An Iron Age fort, followed by the small villages of Patcham, Preston, Hangleton, and more; the fishing community of the Old Town (now the Laines); then a Regency retreat; a Victorian pleasure town, the dirty weekend; Greene’s criminal metropolis; the Mods and Rockers; the LGBT+ community; and the Green movement; all layered on top of each other like some archaeological puff pastry.
Great crime fiction shows up the inequality in life; where something breaks over the border, disrupting a society that otherwise seemed logical. Death breaking into life, devastation into affluence, violence into peace. And where better to set such a genre than where these elements are stacked so closely together, ready to burst and spill into each other at any moment. That is why in You Can’t Make Old Friends Joe Grabarz visits almost every part of the city, from gentlemen’s clubs to drug dens, mixing with both rich businesspeople and the homeless.
Maybe the next time someone asks me why Brighton makes such a good setting for crime fiction, I’ll give them that answer. Maybe I’ll just refer them to this article. But what I should do, of course, is tell them the truth: why did I set it in Brighton? It’s my home.