Have Book, Will Travel

I am certainly not a world traveler, more a visitor, but I’ve been lucky enough to see a few great cities in North America and Europe over the years and am grateful for it.

I am often intrigued by what a novelist has had to say about a city where they lived or spent time and, in fact, have complied this list in which I pair cities I have visited with books I think go particularly well with them.

There are lots of books synonymous with cities — like Dublin and James Joyce’s Ulysses — but I’ve made an effort to look past the obvious references. Some books are older, some are newer, some you may know, others maybe not, but they are all great, as are the cities in which they’re set. And while you must wait for the post-pandemic future to visit these cities, you can read the books now. Check your local library, or new or used bookstores. Finding the book will be part of the fun.


London/The End of the Affair by Graham Greene.

"Graham Greene lived here" plaque.You rarely hear of Graham Greene’s novels these days but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. This novel, set in London during and just after the Second World War, deals with three main characters –Sarah and Henry, a married couple, and Maurice — and, of course, an affair. Greene wrote four novels dealing with issues of Catholicism and this is considered the best of the lot, some say the best of all his books, which are often set in countries other than his native England and deal with political intrigue.

During a tryst with Sarah, a bomb blasts Maurice’s flat and he is nearly killed. Afterward, Sarah breaks off the affair with no explanation (for Maurice, anyway).

In 1940, a bomb hit Greene’s own house at 14 Clapham Common Northside in South-west London, rendering it uninhabitable. He drew on this experience in The End of the Affair as well as his earlier, classic novel The Ministry of Fear, set during the 1943 London Blitz. The interior of Greene’s home was rebuilt after the war and the heritage-designated building is today an attraction for Greene fans.


Edinburgh/The Falls by Ian Rankin

If originality and longevity are measures of a writer’s greatness, then Edinburgh has produced at least two great writers: Robert Lewis Stevenson and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creators of Jekyll and Hyde and Holmes and Watson, respectively. But these stories were set in London. If you want Edinburgh at its realistic grittiest, read Ian Rankin’s DI Rebus series — in particular, The Falls.

The Falls finds Rebus investigating the disappearance of a young woman on Arthur’s Seat, the spectacular hill overlooking Edinburgh, and the discovery nearby of a miniature carved person in a coffin.

Coffins found on Arthur's Seat

The original little coffins as found on Arthur’s Seat (photo in back) in Edinburgh, on display at the National Museum, Edinburgh, Nov 2019. (Photo by Faye MacDougall)

In 1836, boys hunting rabbits on the slopes of Arthur’s Seat came across a small cave, it’s opening covered by slate slabs. Hidden within were 17 miniature carved coffins complete with doll-like bodies. Eight of the real coffins survived and are on display in the National Museum of Scotland. This is an oddity and hidden gem for literature and history lovers alike. Go see them.


Glasgow/How late it was, how late by James Kelman

Cover: How Late It Was How LateWhen this book came out in 1994, the critics and reviews were scathing, decrying it as the “rambling thoughts of a blind Glaswegian drunk.” Written in a profane “Scots” vernacular, it tells the story of a recently-blinded, known-to-police, looking-for-his-missing-girlfriend, partially-paranoid, down-and-out Glaswegian drunkard. Of his writing style, Kelman said: “If you’ve lost the way your family talk, the way your friends talk, then you’ve lost your culture, and you’re divorced from it.”

Fellow Scottish writer Ian Rankin credits his choice to write his crime novels in standard English to Kelman. He gave his father Kelman’s first book, thinking he would like it since he came from the same working-class background, but the elder Rankin said he couldn’t read it because it wasn’t in English. In reality, once you get into How late it was, how late, you will understand it — and realize how great a book it is.

“Glaswegian patter” can be heard throughout the city if you keep your ear to the ground or visit one of Glasgow’s many pubs. Everywhere serves haggis, so try it. Glasgow’s Christmas fair is one of the best and most fun outdoor events you could ever partake in. It starts in mid-November, the best time to go.


Dublin/The Commitments by Roddy Doyle

Yes, it was a novel before Alan Parker turned it into a beloved musical film. The 1987 book was Doyle’s first, about a motley crew of teenage musicians trying to bring soul music to north Dublin. The book is almost all dialogue in a form of Dublin slang common to the pubs on the fringes of the city. Unlike James Joyce, whose language was censored, Doyle’s characters spew forth plenty of colorful Irish profanity.

he author reading a page from Joyce’s Ulysses in Sweny’s drugstore in Dublin, 2018

he author reading a page from Joyce’s Ulysses in Sweny’s drugstore in Dublin, 2018

The book reads more like a play and is very funny, yet has a serious side as well, describing, complaining about and extolling working class Dublin. Doyle went on to write two follow-up novels in what became known as The Barrytown Trilogy. In 2013 he published a fourth installment, The Guts.

Dublin has something for everyone: history, churches, museums, restaurant and pubs. The food and drink is all fantastic. One can’t-miss attraction for book lovers would be Sweny’s Pharmacy, as described in James Joyce’s Ulysses. It is still there near Trinity College, around the corner from where Oscar Wilde was born. Buy a lemon soap.


Paris/Have Mercy on Us All by Fred Vargas

Cover: Have Mercy On Us AllFred Vargas (the pseudonym of Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau) is a French historian and archeologist, known for her work on the plague aka the Black Death, but she is also an award-winning crime novelist, author of the Commissaire Adamsberg series. He’s a scruffy, odd, complex policeman who spends his days and nights in various Parisian neighborhoods solving modern day crimes that often seem to have sprung from mythology or the distant past.

In her 2001 novel, Have Mercy On Us All, a town crier begins announcing malevolent messages linked to the Black Death. Marks appear on doors to ward off the menace, then flea-bitten corpses begin to show up and disease paranoia begins to take hold — the latter something the world once again had to come to grips with in 2020.

What makes Vargas’ books a good way to read Paris is basically everything — the atmosphere, the neighborhoods, the characters. Vargas’ portrayal of the social realities of Paris has been compared to Henning Mankell’s portrait of Malmo, Sweden in his Inspector Wallander mysteries. High praise (and another city worth reading and visiting).


Milan/The Disappearance of Signora Giulia by Piero Chiara

Cover: The Disappearance of Signora GiuliaOnce a week for three years, the gorgeous, high-society Signora Giulia takes the train from a small unnamed town in northern Lombardy to Milan to visit her daughter until one day, she vanishes and it falls to Commissario Sciancalepre to find out what happened to her. Was she meeting a lover? Why does her much older, respected criminal lawyer husband Esengrini claim not have a clue about what happened?

The search for the Signora and the truth extends over the Italian countryside around Milan and a number of years but just 120 pages. It’s a brilliantly plotted novella that has one of the best non-ending endings in detective/literary fiction. Chiara’s work has drawn comparisons to Patricia Highsmith and Friedrich Dürrenmatt, author of the classic story of a policeman’s obsession, The Pledge. Chiara, who died in 1986, was a poet, screenwriter, actor and winner of multiple Italian literary awards. This book is the first of his works to be translated into English. I await more.


New York City/The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith

Cover: The Price of SaltMany great books have come out of New York, including Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Toni Morrison’s Jazz, both set in Harlem, and Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. But in keeping with my earlier mentioned resolve, my choice is less obvious.

Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt tells the story of Therese, a young woman working in the toy section of a department store during the Christmas season in 1950s Manhattan. She wants to be a theater set designer, so what better place to be? She has a boyfriend, she must be happy. But that’s not always the case and when she meets a beautiful, classy, somewhat older woman, a fire ignites between them.

Highsmith has written some of the best psychological thrillers ever, including Strangers on a Train, and the entire five-part Thomas Ripley series about a conniving criminal who constantly resurrects himself as someone else. But this book was described as a “romance” between two women caught up with jealous men and prying private eyes. Unlike many lesbian novels of its time, things turned out somewhat okay for the ladies, though they had to pay a price.

If you’d rather visit another New York burrough, there’s Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Latham. Tourette’s Syndrome-suffering orphan Lionel Essrog, tries to figure out who killed his boss Frank at the private detective company. Brooklyn is as much as character as Lionel and a host of others are, and the tics and compulsions of Tourette’s in many ways describe the oddities and complexities of one of the world’s greatest cities.


Boston/The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins

The Friends of Eddie Coyle, paperback.Boston, a place where everyone knows your name, as the song from the eighties hit show, Cheers would have it. Although with friends like Eddie Coyle’s, you wouldn’t need enemies. The hallmark 1970 crime novel by George V. Higgins was described by Elmore Leonard as “the best crime novel ever written…makes The Maltese Falcon read like Nancy Drew. Leonard has said on record that this book totally influenced his own dialogue-heavy writing style.

Set in the working class parts of Boston, this book turned the criminal underworld novel on its head. The forties and fifties had hard-boiled detectives solving cases with cunning and a dash of machismo and fisticuffs. What Higgins did was look at things more from the criminal’s perspective, as did Jim Thompson and David Goodis before him. The glamorous mafioso types of The Godfather (1969) are not here. These Irish mob guys aren’t wine drinkers and the cops will stop at nothing to get them. Dennis Lehane, who writes about Boston today, acknowledges he learned from Higgins.


Toronto/Bellevue Square by Michael Redhill

Cover: Bellevue Square“My doppelganger problems began one afternoon in early April.” How’s that for an opener? Who doesn’t like a phantom double story, right? Bellevue Square is a small park in a colorful area of Toronto called Kensington Market and a highly literary novel that author Michael Redhill calls, “a modern ghost story.”

Bellevue Square centers on Jean and her (maybe real) double, Ingrid, a murder (or not) and a rare medical condition called “asymmetric autoscopy” or “bad wiring.” Throw in an unhealthy dose of paranoia and a distraught family and you have the makings of a serious psychodrama.

Kensington Market is a vibrant, multicultural, partly outdoor market area of Toronto, as legendary as it is old. For years, a popular television program called The King Of Kensington was set there and today a statue of the “King” stands not far away from Bellevue Square. But watch out for doppelgängers if you visit.


Québec City/Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny

Chief Inspector Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec is trying to recover from a case gone bad by poring over books and documents in the library of Québec’s Literary and Historical Society — a real, all-English library, smack dab in the heart of French Canada.


The author, outside the main setting of Louise Penney’s Bury Your Dead, Quebec City 2019.


The author's wife, Faye, a retired librarian, was quick to spot Joanne Schwartz’s and Sydney Smith's illustrated children’s book inside the LHSQ library. Schwartz is from Sydney and Smith is an award-winning illustrator from Halifax.


You can visit the jail cell below the library, where Penny got inspiration for her novel, full of excellent descriptions of Quebec City.

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His recovery is hampered when a local historian, obsessed with finding the burial place of Québec City founder Samuel de Champlain, is found dead in the library’s basement. This thrilling book  sees Penny’s star detective working out the murder while drinking coffee in local cafés and dining at Le Petit Coin Latin, among other locales.

Fans of Penny’s books — and especially this one — come from all over to do Bury Your Dead walking tours. The Lit & His library dates to 1868 and is located in the Morrin Centre. The building served as one of Quebec City’s first jails for 65 years and the basement still contains some of the original cells. You can visit. Just don’t stay.


I hope you enjoyed my pairings. Send me a note on Twitter @franeymountain if you have some of your own suggestions. I’d enjoy seeing and maybe reading them.


Paul MacDougall


Paul MacDougall is a Senior Instructor in Health Sciences at CBU, a writer and playwright and enjoys the outdoors, all seasons round. He can be found @franeymountain literally and virtually.