cover image London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets

London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets

Peter Ackroyd. Doubleday/Talese, $25 (240p) ISBN 978-0-385-53150-4

Ackroyd’s investigation into the heated depths lurking under London—the Victorian sewers, tube stations, underground springs, that terrain that is “home of the devil and of holy water”— fascinates in conception and falters in execution. The journalist and biographer relies too heavily on his theme of the underground as an underworld, hooking his scrupulous research into it as he digs down through London’s gault clay and chalk into the “portals” of “dark matter.” Ackroyd (London) offers a brisk geological, historical, and cultural survey of buried Roman roads, wells from the fourth century, canals filled with fetid gases, rivers with 48 skulls excavated, and “dead tunnels” of mole men; his take is whimsical, vibrant, and lurid, but occasionally lacking in sufficient direction and tension. Still, with characteristic obsession and stellar accompanying images, the book does home in on the breathing vitality of London’s underworld—“If you put your ear close to it, you can still hear the sound of the river pulsing underneath—and is a “votive offering to the gods who lie beneath London.” (Nov.)