Sussex themed books to read during the lockdown

Wilding by Isabella Tree

Wilding by Isabella Tree - Credit: Archant

For those of us confined to our homes, what better way to escape reality than in the pages of a book? Here we present a comprehensive Sussex reading list, with selections from novelists Peter James, Simon Brett and Lynne Truss

With the nation in lockdown and many of us struggling to fill the time profitably, bookshops are reporting a significant increase in sales of longer novels and classic fiction. The book chain Waterstones has seen its online sales rise by 400 per cent week on week. It has also reported a “significant uplift” in classic – and often timely – titles, including Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.

But what about Sussex reads? If you’re missing getting out and about across the county, let your imagination take you there instead. Here, with the help of three Sussex writers –Peter James, Lynne Truss and Simon Brett – we’ve compiled our essential fiction reading list, which will take you from the mean streets of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock to the genteel cobbled alleyways of Tilling, immortalised in EF Benson’s Mapp and Lucia novels. And once you’ve sated your appetite for fiction, we’ve also thrown in some memoirs, nature writing and books on the visual arts. Apologies if we’ve missed out your favourites.


Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

(Vintage Classic, £8.99)

Chosen by Peter James

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This is the novel that made me want to be a writer, and to write a crime novel set in my then home town. It has one of the most compelling first sentences ever written: “Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to kill him.” Unlike many previous crime novels, which begin with a dead body, the victim is alive and in peril. And unlike the traditional crime novels of the time, where the puzzle of who committed the murder was the thing, this novel deals with a big issue – Catholicism. The (anti-)hero, Pinkie, is a nasty 17-year-old

boy gangster in charge of a bunch of evil middle-aged misfits. He is a killer, but being a Catholic, is terrified of eternal damnation. There is no comfortable ending, but it does have a deliciously dark one.


The Mapp and Lucia novels by E F Benson


Chosen by Simon Brett

These six sparkling, classic comedies of manners, set against the petty snobberies and competitive manoeuverings of English village society, are situated in the idyllic seaside town of Tilling, a thinly-disguised Rye, in the 1920s and 1930s. Welcome escapism.


The Four Men: A Farrago by Hilaire Belloc

(HardPress Publishing, £10.95)

Rollicking account of four friends walking and talking hard across Sussex, and treating themselves to a few beers in country pubs. They pass through many real locations, including The George Inn at Robertsbridge.


Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

(Penguin, £7.99)

Chosen by Lynne Truss

In times of disorder, illness and general despondency, it’s hard to beat Cold Comfort Farm: from its hapless, hoof-dropping cattle and encrusted porridge, to the riotous conflict of cool, sophisticated urbanite Flora Poste with her untowardly passionate rural relatives in deepest Sussex.


Sanditon by Jane Austen

(Oxford World’s Classics, £4.99)

In this, her final, unfinished work, Austen sets aside her familiar subject matter, the country village with its settled community, for the transient and eccentric assortment of people who drift to Sanditon, a fictitious new resort on the south coast. It’s the obsession of local landowner Mr Thomas Parker, who means to transform this humble fishing village into a fashionable health resort to rival its famous neighbours, Brighton and Eastbourne. Light and funny, it’s Austen’s most experimental and poignant work.


The West Pier by Patrick Hamilton

(Out of print, but available online)

Chosen by Peter James

Born near Brighton and educated in the city, Hamilton featured Brighton and Hove in many of his works. His last novels, featuring the fascinating psychopath Ernest Ralph Gorse, were his best. My hero, Graham Greene, agreed, generously calling The West Pier “the best book written about Brighton”. And I love JB Priestley’s description of Hamilton’s fictional landscape: “… a kind of No Man’s Land of shabby hotels, dingy boarding-houses and all those saloon bars where the homeless can meet.”



The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard

(Pan Macmillan)

Tracing the fortunes of an upper-middle-class family, the quartet begins at Home Place, Sussex, in 1937, as storm clouds begin to gather, and charts two decades of births, deaths, marriages, affairs, abortions and divorces. A fifth novel, All Change, skips ahead to 1956. As Hilary Mantel has observed, the novels are “panoramic, expansive, intriguing as social history and generous in their storytelling”.


The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

(Bloomsbury Paperbacks, £8.99)

The provincial village of Rye in the days just before and after the Great War is so vividly drawn here that it fairly vibrates. This luminous story of a family, town and world in their final moments of innocence is as lingering and lovely as a long summer sunset.


After the Party by Cressida Connolly

(Viking £8.99)

Chosen by Simon Brett

One of the best historical novels I’ve read in recent years. It concerns a woman who has lived abroad and returns to England in the summer of 1938. She moves in a circle of upper-class privilege, where there is much talk of politics and the impending war. It’s a powerful and moving story of people who back the wrong horse in political terms and support Oswald Mosley. Though not exclusively set in Sussex, there are vivid scenes in very idiosyncratic summer camps located in the Bognor and Pagham area.


The Taxidermist’s Daughter by Kate Mosse

(Orion, £8.99)

1912. A Sussex churchyard. Villagers gather on the night when the ghosts of those who will not survive the coming year are thought to walk. And in the shadows, a woman lies dead. As the flood waters rise, Connie Gifford is marooned in a decaying house with her increasingly tormented father, who drinks to escape the past. Meanwhile, an accident has robbed Connie of her most significant childhood memories, until the disturbance at the church awakens fragments of those vanished years. A compelling read from the Sussex author of Citadel and Labyrinth.



The Lady of the Lake by Peter Guttridge

(Severn House, £20.99)

Chosen by Simon Brett

Sussex writer Peter Guttridge, well known as an award-winning comic crime novelist, has in recent years turned to darker stories set in Brighton. This is the seventh in the series featuring his investigators, DI Sarah Gilchrist and DS Bellamy Heap, and concerns the body of an unpopular landowner found in a lake on a property belonging to a reclusive ex-Hollywood actress.

It’s a book for readers who like their police procedurals dark and gritty.


Murder on the Brighton Express by Edward Marston

(Allison & Busby £8.99)

Chosen by Peter James

Brighton is so steeped in criminal history that it’s a treasure trove for any writer of period detective fiction. Edward Marston is one the genre’s supremos. The Brighton Line, opened in 1846, transformed Brighton from a genteel spa town into one of the country’s major crime hubs, as villains galore poured down from dirty, violent and impoverished London to the clean air and rich pickings of this seaside resort. It is fitting – and a great read – that Marston chose the line itself as a crime scene.


A Shot in the Dark by Lynne Truss

(Raven Books, £8.99)

Chosen by Simon Brett

Inspector Steine enjoys his life as a policeman by the sea. No criminals, no crime, no stress. So it’s rather annoying when an ambitious – not to mention irritating – new constable shows up and starts investigating a series of burglaries. This charming first novel in Truss’ Brighton-based comic crime series is a sheer delight.


The Clutter Corpse by Simon Brett

(Severn House, £20.99)

Ellen Curtis runs her own business helping people who are running out of space. When she stumbles across the body of a young woman in an over-cluttered flat, suspicion immediately falls on the deceased homeowner’s son, who has recently absconded from prison. But is he really the killer? This is the first in a brilliant new mystery series. It’s also worth checking out Brett’s Sussex-based Fethering mysteries.



The Invisible Man by HG Wells

(Collins Classics, £2.50)

The mysterious Griffin arrives at a picturesque inn in Iping, West Sussex, during a snowstorm, swaddled in bandages. His odd get-up and irascible behaviour intrigue the locals, who believe him to be the victim of an accident. The true reason is far stranger: beneath his clothes, he is completely invisible. As the cause of Griffin’s state of transparency is revealed, his nefarious and destructive intentions become clear. This groundbreaking novel remains chilling in its depiction of scientific experimentation gone wrong.


A Wrinkle in the Skin by John Christopher

(The Syle Press, £7.95)

If the COVID-19 pandemic has given you a taste for post-apocalyptic science fiction, then search no further. A massive series of earthquakes reduce cities to rubble, plunging survivors into barbarism. Matthew Cotter, a Guernsey horticulturalist, finds himself one of only a handful of survivors on the former island. He decides to trek across the empty seabed to Sussex, where his daughter was staying, in the faint hope that she has survived.


Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

(Faber & Faber, £8.99)

Ishiguro imagines the lives of a group of students growing up in a darkly skewed version of contemporary England. Narrated by Kathy, now 31, it dramatises her attempts to come to terms with her childhood at the seemingly idyllic Hailsham School in East Sussex, and the fate that has always awaited her and her closest friends in the wider world. A story of love, friendship and memory, this novel is charged with a sense of the fragility of life.



The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

(Quercus, £7.99)

Chosen by Lynne Truss

Clare Cassidy teaches literature and runs an annual course on Gothic novels. Then gruesome fiction becomes grotesque reality when a colleague is killed and a Gothic quotation left by the body. Clare begins to confide her suspicions in her private diary, but just how private is it? One day she finds entries she hasn’t written – in writing that isn’t hers. Set on the Sussex coast, this is a spooky, unsettling and macabre tale from the author of the Dr Ruth Galloway mysteries.


The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life by William Nicholson

(Quercus, £12.99)

Nicholson transports the flavour of The Unbearable Lightness of Being to Joanna Trollope’s landscape as he follows, over six days, the lives of a group of middle-class bumblers living in a Sussex village. In his capable hands, the cosy setting becomes uneasy and the familiar takes on new meaning: think Midsomer Murders but with existentialism instead of murder.


The Brighton Mermaid by Dorothy Koomson

(Century, £7.99)

Teenagers Nell and Jude find the body of a young woman and when no one comes to claim her, she becomes known as the Brighton Mermaid. Nell is still struggling to move on when, three weeks later, Jude disappears. Twenty-five years on, Nell is forced to quit her job to find out who the Brighton Mermaid really was – and what happened to her best friend. But as Nell edges closer to the truth, dangerous things start to happen. Soon she starts to wonder who in her life she can actually trust.


The Roy Grace novels by Peter James


The Sussex-based writer is poised to launch the 17th instalment (Find Them Dead) in his bestselling crime series featuring Brighton-based detective Roy Grace, which includes a drugs bust at Newhaven Port and a major trial at Lewes Crown Court. If you start with the first book, Dead Simple, your time in lockdown should fly by. An ITV series starring John Simm as Grace is also scheduled to start filming in Brighton in September.



Deceived with Kindness: A Bloomsbury Childhood by Angelica Garnett

(Pimlico, £9.99)

Vanessa Bell’s daughter Angelica learned only at the age of 17 that her father wasn’t Clive Bell, but Duncan Grant. She later married Bunny Garnett, who had been Grant’s lover. Angelica was herself an artist, but writes beautifully.


A Postillion Struck by Lightning & Great Meadow by Dirk Bogarde

(Postillion is out of print, but available online)

(Great Meadow, Bloomsbury Reader, £14.99, also available on Audible)

Chosen by Lynne Truss

These are the actor’s two colourful memoirs of growing up in the Cuckmere Valley. The first details not only his early stage experiences, but also some evocative scenes from his childhood in Sussex, where his family lived in a cottage in Alfriston.


Early to Rise & A Song for Every Season by Bob Copper

(available online)

Two vivid and humorous memoirs by the doyen of the folk-singing family, evoking his childhood in Rottingdean and the singing tradition in which he grew up.



The Lore of the Honey Bee – Natural History and Bee-Keeping by Tickner Edwardes

(Home Farm Books, £22.99)

Chosen by Simon Brett

Tickner Edwardes was vicar of Burpham, the village where I live near Arundel, from 1927 to 1935, and was known as “the bee-man of Burpham”. He also wrote novels, including one called Tansy, which was made into a film in 1921. The Lore of the Honey Bee, first published in 1909, is one of the earliest books on beekeeping and full of practical advice, country lore and old-fashioned charm.


Wilding by Isabella Tree

(Picador, £9.99)

Tree tells the story of how she and her husband Charlie Burrell embarked on a pioneering rewilding project on their country estate near Horsham, West Sussex, using free-roaming grazing animals to create new habitats for wildlife. Part gripping memoir, part fascinating account of the ecology of our countryside, it’s an inspiring story of hope.


The Smell of Summer Grass by Adam Nicolson

(William Collins, £9.99)

Nicolson was determined to leave metropolitan life, but the rundown farm he and his wife Sarah Raven acquired in the Sussex Weald was not quite what they’d bargained for. The scenery was breathtaking, but the hard end of real farming life was another matter – mud, cold, planning regulations and uncooperative livestock. Based partly on the long out-of-print Perch Hill, this is a witty and touching testament to the importance of holding on to your dreams.


The Little Book of Sussex by David Arscott

(The History Press, £8.99)

A funny, fast-paced, fact-packed compendium of the sort of frivolous, fantastic or simply strange information about Sussex that no-one will want to be without. Here, you’ll find out about the most unusual crimes and punishments, eccentric inhabitants, famous sons and daughters and literally hundreds of wacky facts from the man who knows more about Sussex than anyone else.



Ravilious in Pictures: Sussex and the Downs by James Russell and Tim Mainstone

(The Mainstone Press,, £25)

Eric Ravilious, who grew up in Eastbourne, needs no introduction. Each watercolour is accompanied by a short essay in which James Russell cleverly mixes history and biographical detail.


Slater’s Sussex: The Colour Woodcuts of Eric Slater by James Trollope

(£15 + £2.80,

Chosen by Lynne Truss]

This beautifully-produced book resurrects the work of forgotten 1920s/30s Seaford-based artist Eric Slater, who specialised in oriental-style woodcuts of Sussex scenes, and reproduces 17 of his finest prints.


Charleston: A Bloomsbury House & Garden by Virginia Nicholson and Quentin Bell

(White Lion Publishing, £18.99)

In this refreshed edition of the original 1997 publication, Gavin Kingcombe’s specially-commissioned photographs breathe life into the colourful interiors and garden of Charleston, near Firle, while updated text and captions by Virginia Nicholson capture the evolution of the farmhouse as it continues to inspire a new generation. Her late father, Quentin Bell, also relives old memories, including having TS Eliot over for dinner.


The Home of the Surrealists by Antony Penrose

(Lee Miller Archives, £24.05)

Written by the son of photographer Lee Miller and Surrealist artist Roland Penrose, this book offers a behind-the-scenes look at what life at Farleys House, the famous East Sussex home, was like for its residents and famed visitors, who included Picasso. Originally published in 2001, this edition features photographs by Tony Tree.