The best books about the underworld

3 authors have picked their favorite books about the underworld and why they recommend each book.

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By Robert MacFarlane,

Book cover of Underland: A Deep Time Journey

This is one of the most gorgeous, profound, and nail-biting books I have ever read. We may be an above-ground species, but, as MacFarlane shows, our underground spaces reveal as much if not about much about the human impact on planet earth. They illuminate “the deep time legacies we are leaving.” Stops on his underground tour include: the invisible city of tunnels beath Paris streets; a remote Norwegian sea cave filled with ancient wall paintings; hollowed-out mountains on the Italy-Slovak border soaked with wartime atrocities. But the most moving journey is into Greenland glaciers where ice sheets tens of thousands of years old are melting away in real time. 

Who am I?

I’ve been writing about science and the environment for over 20 years, but always I find myself gravitating to the non-sciency, non-naturey part of stories. My favorite part of my first book, on the American chestnut, was about how people in Appalachia loved and relied on this tree that was largely killed off in the early twentieth century. For Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, I was as fascinated by the cultural and psychological effects of plastic as its environmental and health impacts. One of the things I’ve learned is that some of the most powerful things shaping our lives – for better or worse – are ones we don’t notice or see. 

I wrote...

Plastic: A Toxic Love Story

By Susan Freinkel,

Book cover of Plastic: A Toxic Love Story

What is my book about?

When I started researching my book Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, I spent a day writing down everything I touched that was plastic. The list went on for pages. That eye-opening exercise revealed to me how thoroughly plastic permeated modern life. In the space of scarcely 50 years, plastic transformed how we live, work, and play. Plastic surrounds us at every turn; present in the air, the soil, the seas, and even our bodies. The rise of plastic is one of the most profound changes that has taken place in my lifetime – and it was hiding in plain sight. My book was an effort to answer two basic questions: How did this happen? And what does it mean for us and the planet? 

Woman of the Underworld

By Zoe Progl,

Book cover of Woman of the Underworld

This is the book that started me off on Queens of the Underworld. It’s a thrilling, and sometimes disturbing, tale of Zoe Progl’s life of crime and her escape from Holloway Prison in 1960. When I learned that a tabloid journalist had ghostwritten the book, it made me want to find out the truth – and to see if I could discover other women who were happy to call themselves a queen of the underworld.

Who am I?

I first became fascinated by the portrayal of female criminals when I wrote a novel, The Ghost of Lily Painter, based on the first women to be executed at Holloway Prison in London in 1903. Holloway was the most infamous female jail in Europe and shortly before it closed down in 2016, I was given access to the prison archives. That led to Bad Girls, nominated for the Orwell Prize, and it also led to the discovery of a forgotten criminal aristocracy -  the women who were once so notorious they were Public Enemy No.1. 

I wrote...

Queens of the Underworld: A Journey into the Lives of Female Crooks

By Caitlin Davies,

Book cover of Queens of the Underworld: A Journey into the Lives of Female Crooks

What is my book about?

Robin Hood, Dick Turpin, Ronnie Biggs, the Krays… All have become folk heroes, glamorised, and romanticised, even when they killed. But where are their female equivalents? Queens of the Underworld reveals the incredible true story of female crooks from the 17th century to the present - including street robbers, gang leaders, diamond thieves, hoisters, bandits, gold smugglers, burglars, getaway drivers, and bank robbers.

Every age has had its share of notorious female criminals, yet their stories have been lost. Queens of the Underworld puts them back in the history books.

Falling into Rarohenga

By Steph Matuku,

Book cover of Falling into Rarohenga

Tui and Kae, fourteen-year-old twins, are sucked into the Māori underworld, Rarohenga, and must rescue their mother before they’re all trapped there forever. Exciting, mysterious, and full of Māori mythology, this book shows how, in order to truly understand our own unique identity, we must also understand who and where we came from. 

Who am I?

As a writer from Aotearoa New Zealand who cares deeply about social issues and human rights, I believe fiction has the power to change hearts and minds and bring us all together with greater compassion and understanding. When I was growing up here, there were few books published by Pacific or Māori writers and we were taught little about their customs or mythologies. I’ve loved watching this change over the last forty-odd years (and particularly the last ten years) and can see how access to these stories has not only empowered Māori and Pacific youth and brought them closer to their culture but enriched everyone who lives in our pacific paradise! 

I wrote...

The Crossing: Blood of the Lamb, Book 1

By Mandy Hager,

Book cover of The Crossing: Blood of the Lamb, Book 1

What is my book about?

Maryam refused to play by The Rules, and now they’re out to get her blood...The people of Onewēre, a small island in the Pacific, know that they are special – chosen to survive the deadly event that consumed the Earth. Now, from the rotting cruise ship Star of the Sea, the elite control the population – manipulating old texts to set themselves up as living ‘gods’. But what the people of Onewēre don’t know is this: the leaders will stop at nothing to meet their own blood-thirsty needs . . .

Winner of the 2010 NZ Post Children’s Book Awards: Young Adult Fiction, Shortlisted for the LIANZA Young Adult Fiction Award, Shortlisted for 2010 Sir Julius Vogel Award. 2010 Notable Book (Storylines Children’s Literature Charitable Trust).

The Nether World

By George Gissing,

Book cover of The Nether World

This is a novel about life in the London slums in the 1880s. You really get a sense of just how hard it was to make ends meet in these communities. I loved it for the details about what people ate, where they lived, and the language. I trawled books like this for authentic words and expressions that I could put in the mouths of my characters in my own books.

Who am I?

I didn’t know anything about Victorian history before I started writing the Arrowood books. The idea for the character of William Arrowood came as I was reading a Sherlock Holmes story. It occurred to me that if I was a private detective working in London at the same time, I’d probably be jealous, resentful, and perhaps a little bitter about his success and fame. That was the basis of Arrowood. I started to write a few pages and then realized I needed to learn a lot about the history. Since then, I’ve read hundreds of books on the topic, pored over newspapers in the British Library, and visited countless museums.

I wrote...

Arrowood and the Thames Corpses

By Mick Finlay,

Book cover of Arrowood and the Thames Corpses

What is my book about?

South London, 1896. Sherlock Holmes has once again hit the headlines, solving mysteries for the cream of London society. But among the workhouses and pudding shops of the city, private detective William Arrowood is presented with grittier, more violent, and considerably less well-paid cases. And Arrowood cannot abide Sherlock Holmes.

Captain Moon, the owner of a pleasure steamer moored on the Thames, comes to Arrowood for help because someone has been damaging his boat, putting his business in jeopardy. Arrowood and his trusty sidekick Barnett suspect professional jealousy, but when a shocking discovery is pulled from the river, it seems like even fouler play is afoot. It’s up to Arrowood and Barnett to solve the case, before any more corpses end up in the watery depths.

The Dream and the Underworld

By James Hillman,

Book cover of The Dream and the Underworld

James Hillman is the kind of writer you sometimes have to stop, think and re-read, to work your way into what he is trying to say, but it repays the effort because what he says is always interesting. This book, about fantasy and imagination, explores the idea that we are more than our personal story, more than ego and self. For me as a writer, it changed the way I see the creative process, with imagination not being something we need to spark and drive, but a space we already inhabit. Imagination is our essence; we are the dream.

Who am I?

I came to writing after twenty years of working with dreams, so I already had lots of techniques for coming and going easily between the everyday world and the inner worlds of imagination, and I’m sure that’s why I’ve never suffered from any creative blocks or anxieties. In a career spanning 30 years, I have written about 150 books, both fiction and non-fiction, for children and adults, and scores of articles including a monthly column in Writing Magazine. I have taught creative workshops for major writing organisations such as The Society of Authors, The Arvon Foundation, and The Scattered Authors’ Society, and I offer a varied programme of courses independently throughout the year.

I wrote...

Writing in the House of Dreams: Unlock The Power of Your Unconscious Mind

By Jenny Alexander,

Book cover of Writing in the House of Dreams: Unlock The Power of Your Unconscious Mind

What is my book about?

I’m a UK author with scores of titles to my name, but this is my ‘child of the heart’ book, the one I always wanted to write, before I had either the dreaming or writing skills to do it, and it has opened up a whole new area of work for me as a creative teacher. The book explores the nature of dreaming, including examples from my own practice in strand of a themed memoir that runs throughout, and it offers practical writing tasks from my workshops designed to help you engage with your dreams through writing and keep your writing flowing through a growing awareness and understanding of dreams.

White Rabbit

By London Miller,

Book cover of White Rabbit: The Fall

He’s heir to a violent legacy. She’s on the hunt for a story that’ll launch her career from Page Six to the six o’clock hour. When their paths cross, she knows she’ll follow this lead anywhere. I love it because Miller’s really good at writing dark romance. It’s a tricky genre to get right because of the subject matter, but if you can nail it you get a sort of grim satisfaction from the underworld justice. But then one has to ask: what happens when someone comes around asking questions? What happens when emotions get in the way of objectivity or professionalism? And what do you do when someone you’re falling for is revealed to be a monster amongst monsters?

Who am I?

K is an INTJ, 5w4, and a cat person. She loves a pulse-thudding plot and a heat level hotter than a gun barrel on a battlefield. She enjoys accurate action sequences, scary villains, and smokeshow heroes with redemption arcs. T is an ENTJ, an 8w7, and a dog mom. She writes villains who square up, heroes who step up, and heroines who level up. She prefers her romance with a side of high-stakes geopolitical brinkmanship, because the only thing better than saving the world is celebrating the win afterward. K and T are long-time readers of high heat dark romances and look forward to sharing their writing with other spice aficionados.

I wrote...

No Time for Caution

By K.T. Samois,

Book cover of No Time for Caution

What is my book about?

Riona Araby is a barista with a "connected" family, a dirty book tucked under her pillow, and a secret desire to meet Master Right. When a chance meeting with a handsome stranger in the airport sparks the affair of a lifetime, Riona realizes her attraction to this dangerous man may cost everything she’s willing to give… and more.

Captain James Hardin – once of the US Naval Special Warfare Development Group and now of no fixed address – has blood on his hands, and a price on his head. On the run from the world’s most dangerous criminal, the Captain has few allies, many enemies, and no options. As Hardin’s past and Riona’s future collide they quickly realize that with stakes this high, there’s no time for caution.

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