Cambridge, with its strong literary legacy, is the perfect backdrop for those wanting to set a novel amongst the historical buildings that make up this University City. The well-trodden, cobble streets have, for a long time, been the inspiration for many. While the collegiate buildings themselves are natural settings for any plot that includes an intellectual detective or a scholarly protagonist.
If your heart is therefore set on visiting or revisiting this beautiful English city one day, here is a selection of books to keep you company until you can wander the streets or punt down the River Cam for yourself.
11 Books to Read before Visiting Cambridge
#1 Porterhouse Blue by Tom Sharpe
A satirical novel based on a rich and pompous group of conservative elitists who come to study at the fictional Porterhouse College. Some believe that Porterhouse College was based on a Cambridge college also founded in 1284. Described by those in the know, this college despite being diminutive in size still attracts wealthy undergraduates with traditional viewpoints and a penchant for gourmet food quaffing similar to those mentioned in the novel.
Set in the 1950’s, Porterhouse College only accepts males based on their wealth rather than their exam results. That is until an ex-politician is appointed Master of the University and decides that instead of proving wealth prospective students, both male and female, will need to prove that they can pass the entry examination.
Tom Sharpe captures the struggles between tradition and reform perfectly. It is however a story that has received mixed reviews by those that have studied at the University, and this controversy alone means that many will pick up a copy just to see what it is all about.
#2 The Liar by Stephen Fry
After opening in Salzburg, the narrative returns to Adrian Healey’s public school days before going on to his time at Cambridge. During his time studying at the University, he is challenged by one of his professors to produce something original. After claiming that he has found an original manuscript by Charles Dickens that looks at the child sex trade he creates something that will make him notorious amongst his peers. It is this infamy that sees him later enter into a world of espionage, but is it real or simply make-believe?
#3 Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf
We follow Jacob as he navigates life. Wonderfully poetic, this story presents a series of scenes from his childhood through to studying at Cambridge, before exploring his love affairs in London and his travels to Greece before his death during the First World War.
This is a novel that doesn’t really have a conscious, flowing plot but rather explores the way social environments go on to shape the lives of men and women very differently.
It is a novel that challenges the smugness of patriarchy and explores feminism during a time when people would have classed her ideals as radical in nature.
#4 The Great Lover by Jill Dawson
Beginning in Grantchester in 1909, Nell Golighty has just gained employment as a waitress at the Orchard Tea Gardens. The Orchard is also to become the lodgings of poet Rupert Brooke in the hope that being away from his room at Kings College in Cambridge he will be able to complete his work without distraction. Unfortunately, it’s not long until Nell falls for this charming, charismatic man and a romantic entanglement between the two begins.
Based on events in Rupert Brooke’s life, this fictitious narrative retells a story of love and loss while exploring the growth of his talent as a writer.
Based on real events, this is a wonderful work that has been studiously researched. It covers a period of time when Brooke was extremely confused about his sexuality, and incorporates many ideas, opinions and excerpts from Brooke’s letters, during a time when he was trying to escape the internal chaos of his life.
#5 The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett
It’s 1958 and as a man walks down a country lane, a woman who is cycling towards him swerves to avoid a dog. How will this one action affect their future?
At the time of the run in, Jim and Eva are both 19 and studying at Cambridge.
Eva has a boyfriend David, an ambitious actor who is deeply in love with her, but will that love be enough?
Can one moment change the course of your life completely?
The Versions of Us explores that very idea. With three different possible outcomes the author explores how one small moment in time can have a huge effect on the future. Do we all have a set path to follow or does random chance play its part?
#6 Fall of Angels by Barbara Cleverly
Set in 1923, Detective Inspector John Redfyre joins the Cambridge CID team. Having grown up in the city, his past helps to open doors that have previously remained closed to law enforcement.
When a young female falls to her death after playing in a college Christmas concert, he is called in to investigate.
Unfortunately, more deaths quickly follow and if Redfyre cannot solve the murder, someone he loves may also become a target.
#7 Case Histories by Kate Atkinson
Private investigator Jackson Brodie is called in to help following the mystery of not one, but three supposedly unconnected family crimes that have taken place.
Firstly, a young girl goes missing at night. Secondly, a young office worker falls victim to a seemingly random attack. Thirdly, a new mother feels trapped with a very needy baby to look after, that leads to a rather grisly, bloody escape.
These incidents are spread out over a period of thirty years so the chances of them being connected are slim, but as evidence comes to light, it becomes increasingly difficult for Brodie not to believe that all these events are in some way linked.
#8 May Week was in June by Clive James
“Arriving in Cambridge on my first day as an undergraduate, I could see nothing except
a cold white October mist. At the age of twenty-four I was a complete failure, with
nothing to show for my life except a few poems nobody wanted to publish in book form.”
This memoir by Clive James covers a time when he arrives to study at Pembroke College, Cambridge. He recounts how he read nothing that he was meant to but instead joined Footlights in order to write articles, poetry, song lyrics, travel pieces and comic sketches. You have to wonder how he managed to graduate at all.
#9 The Matthew Bartholomew Chronicles by Susanna Gregory
This historical fiction series starts in 1348 with A Plague on Both Your Houses where we are introduced to physician Matthew Bartholomew who teaches medicine at Cambridge University. While some think he is brilliant, his colleagues disagree with his unorthodox treatments and frequently accuse him of heresy.
During this time, when he should be concentrating on ways to stop a terrible pestilence that is destined to reach the shores of England after it has ravaged the rest of Europe, he is instead distracted by the death of the Master of the college. Authorities for some reason do not want the death investigated, which causes intrigue and Bartholomew decides he is unable to rest until he uncovers the truth.
#10 Cambridge Crime Series by Siobhan Carew
Starting with Cambridge Red, this is a novel that draws the reader into daily life at Cambridge. We are quickly introduced to Edward Holroyd, a university academic who marries a girl impetuously and moves her to the city to be with him.
Anni, his wife, believes that she is in for a boring life, surrounded by stuffy individuals until she realises that her husband is keeping a secret from her. Then a murder takes place and because Anni has been trying to unveil the secret Edward clearly wants to keep she finds herself at the centre of the inquiry.
#11 The Grantchester Mysteries by James Runcie
Sidney Chambers is the vicar of Grantchester and as such has the ability to go where the police cannot. Together with his friend Inspector Geordie Keating, this unconventional clergyman investigates murders that plague the area.
In the first book, Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death, Sidney inquires about the suspected suicide of Cambridge solicitor, a scandalous jewellery theft at a New Year’s Eve dinner party, the unexplained death of a jazz promoter’s daughter, and a shocking art forgery that puts a close friend in danger.
Will he be able to succeed where the police have failed?
Whether you prefer to read standalone novels or books as part of a wider series, all these suggestions, covering different genres and eras, will no doubt, offer great insights into the wonderful city of Cambridge.
If you are looking to visit Cambridge in the near-future you may also be interested in our Literary City Guide as well as our guide to famous writers that graduated from the prestigious university.
Have you read a book set in Cambridge that has sparked your wanderlust? Perhaps every time you think of this University City a particular book springs to mind. If so, we would love for you to share these titles with us.
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If you are based within the UK or the US and prefer to support independent bookshops, then you can find a full list of all the books and authors mentioned in this article on our bookshop page.
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