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I read this novel only a few years ago. But I still had my old normal life then (as most of mankind…), so no later than January 2020…

The main character also lives a normal life in normal London till the day he saves a mysterious young woman who had appeared mysteriously and, I think, soon disappears just as mysteriously.

But from that moment he starts losing his own normal life and is “absorbed” by a different, underground London. And I don’t mean just London’s Underground, the Tube, though I think I remember that the names of several stations do enter, as puns, into the story. It is much more sinister than that.

I forgot most of the details, except that there was a contract on the head of the young woman, who was tracked down by two sadistic assassins. In fact what reminded me of this novel was (re)watching the Bond movie “Diamonds are forever”. But Mr. Wint and Mr.Kidd pale compared to the two assassins of this book.

Among other details, though I remember that the main character and the young woman get rid of the assassins and their employer, I forgot how. The only thing I remember is the very end : the main character returns to the normal London and gets his old, normal life back. But he is changed by his experience and is now dissatisfied after recovering what he was longing for during most of the book. So he somehow goes back to the underground London. One can suppose an idyll with the young woman will ensue.

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  • Your question reminds me that I read some recently-published fiction with a pair of characters who I am sure were borrowed from, or, more charitably, based on the "foxy Mr Croup" and the "wolfish Mr. Vandemar," but now I am forgetting what that was.
    – Lexible
    Dec 7 '21 at 2:45
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    You might enjoy Terry Pratchett's Dodger, set in early Victorian London.
    – PM 2Ring
    Dec 7 '21 at 11:44
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    You might also enjoy China Meiville's Unlondon
    – aslum
    Dec 7 '21 at 17:19
74

This is Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, which is a novel based on Gaiman's work resulting in the BBC mini-series of the same name.

The young woman is named Door, and is the last remaining daughter of a House of 'openers': people who can make things, like doors, open, in ways literal, figurative, and magical. The protagonist, Richard Mayhew, is indeed sucked into a "London below" in a way which overwrites the rest of his life. Richard undertakes a heroic journey to rescue Door from the deliciously wicked villain pair: Messers Croup and Vandemar.

The villains have an employer who hired them to kill Door and her family, and they are all pretty well thwarted by the end of the tale.

The hero does regain his old life in "London above," but just as you write, is changed by his ordeal, and returns to seek Door and her crew.

Other notable characters include the Earl of Earl's court, the Marquis de Carabas, Hunter, Serpentine, the Black Friars, and Old Bailey.

Here are some of the paperback book covers:

Neverwhere cover Neverwhere cover Neverwhere cover

Neverwhere cover

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  • 3
    @Alfred It couldn't really be anything else. There isn't anything else at all like it. :) And by the way, there's a short story How the Marquis got his coat back which Gaiman had been talking about for a while and finally wrote in 2015. I don't need to say it's worth reading, because it's by Gaiman so that's kind of assumed.
    – Graham
    Dec 7 '21 at 13:28
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    @Alfred Well, y'know. It's a fairly famous book by a very well known author, so you didn't have to wait for somebody with very specific knowledge to show up. The pool of people who could come up with the right ID is large and your description was very good. (Honestly just from the title "fantasy novel under london" I immediately said "I wonder if it's Neverwhere?" so the rest of the detail just confirmed my suspicion.) Dec 7 '21 at 14:02
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    Seconding @DarthPseudonym. Just from seeing the title in the hot network questions, I suspected "Neverwhere" immediately.
    – orithena
    Dec 7 '21 at 14:15
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    Bit of nitpicking: I'd rephrase the first sentence too, because the novel isn't that much based on the BBC series. The BBC series is based on the novel that surfaced in Gaimans mind while producing the TV series he's being asked to write; he wrote the novel down after seeing the compromises he needed to accept while producing the series (Source: Chapter "Introduction to this Text" in the "Author's preferred text" version of "Neverwhere").
    – orithena
    Dec 7 '21 at 14:27
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    @orithena I'd say the first sentence is correct. As you say, the novel is basically what Gaiman would have put on the screen if BBC budgets and early-90s FX had permitted. What he described is not so much that he had an idea for a novel and put it into a screenplay before he wrote down the novel, it's more that he came up with the screenplay and then was stymied often enough that he wrote the novel as a "director's cut" version. It's a similar situation to the first couple of Hitchhiker's Guide novels.
    – Graham
    Dec 7 '21 at 15:45
7

This question is also a partial match to the following:

Terry Pratchett also wrote a story similar to this called Dodger, inspired by the character Artful Dodger from Charles Dickens.

In "Dodger" he is a tosher, who works in the London sewers finding objects of value that he then sells/trades for a living. He rescues a young woman (called Simplicity in the story) from being beaten, and helps her to evade those hunting her with the help of two characters Charlie (Charles Dickens) and Henry (Henry Mayhew). During his endeavors to help the young lady, he meets and interacts with a wide range of famous and infamous London characters, both real and fictitious, including causing the arrest of Sweeney Todd, outsmarting Robert Peel and visiting Queen Victoria.

Throughout the story Simplicity is hunted by her former captors, including by a hired assassin called "The Outlander", who always travels with a companion and who Dodger outwits.

The next bit covers one of the points in the question, but is a bit of a spoiler of the plot, hence the spoiler tag:

In the end Dodger and Simplicity fake her death and escape to the country, eventually returning to London as husband and wife, having adopted "country accents" and changed names etc. Queen Victoria employs Dodger as a spy, given his propensity for escaping trouble and getting into places he shouldn't.

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  • This book might have some points in common, but its does not match most of my memories. Neverwhere is definitely the book I was looking for.
    – Alfred
    Dec 8 '21 at 10:16
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    @Alfred - yes I totally agree, that's why I said partial match. Often it seems that people looking for a book will have an incomplete memory of the story, so I believe partial match answers are encouraged for this particular site, in case the next person looking is remembering the partial match.
    – bob1
    Dec 8 '21 at 21:08

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