I was shocked and very pleasantly surprised by how many of you read an extract from my upcoming book last week. Right, I thought, maybe they fancy a bit more…
It’s’ 1936, and the Depression has hit Leeds hard. Oswald Mosley has brought his Blackshirts to town, and they’ve been chased off from Holbeck Moor with their tails between their legs by 30,000 Lioners. But there’s a body left behind, and Detective Sergeant Urban Raven has to find his way through the fog of politics and sorrow to discover who the killer might be.
The Dead On Leave is out in paperback on June 18, £7.99
The first man stood on his step and listened as Raven told him about the murder. He was in his sixties, with a shock of pure white hair and a thick moustache the colour of nicotine stains, with deep lines etched into his face. He spat out onto the cobbles, said, ‘About bloody time,’ and closed the door.
The next name was three houses further along Kepler Grove. A young fellow this time, with bulging frog eyes and a bouncing Adam’s apple. He looked downcast at the news, but nothing more. The same at the next few addresses. No grief. No one here was going to miss Frank Benson.
Round the corner on Gledhow Place, a man named Galloway cradled his infant daughter, heard what the sergeant had to say, then snorted.
‘You know what he was like?’ the man asked and Raven shook his head. ‘A real sod, that’s what. He’d dock you for owt. Reckoned he was God an’ all.’
‘What do you mean?’
Galloway tucked the girl’s head against his shoulder, tenderly stroking her hair.
‘About a month back, I were expecting him round. He didn’t even knock, just opened the front door and barged right in like he owned the place, looking around, checking in the cupboards and asking if there was any change in my circumstances. No how do you do, no by your leave, no respect. I told him to get hisself right out again. “My wife could have been washing at the sink, you bugger,” I said. I picked up the poker and waved it at him. That got him back outside right quick and tapping politely. “Any change in things?” he asked when I let him in. “Aye,” I said. “For the worse.” He took a glance in the pantry, and when he was leaving, he told me, “I won’t forget this.” He didn’t, neither. Someone told him I’d been making a little repairing boots and they stopped my relief. Five weeks. Still got three to go. Benson relished telling me, too.’
‘You realise you’ve just made yourself a suspect,’ Raven said, and Galloway shrugged.
‘Arrest me, then. At least you’d have to feed me in jail.’
‘Where were you yesterday?’
‘Right here. Where the hell else would I be?’
‘You’re in the clear, then.’ Not that he suspected the man; Galloway was far too open, his heart showing loud and bright on his sleeve.
He heard similar tales at other houses. Family members who’d been forced to move into lodgings because they were working and their income would cut assistance to the others.
‘The truth is that half of them haven’t moved at all, of course.’ He sat in the scullery of a house on Anderson Mount, a wooden rack in front of the range with clothes drying slowly. Ernie Haynes was a member of the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement. Thoughtful, soft spoken, in his fifties, he seemed to have given up on the idea of ever having a job again. There were plenty more in the same boat. The unemployable. ‘They stay out all the hours they can then sneak home to eat and sleep. Benson liked to try and catch them. As if it was a game.’
‘No one seems to have a good word for him.’
‘How can you, for someone like that?’ Haynes wondered.
‘None of them even said “poor man”,’ Noble told him as they drove back into town, along Mabgate and past the mills and factories that stood empty and forlorn. Rubbish lined the roads; no one cared. ‘Not an ounce of sympathy.’
‘He didn’t seem to have much of that himself.’
‘He’s dead, though.’
‘We all will be some day,’ Raven said. ‘That doesn’t guarantee respect.’
‘It seems wrong, that’s all.’
It was the way of the world. Nothing more. People spoke ill of the living, the dead, of everyone. They enjoyed it. Some revelled in it.
In the office, he passed Mortimer the list, telling him what they’d learned and watching him grimace.
‘We’ll need to get the bobbies onto the rest,’ Raven said. ‘There are far too many for us.’
The inspector nodded and took a piece of paper from the top of a pile.
‘The post-mortem report. Benson was strangled. Whoever it was stood behind him to do it.’
Raven thought of the thin red line on the man’s throat.
‘What did they use?’ he asked. ‘Could the doctor tell?’
‘An electrical flex, he says. He found some of that fabric they put around the wire in the wound. There was some under Benson’s fingernails, too. He must have been trying to pull the cord away from his throat.’ He shuddered. ‘Bloody awful way to go.’
It was. Slow, knowing you were going to die. It didn’t matter how many shades of a bastard Benson had been in his job, that was a terrible death.
The inspector drove as if it made him uncomfortable. He was wary, slow, too cautious by half. Going through Sheepscar, they passed a group of men in old clothes standing around a fire in a metal barrel on a corner, nowhere better to go.
‘The dead on leave,’ Mortimer said, so softly he could have been talking to himself.
‘Something my wife heard on the wireless.’ He gave a quick smile and a shake of his head. ‘Someone was talking about all the unemployed. Said they were like the dead on leave. It struck me, that’s all.’
It was good, Raven had to agree. But it wasn’t just those without jobs. What about the fools and the cuckolds? They lived in that same sad, shifting world, too.
He glanced up the hill to Little London. That was what they called the area, but none of the streets were paved with gold. Instead, plenty of the cobbles were missing and fully half the houses were slums. Dilapidated, in need of knocking down, like so much of Leeds. Happen somebody would drag the whole city into the twentieth century before it was halfway over.