The title has a ring of romance, doesn’t it? Basically a forerunner of the private detective, back before there was an organised police force, other than the Bow Street Runners. But, like being a private detective, there was precious little glamour involved.
Simon Westow is a thief-taker, quite possibly the only one in Leeds at the start of the 1820s, when he first appeared in The Hanging Psalm. To understand how he makes his living, you need to know how justice worked in those days. Big crimes were prosecuted by the state – in The Hocus Girl, it’s the government, through its magistrates, who come after Simon’s good friend Davey Ashton – but theft was a different matter. When items were stolen, the victims would advertise in newspapers for their return. The thief-taker would endeavour to retrieve them for a fee. The victim could prosecute the thief, but it would be done privately, with no guarantee of success. No surprise that most people were simply happy to get their goods back.
Some thief-takers were corrupt, in cahoots with thieves. Simon, though, is far more upright. An honourable man who grew up in the workhouse, bullied and beaten in the early factories where he was sent to work. Until he was 13, already physically imposing, and he’d had enough. He walked out, to face life on his own terms.
He’s been lucky. Very good at his work, he’s become a wealthy man, with a house on Swinegate (that ironically belonged to Amos Worthy, a violent crook who lived there in the 1730s – see the Richard Nottingham books), a resourceful wife who helps at time, and twin sons.
Simon and Rosie Westow
He’s a man of principle, trustworthy, respected – and also dangerous. He’s learned from all manner of people: how to fight with knives (he carries there – one on his belt, a second in his boot, and a third up his sleeve), to pick locks, to be a card sharp. And he’s intelligent, a man who can think on his feet.
He’d hate the term, but he’s a hero.
That’s Simon, but who is Jane?
She’s the enigma, the girl who appeared one day to help him find someone. A young woman by the time of The Hocus Girl. She has the ability to follow without being detected and to know when someone is shadowing her. As soon as she pulls the shawl over her hair, she becomes like every other woman: invisible. She knows every inch of Leeds; for fives years she lived on the streets, thrown out by her mother after being raped by her father. She’d a survivor, not afraid or anyone or anything. A killer when she has to be. Someone who expects perfection from herself, and cuts her flesh when she can’t achieve it.
She’s utterly self-contained, able to put all the parts of her life in different compartments and lock them away. She doesn’t need anybody. She doesn’t want anybody. What she owns, she carries in the pocket of her dress, and her most precious possession is her knife. She has money – Simon pays her half of what they earn together – but it’s buried under a tree. She’s a rich young woman if she wants to be, but it’s nothing to her.
Jane lives with Simon and his wife, Rosie, sleeping in their attic. But it’s a place with a bed, not a home for her. She could walk away without a qualm. There’s only one person in Leeds that she cares about, an old widow named Catherine Shields, who lives in a space off Green Dragon Yard where the town seems to vanish.
Over the course of The Hocus Girl, Jane is going to learn about herself and her past. Things she’d never imagined, things she’d chosen to erase. She’ll learn to come face to face with the truth.
Simon Westow and Jane…the thief-takers.
The cheapest place to pre-order a copy of The Hocus Girl is right here. But better still, why not order it from your local independent bookshop, or from Blackwell’s or Waterstones?
If you want to know what a hocus girl does…you’ll have to read the book.