Finding The Leaden Heart – The Tin God

Tom Harper is returning very soon – just over a month from now – but it’s impossible for me to look ahead to The Leaden Heart without glancing back at The Tin God.

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I’m immensely proud of this book, not only for what it is, but the things it spawned. It celebrated real history, women being able to vote and stand as candidates in some local elections, an event that was the first real step on the road to the democracy we understand these days. And Annabelle Harper was at the heart of it, running to be a Poor Law Guardian for the Sheepscar ward. She was one of seven working-class women around the city running to be Guardians.

But there was a man who would do anything to keep women out of politics. Anything at all.

That didn’t stop Annabelle giving speeches – like this one.

The clues the man left at every scene were snippets of folk songs, so Harper consulted a local song collector, a real name named Frank Kidson. Out of this book came this article I wrote on the man:

And, of course, a playlist of music he’d collected that featured in the book.

For once, Annabelle really did take centre stage, even if it was Tom and his men who had to solve the crime. She had to try and be fearless, not easy when someone was trying to kill you.

The book was launched at an exhibition called The Vote Before The Vote. I was incredibly proud to be involved with it, celebrating those Victorian Leeds woman who were working for the vote and women’s rights before the Suffragettes appeared in 1903. I was even more proud that Annabelle had her own board as part of it. From fiction, she’d stepped directly into Leeds history. She’d have been over the moon.

That launch even sparked a film of its own, a glorious mystery from film maker Daisy Cale.

The book was a gift. It came to me in a flash when a historian friend – who actually curated The Vote exhibition – said ‘Why doesn’t Annabelle run for office?’ After that it was all so clear.

I did my only blog tour for the book, and it received some glowing reviews – and even a wonderful review in the Morning Star. These are some snippets or click here to read more.

reviews

It left me with a problem, however. How do I top it? Can I top it?

The Leaden Heart is my attempt at doing just that. You’ll be the only ones who can judge whether I succeed. And you can do it soon – even pre-order the book…

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Finding The Leaden Heart – Skin Like Silver

It’s interesting to revisit the Tom Harper series of books leading up to the publication of the seventh, The Leaden Heart, on March 29 (obligatory self-promotion inserted). I’ve found myself think deeply about them and understanding things that hadn’t always made sense to me before.

Writing Skin Like Silver, I knew the books were taking a turn, and that Annabelle Harper was fighting her way forward to become a more important character, someone more than Tom’s assertive, gobby wife. And she succeeded. She became involved with one of the growing issues of the 1890s – suffragism. This was before woman had any representation at all, even on the local level (that would start in 1894), and a full decade before the Suffragettes formed.

The idea of women standing up was at the heart of the novel, but somehow or other, Annabelle’s involvement with the Suffragist movement, becoming a speaker, grew into a central idea. I thought of it as her book, and perhaps it was, although that would change (if anything really is Annabelle’s book, it’s The Tin God. But more of that next week).

Skin Like Silver did make me understand how important she could be in the series, and that the idea of family needed a greater and greater role. Well, I had no choice. Annabelle demanded it. And with this much of the complexion of the series changed. While it didn’t become about her – although she’s figured strongly in the books since, the series has turned more into the chronicle of a family in late Victorian/Edwardian times as much a series of crime novels.

It was a sign that Annabelle was carrying everything before her that she was there for the book launch at the Leeds Library, giving one of the Suffragist speeches she makes in the book. A surprise for the audience, too, when she appeared out of the darkness. Actor Carolyn Eden did a remarkable job (as she has several times with Annabelle), inhabiting the character.

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Very likely all crime writers believe the same, but I realised that the Tom Harper novels were more than just murder mysteries. It sounds pretentious, and God knows I want them to entertain, but I wanted them to be more. Windows into how people lived and struggled. What Leeds was like back then.

I’m still trying. And here’s me rabbiting on about the book just before the launch.

I still love this book. It feels bigger than its pages, somehow. With the writing of it, the entire series pivoted. I’m still a little astonished by that. It proves writers are conduits. The words flow through us, rather than being formed by us. And that’s a piece of magic I don’t want to investigate too closely in case I jinx it.

Finding The Leaden Heart – Two Bronze Pennies

When I started out, I had a plan of sorts for the Tom Harper books, a series arc, if you like. Of course, like all good books, they’ve long since ignored that and developed their own scheme that looks further into the future than I’d ever imagined when it all began.

But in 2015, when Two Bronze Pennies appeared, it was still sticking close to the idea.

I definitely wanted to write about the Jews in Leeds. They’ve been such a powerful, vital force, although in 1890, most of those here were poor and powerless, crammed and squeezed into the Leylands, just north of the city centre.

I did that, and I hope I did it well. There are some references to the legend of the Golem (at one point I wanted to call the book The Golem of Leeds, but my publisher said no. A wise move, in retrospect).

It’s a novel of changes. The influx of immigrants to Leeds, the prejudice against them that still echoes in today’s Islamophobia. The change, the rift that occurs between Tom and his sergeant, Billy Reed.

And there’s another story in there, too, that of Louis Le Prince, the man who arguably invented the moving picture. He lived in Leeds, developed those early movies here, and vanished without trace on a visit home to France.

Le Prince’s first film, taken in his father-in-law’s garden in 1888

Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge, shot by Louis Le Prince in 1888

Even today, more than a century on from those times, no one knows what happened to him. But a mystery like that was too good not to use in a book about Leeds at the time. Sometimes life makes your decisions for you.

I wanted to capitalise on the wonderful reviews that Gods of Gold had received. I had plans for the launch people. Big plans. Something that could involve people from all over the world.

Live streaming was still new and unusual then. Hard to believe, I know, when it was only five years ago, but that’s the case. I signed up to use a particular platform. I was going to talk, answer questions people typed, and my friend Shonaleigh, a storyteller and drut’syla, was going to tell a Jewish story (please go and see her if you ever have the chance; she’ll transport you).

For whatever reason, when the time came, I wasn’t able to connect to the platform. It was all a bit of a bust. I felt foolish, that I’d let everyone down and disappointed them. My big plans had crumbled, defeated by technology. I did the only thing I could – hurriedly made this video the next day and posted it (apologies for the sound quality). The beard has long since gone, you’ll be pleased to know.

The reviewers liked the book (thankfully). And with two books, Tom Harper was on his way. From swearing I’d never write Victorian crime, I was up to my neck in it. But the characters didn’t intend to keep to the plans I’d made for them…

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Finding The Leaden Heart – Gods Of Gold

As I’ve mentioned before – and I’ll be saying again and again – the end of March sees the publication of my new book, The Leaden Heart. It’s the seventh in the Tom Harper series, set in 1899, on the cusp of a brand-new century that is set to bring more changes that anyone could imagine.

In the weeks leading up to it seeing the light of day, time to revisit some of the book in the series…

Hard to believe that it’s only five years since Tom made his first appearance, met as he sprints down Briggate in pursuit of a thief. That’s where it all started, with Gods of Gold, set during the 1890 Leeds Gas Strike, which the union won in just three days, a rare example of the workers coming out on top.

gods of gold cover

It was strange that the book even appeared. I’d written six Richard Nottingham novels, and my publisher asked for something different. I’d always sworn I’d never set anything in Victorian times. But after that I read about the gas strike and I knew it ought to be celebrated. I received help from a strange source, a woman I’d met before, as I’d written a short story about her (Annabelle Atkinson and Mr. Grimshaw). She sat down next to me and said, ‘I was there, luv. I was the landlady at the Victoria. Why don’t you let me tell you about it?’

And so Gods of Gold came about. The title is from a poem by Tom Maguire, one of Leeds’ great unsung political figures, a man who did so much for the working classes here, only to die in poverty far, far too young. He’s buried at Beckett Street Cemetery.

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Joanne Harris, the bestselling author (who has a new book coming called The Strawberry Thief) was generous enough to praise the novel: “A vibrant sense of living history, with strong, well-drawn characters…I loved it.”

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I made a trailer for the book, and here it is, all dusted off and YouTube shiny.

For the launch, I even had 10 tee shirts made, featuring the cover image. Remarkably, nine of them sold, and I still have the other in a drawer. And there were book marks.

Apart from Tom, the book also featured Detective Sergeant Billy Reed, who’s featured in every book so far, as well as Constable Ash, who’s grown since his introduction in uniform. But there was someone else, that woman who told me all about the strike. Annabelle Atkinson.

She’s Annabelle Harper now, of course, and has been for a long time. But they were still courting in those early days, and I had no idea how important a figure she’d become in the series, it’s emotional linchpin, in fact. As the series progresses, in many ways it’s become the story of the Harper family, how they change and age over the years, as much as they’re crime novels or historical fiction. Or why not all three? I ended up writing a play about Annabelle, called The Empress on the Corner, which was performed a few times. A couple of scenes were filmed, including this, which recounts how she and Tom first met. The Victorian pub is part of Abbey House Museum in Leeds – they were kind enough to let us film.

In those days I didn’t know the books would end up taking on such a life of their own. At the risk of sound pretentious, the series has taken on the feel of my magnum opus. Like any writer, I was fumbling in the dark, not sure where things were heading. I have a much clearer sense of things now. That doesn’t mean the people will do what I expect and hope. After all, they’ve gone their own way in the past six books.

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The Road To Here

Let me begin by saying (once again, probably) that I have a new book coming out at the end of March. It’s called The Leaden Heart, and it’s the seventh Tom Harper novel. Safe to say I plan on giving your details before the publication date, and a video trailer is in the works, too. If you’d care to order it, be aware that amazon is the most expensive site currently. I’d suggest here or here – both significantly cheaper and with free UK delivery. It appears that both companies full their proper taxes in the UK.

the leaden heart revised

That’s the self-promotion out of the way. But with something fresh hurtling down the tracks, I found myself wondering just how did I get here? I don’t like the word journey, but it’s been a long strange trip. I probably wrote my first novel when I was 20, its name long since forgotten. I do remember that it was very heavily influenced by Richard Brautigan and Kurt Vonnegut (well, it was 1974) and not very good. By which, of course, I mean derivative, not as clever as it imagined, and piss-poor.

A couple more fairly mainstream novels arrived after I moved to the US. Both naïve, but I was young, those were different times, and I was learning my craft. And then, a detective novel, set in Cincinnati, where I was living. It received some interest, from a couple of publishers and an agent, who wanted me to rewrite it as a young adult novel, as I recall. But in the end it all went nowhere. I was hugely disappointed, but in retrospect, I’m grateful. While some of the idea and characters were okay, it simply wasn’t a good book. Naivete and a crime novel don’t mix, and I still had plenty of growing up to do, even if I didn’t realise it.

My next book was written in 1992/93. Called Career Opportunities, after the Clash song, and set in the London punk scene of 76-78, with the main character an American student over there study. Audacity on my part. I hadn’t been there at the time. I’d already left England. Hell, I hadn’t really been in London much at all in my life.

I still have the manuscript, I remember the general story. I’ve never dared look at it again. I’m sure it’s cute. And that was the problem. My writing was cute. It told a story. Once in a while it could tell it reasonably well. But it couldn’t pierce to the kernel of truth at the heart of a person or a tale. My friend Thom Atkinson has always been able to do that. He’s simply one of the best short story writers and playwrights I know, and we’ve been close for 35 years. Read a piece of his here and you’ll see what I mean. He has it.

I kept writing, of course, but it was mostly music journalism and quickie unauthorised celebrity biographies. They kept me very busy for a number of years and paid well. Important with a mortgage and a young son. But also great writing discipline. By the time I returned to fiction in 2005 I had a clearer vision, even if I was seeing a much older version of Leeds.

I’d become fascinated by the history of my hometown and started to discover it, as best I could on annual trips which involved walking and buying books, and finding old volumes on eBay. Somehow, in all there, I found my soul, my kernel of truth.

The first book I write set in 1730s Leeds was called The Cloth Searcher and featured cloth merchant Tom Williamson and his wife Hannah. A minor character was the town constable, Richard Nottingham.

The setting, the characters, the writing all had something. Just not quite the right thing, though. An agent liked what I was doing, although not that particular book. Try again, I was told.

I did. But first I thought a while. A crime novel, even one set in Leeds in the 1730s, was going to make more sense when someone from the right side of the law was the main character.

That involved a shift. Richard Nottingham became the protagonist, with his family (Mary, Rose, Emily) fairly central, along with his deputy, John Sedgwick. Poor Tom Williamson found himself on the periphery.

I write the book. In 2010 it was finally published (and the road from writing to that is another story). It was The Broken Token.

It might seem that things really started there. It often seems that way to me. But it was had begun 36 years earlier. Just the blink of an eye, really…

Prosperity Street

I’m not quite sure where this came from – even less where it’s going. Maybe nowhere. We’ll see.

But it’s Leeds, it’s 1968. Times are finally beginning to change.

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Leeds, 1968

He had a description – five feet five, slender, fair hair neatly set, blue eyes, conservatively dressed – and a sample of her handwriting, the start of a letter back to her parents in Ireland. No photographs; she’d taken them all from her lodgings when she left. Her mother was putting a couple from the last holiday in the post.

That was it. Five days had gone by since Sheila Grady vanished. She was over twenty-one, the police barely wanted to know. The Irish grapevine had finally come up with Gerry Hanlon’s name, an enquiry agent who might be able to help. And Hanlon had palmed the initial slog on to him.

‘Ask around,’ he said. ‘You were a copper. You know what to do.’

Oh yes, he did.

Graham Blake parked the Mini on Albion Place. All around him, Leeds was busy, full of Friday afternoon fever, the anticipation of the weekend on the faces. He pushed open the door to the building and climbed three flights of stairs to the Top Temp offices.

Caitlin Parsons had been just sixteen years old when first he’d seen her in 1959. Just over from County Mayo and living with the Rileys. She’d found work in three days, already out skivvying every hour God sent.

But she watched. She learned quickly. Within two years she’d shed all her country manners and acquired a soft sheen to her personality. Her accent had become a gentle, welcoming lilt. She’d grown out her hair and bought clothes were more sophistication. Growing up

Now she was twenty-five and stylish in her mini skirt and tights, still almost as thin as the day she’d stepped off the train, her hair in a fashionable Sassoon bob. No more cleaning for others. She’d been clever enough to spot a gap in the market and she’d started a business. A temporary agency for employers who needed extra staff for a week or a month. Secretarial, most of them. Filing, clerical.

It was flourishing. An office on Albion Place, the new Triumph Herald Vitesse parked outside. She was a success.

FASHION LONDON STREET SCENE

‘Mr. Blake.’ She stood up to shake his hand. ‘I haven’t seen you in a long time.’

‘Two years,’ he told her.

‘That’s right.’ She smiled as she sat behind the desk. ‘A party, wasn’t it?’

‘Engagement.’

‘Susan Williams.’

‘Susan Anderson now,’ he corrected her and they grinned.

‘Times flies,’ she said. ‘Is this business or pleasure?’

‘Business,’ he said. ‘I’m wondering if you’ve ever come across a girl called Sheila Grady.’

‘No.’ She frowned. ‘Not that I know. Should I have?’

‘It’s a long shot. She’s twenty-one. Went missing at the start of the week. She’s Irish, so…’ He let the word hang and shrugged.

‘And of course every Irish person abroad knows each other.’ But there was no anger behind her words.

‘I thought it was worth trying.’

‘I’m sorry to disappoint you.’

‘It doesn’t matter,’ Blake said. He looked around the room. Trendily decorated, colourful, plenty of light. Beyond the door, he could hear the sound of telephones and typing, the two women who worked for her. ‘You’re doing well.’

‘I’ve been lucky. How about you. Since you left the police, I mean.’

Allowed to resign for the good of the force. That was how the superintendent had put it. Fitted up to take the blame by a detective sergeant, not that anyone would listen when he told them. He’d been lucky enough to find this job after all that.

Back when he first met Caitlin Parsons he’d just passed out from cadet to constable, on his fist beat in Harehills. Now she was a success and he was…whatever it was he’d become. Strange what a difference nine years could make.

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2019…It’s Arrived.

Well, here we are, squarely in a new year. That means it’s time to look ahead, especially as I’m putting the final touches to what I hope will become the eighth Tom Harper novel – if the publisher wants to put it out, of course.

New beginnings.

Before any of that, however, the seventh Tom Harper book will be published at the end of March. Called The Leaden Heart, it’s set in 1899 in a Leeds that’s changing and pushing its way towards the 20th century. Here’s a very short extract:

Harper had just finished putting together the duty roster for August when the telephone rang, the line crackling harshly enough to hurt his bad ear.

‘Tom? It’s Billy. Billy Reed.’

Reed had been a good friend once, the sergeant to Harper’s inspector, until they fell out. Then he’d transferred to the fire brigade and been promoted. Two years ago he’d taken a job in Whitby, in charge of police there.

Annabelle and Elizabeth, Reed’s wife, were still close, exchanging regular letters. She ran a tea shop now, close to Whitby Market. Harper and his family had visited the Christmas before last. It had been a pleasant few days, but not the way it had once been. That would never return.

‘How are you?’

‘I’m fine,’ Reed answered quickly. ‘I hate to ask, but I could use a favour.’

‘What’s happened?’

‘My brother died, so I have to come back to Leeds for the funeral. I think you met him once.’

Long ago. Charlie? He thought he vaguely remembered the name. Thin and pale, with mousy hair and a waxed moustache.

‘I’m sorry, Billy.’

‘We were never that close, but…’

Of course. It was family. Harper understood.

‘Do you need somewhere to stay? Is Elizabeth coming with you?’

‘If you don’t mind. He lived in Harehills and the Victoria’s close. It’ll only be for a few days, if that’s all right. Elizabeth is run off her feet at the tea room. Whitby’s full of holidaymakers and the tea room is packed every day. Besides, she never really knew him.’

They had an empty attic room at the pub. It wasn’t much, but the bed was comfortable.

‘Of course. You know you’ll be welcome, as long as you need,’ Harper said. ‘When are you arriving?’

‘This afternoon. The telegram only came an hour ago.’

‘We’ll expect you.’

He lowered the receiver, picked it up again and asked the operator for the Victoria. They’d had a telephone installed at the beginning of the year. Between his rank and Annabelle’s post as Guardian, he hadn’t been able to fight the idea any longer.

She picked up on the third ring, listening as he explained.

‘I’ll air it out for him.’

the leaden heart revised

 

You can pre-order the book already. The cheapest price seems to be here, with free postage in the UK, although the company seems to have mixed reviews. Here is slightly more expensive, but also has free shipping and is highly-rated.

I also seem to be quite busy with events this year, and maybe more to add to that list. I’m not entirely certain how that’s happened, but they’ll all be fun, especially the two with my good friend Candace Robb and editors from the publisher that issues both our books. It all begins next Friday, January 18, with a talk at Kirkstall Abbey – a place with a very deep history of its own – on the Battle of Holbeck Moor, the incident which kicks off The Dead on Leave. My notes are already prepared…

There will be one more book to come this year, out at the end of September. It’s the sequel to The Hanging Psalm, and it’ll be called The Hocus Girl. Here’s a taste…

 

The man uncurled his fist to show the pocket watch. Candlelight reflected and shimmered on the gold.

‘Open it up,’ Simon Westow said.

Inside the cover, an inscription: From Martha to Walter, my loving husband.

‘See?’ the man said. ‘The real thing, that is. Proper gold. Keeps good time and-’

The knife at his throat silenced him.

‘And it was stolen three days ago,’ Simon said. He held the blade steady, stretching the man’s skin without breaking it. ‘Where’s the rest?’ With a gentle touch, he lifted the watch out of the man’s palm and slipped it into his pocket. ‘Well?’

‘Don’t know.’ The man gasped the words. His head was pushed back against the wall, neck exposed. ‘I bought it from Robby Barstow.’

‘When?’ A little more pressure, enough to bring a single drop of warm blood.

‘Last night.’

The man’s eyes were wide, pleading, the whites showing. It was the truth. He was too terrified to lie.

‘Then you’d best tell Robby I’m coming for him.’

‘What-’ His eyes were wide, pleading.

‘-about the watch?’

‘Yes.’ He breathed out the word, trying not to move at all.

‘Consider it a bad investment.’

Outside, he blinked in the light. A coach rumbled past on the Head Row, the driver trying to make good time on his way to Skipton.

Simon would hunt for Barstow later. The watch was the important item; Walter Haigh was desperate to have it returned, a gift from his late wife. He’d promised a fine reward.

That was what a thief-taker did. Find what had been stolen and return it for a fee.

 

2019…maybe it’s going to be a good year for us all.