With the UK publication of The Hocus Girl just two weeks away, I’ve been thinking about the reasons I write.
Consider this my Leeds manifesto. It’s what I do, and why I do it.
With the UK publication of The Hocus Girl just two weeks away, I’ve been thinking about the reasons I write.
Consider this my Leeds manifesto. It’s what I do, and why I do it.
In a little more than a fortnight, The Hocus Girl will be out in the UK (Amazon is already sending copies to customers). If you’re a blogger or review, the book is available on NetGalley.
Yes, I really do want you to buy it. I’ll try to persuade you and twist your arm.
But perhaps a few short extracts might convince you. You can order from your local bookshop. Give them the business, keep them going. And if you can’t afford it, then please ask your local library to stock it. Libraries are vital to us all. We need to use them, to fight to keep them open.
I hope you enjoy this – please let me know.
Near the top of Kirkgate, Simon pushed open the heavy door of the gaol. The place was old now, mortar crumbling between the stones, cold even in the spring sun. The clerk at the desk raised his head.
‘Mr Westow,’ he said in surprise. ‘Have you brought someone for us?’
‘Davey Ashton. Do you have him in the cells?’
‘No, sir.’ The man frowned and pushed the spectacles up his nose. He put down his pen and rubbed the fingers of his right hand. ‘There’s no one by that name. When was he arrested?’
The clerk’s expression cleared and his mouth turned down. ‘Is this the sedition case?’
‘They’re questioning him at the Moot Hall. I’ll warn you now, though, they won’t let you in. It’s supposed to be secret, but I’ve heard there have been arrests all over the West Riding. Breaking up a rebellion, that’s what they’re saying.’
Simon felt a chill rise through his body. Rebellion was a capital crime. The death penalty. Hanging. In God’s name, what was going on?
‘Who’s the magistrate?’
He knew all about Curzon. A mill owner, a rich man who paid his workers as little as he dared and worked them as hard as he could. A man who’d honed away his compassion and conscience and replaced them with gold.
He’d be putting his questions, damning Davey to hell and threatening him with transportation for life or the noose. Simon felt the desperation clawing in his belly. He had to do something. But he wouldn’t even be able to see Davey until Curzon was done. And he didn’t know how he could save his friend.
‘I see. Thank you.’ A nod and he left. At least he knew his enemy now.
‘The government’s spying on Englishmen?’ For a moment, Simon wasn’t sure he’d heard properly.
‘You make it sound as if that’s something shocking,’ Miller snorted. ‘They’ve been doing it for centuries. They’re petrified, Simon. Terrified. With the price of food so high and wages low, they’re afraid we’re going to rebel like the French did thirty years ago and send them all to the guillotine.’
No one would ever forget the day when a Manchester magistrate sent the cavalry to break up a political meeting. Fifteen had died, hundreds were wounded.
‘Or worse,’ Miller continued. ‘They’re taking no chances. So they’re sending agents to spy on people.’ He shrugged and drank again.
A spy. Simon considered the idea.
‘What else do you know?’
The man shook his head as an answer. ‘That’s it, Simon. Little things I’ve heard and put together. It might not be true. But I’ll wager good money it is.’
It was. He could feel it in his bones. He took out another coin and slid it across the table.
‘I’d like to know more about this spy. If you can find anything. Anything at all…’
Miller rubbed the thumb and the stubs of two fingers together. Money. ‘I’ll let you know.’
With great care, Jane emptied the sack. Five pieces made from silver. Barstow had stolen eight. Simon had recovered the watch; two still missing, exactly as the man had said. She stacked everything in the corner, tucked out of sight behind the chair, wadded her shawl and pushed it deep into the sack. A moment later she emerged into the daylight, the fingers of her right hand curled tight around the knife.
Someone was behind her. She could hear him, the way the rhythm of footsteps matched her own. It wouldn’t be Barstow; he didn’t have the skill or the courage. Not that it mattered. Jane was going to lead him through the courts and yards and finish up behind him. Then she’d make him regret this.
She didn’t even need to think where she was going. Leeds was imprinted in her mind, in her feet. She’d walked every inch of the town time and again, she’d lived on its streets when she was a child. Sometimes knowing where to turn and how to hide could be the difference between staying alive and dying.
It only took five minutes before she came out of a tiny ginnel to see the figure ahead of her, gazing around, unsure which way to turn. Jane stopped, staring in disbelief. Not a man at all. A woman. Taller and heavier than her, several years older, with a tumble of thick dark hair that hung like a rat’s nest over her shoulders. She wore an old, patched cotton dress too short to reach her clogs, a threadbare shawl gathered on her shoulders.
For a second, Jane was too stunned to move. Then she breathed slowly. Man or woman, it didn’t matter. This was a threat.
The woman tensed as Jane pricked her back with the tip of her knife and whispered, ‘Why are you looking for me?’
‘He paid me. Two pennies.’ She opened her fist to show a pair of coins.
‘Who?’ Jane wanted to hear the name.
‘Him.’ That was her only response.
‘Why? What does he want?’
‘He said I had to see where you went then go back and tell him.’ Her voice shook. ‘Please… don’t hurt me.’
Jane took two steps back. Something was wrong. As soon as he heard her voice, Barstow would have known exactly who she was. Every crook in Leeds knew she worked with Simon, and the thief-taker didn’t hide his address. This woman came from someone else. Who?
‘Then you’d better tell him I managed to lose you.’
Silently, Jane took another pace away from the woman, eyes fixed, knife ready for any movement.
The woman turned, lunging. Light glinted on the blade of a long dagger. But all she caught was air. Before she could recover, Jane was on her. A slash opened the girl’s arm and her knife clattered to the ground. Jane kicked it away.
‘Do you really want me to kill you?’
A shake of the head. The girl pressed the edge of her shawl down on the wound, trying to staunch the blood. Her face had turned pale.
‘Then don’t come after me again,’ Jane warned. ‘Ever.’
For a moment she stared, then turned and walked away. Even as she did it, Jane knew she was making a mistake. If this had been a man, she’d have killed him. She’d been too cautious. Too generous. Too stupid. Too weak. This wasn’t finished yet. As certain as morning, the woman would return.
On September 27 my new book, The Hocus Girl, will be published in the UK. A month later it’ll be available everywhere as an ebook, and from January 1 in hardback in the US.
I think it’s one of the best books I’ve written, up there with four others. I hope you’ll find out. If you’re a blogger/reviewer, it’s now available on NetGalley. If you read it, well, I honestly hope you like it, and you’ll leave a review.
That’s for the end of the month. Right now, as something to whet your appetites, here are Simon Westow and Jane. But a warning: it’s not for the faint-hearted.
Leeds, June 1822
Simon Westow stopped suddenly and turned towards the voice. All around, people on Briggate pushed and jostled past him. The butchers’ shops at the bottom of the old Moot Hall were doing brisk business as servants began early errands for their mistresses.
The man who called out gathered his hat in his hands as he approached. He had the hangdog look of someone who’d been beaten down too many times, and thick, callused skin on his hands, fingernails rimed with grime, eyes looking down at the floor. Not starving, and his clothes weren’t in tatters. A machine operative, perhaps. Someone barely surviving.
‘What can I do for you?’ Simon asked.
‘I don’t mean to disturb you, sir, but are you the thief-taker?’
He looked up, a helpless man with only slivers of hope left.
‘Then I hope you can help me, sir. Someone’s stolen my little girl.’
Simon sat at the long table in the kitchen.
‘His name’s William Wardell. His daughter’s name is Anne. He claims that someone snatched her from his lodgings the afternoon before last. He’s spent every waking moment since then looking for her. He doubts he has a job anymore, but this is more important.’
‘Was the girl on her own?’ Jane asked. She worked with Simon, somewhere close to fourteen years old now and a natural at the trade. With a shawl over her hair, she could follow without being seen, and she had a rare sense when someone was trailing her. She’d killed people, he knew that much. He’d never asked how many. But she’d survived five years on the street before she began working for him. That was no place to turn the other cheek like a Christian, not if you wanted to stay alive.
‘The girl was playing and her mother slipped out to the shop. It was just four doors away at the end of Copenhagen Street. I met her. She’s as distraught as her husband, she blames herself.’
‘How old is the girl?’ Simon’s wife, Rosie, asked.
‘She turned five last month.’ He frowned and stared at the table. ‘A thin child, very quiet. According to the mother, she’s pretty, everyone remarks on it, and her hair is so pale it’s almost white.’ He stared at them. ‘One of her eyes is blue and the other is violet.’
‘That should help,’ Jane said. She started to rise.
‘Where are you going?’
‘To ask questions.’
The door closed behind her. In the silence, Rosie said: ‘This Wardell man, do you believe him?’
‘Yes,’ Simon replied. ‘I do. Any man who’ll walk away from a job to try and find his daughter is telling the truth.
‘Can he afford to pay?’
‘No. But we’ve done well this spring. Perhaps we owe a good deed.’
Jane knew what happened to the little girls who were taken. So did Simon; there was no need to say it. Anne Wardell had been gone a day and a half. If they could find her quickly enough, they could bring her home before the damage took her somewhere beyond returning.
She knew. Her own father had raped her when she was eight and her mother had thrown her to the streets. Better to keep a man who could provide than a daughter who took and took, someone her husband preferred to her. Yes, she knew. Jane lifted the shawl over her hair. She’s be invisible now, just another figure in a tattered dress. Jane reached into her pocket and gripped her knife.
Anne’s father had been asking questions, but he didn’t know people who might have answers. She did. And she’d make sure they told her.
The man lived in one of the courts that ran of Wood Street, between Briggate and Vicar Lane. Inches of filth covered the flagstones, tossed out of windows every morning for years and never cleared.
His room stood near the top of the building, up three flights of stairs. Some of the treads were missing and the bannisters hung loose. It all needed to be torn down and rebuilt. But as long as people were willing to pay for a room in this place, nothing would happen. Not when there were profits to be made.
She knocked on the door, hearing the sound of feet on the floorboards and watching the handle turn. As it began to open, she threw her weight against it.
Jane was slight, but it was still enough to send the man crashing back and catching him off guard. Before he could recover she held the blade against the side of his neck.
Simon had never killed anyone. It went against all he believed. He’d wound if he was attacked, but nothing more. Jane didn’t have those boundaries. She’d had to learn so she could stay alive.
And Ezekiel Harrison knew it.
‘Who’s taking young girls?’ she asked.
‘I don’t know.’
‘You’re lying.’ She could see it. He was desperate, but he’d still try and hide the truth from her. She pricked his skin with the knife, just enough to let a few drops of blood trickle down into his shirt collar and stain the cotton. The shirt was dirty. Nothing in the room was clean. ‘Who?’
He squirmed and tried to stay quiet. But the longer he looked into her eyes, the more he realized what would happen. No mercy for silence.
‘Marjorie Wilson and Elizabeth Wallace.’
‘Those names had better be right. If not, I’ll be back.’
She left him cowering on the floor.
‘I was given two names,’ she said.
‘Who?’ Simon asked. They stood by the old market cross at the top of Briggate, staring down the street towards the bridge and long slope down to the river. Two coaches set out within seconds of each other, one from the Talbot, another from the Rose and Crown, scattering people and barely avoiding a cart and its driver.
The air hung heavy, stinking of oil and soot, poisoned by the smoke that rose every day from the factory chimneys all around Leeds.
Jane told him.
‘I heard that Marjorie Wilson has been ill,’ he said.
‘I’ll go and find out,’ she said, but there was no trace of sympathy in her voice. ‘She might have recovered.’
Elizabeth Wallace. Simon had known her once. She’d been a matron at the workhouse when he grew up there. Not an ounce of kindness or compassion in her. She seemed to relish beating the girls for any little thing. Shutting them away in dark rooms, depriving them of food for the smallest offence. All to temper their wilfulness and wildness, she claimed. Finally the governors could take no more and she’d been dismissed.
She had a small house off York Street, quite new, not even ten years old. A young girl answered the door, wearing a dress made for someone older. There was fear in her eyes as she asked his name. She looked thoroughly cowed.
When she returned, she gave a small curtsey.
‘I’m sorry, sir, but Miss Wallace says she can’t see you right now.’
She tried to close the door, but Simon leaned against it.
‘I’m sorry. I know what she told you, but I’m afraid Miss Wallace will be disappointed today. I need to talk to her.’
She was in the parlour, working on a piece of embroidery. The woman looked up in annoyance as he entered with the servant trailing helplessly behind.
‘I told you not to let him in,’ she said to the girl.
Simon came close, towering over her. He was tall, broad, so different from the small child who’d entered the workhouse after his parents died.
‘I have a question for you.’
‘Run for the watch, girl,’ Miss Wallace shouted. ‘Tell them I’m being attacked.’
He heard the door to the parlour slam, then the front door.
‘It’s just you and me in here,’ he told her.
‘I know who you are. I’ll swear out a complaint against you for trespass.’
Simon bared his teeth in a smile. ‘You do that and the judge will hear how you snatch girls and sell them to the brothels,’ he said.
‘Prove it.’ But there was a tremor of fear in her voice.
‘That’s easily done,’ he warned. ‘But I still have to ask my question. I suggest you tell me the truth.
His voice rose over hers.
‘You took a girl. One eye blue, the other violet. Don’t say it’s a lie, we both know it’s not. Who bought her?’
The room smelled of decay and death. Marjorie Wilson was just clinging to life. A neighbour fed her soup, changed her linen and the sheets on the bed. But the woman couldn’t even speak, let alone do anything more. It was an effort for her to even open her eyes.
She’s at Johnson’s,’ Simon said. ‘Elizabeth Wallace admitted it.’
They’d gathered round the kitchen table of the house in Swinegate. Simon, Rosie, and Jane.
‘Then we’ll go there,’ Jane said. She started to rise, but he shook his head.
‘He has two guards. I’ve seen them. They’re the type who kill. We’re going to need a plan to get inside.’
‘Two guards?’ Rosie said. ‘I have an idea.’
Rosie dressed in her best gown. Expensive deep-blue silk with a high waist, cut low and trimmed with a froth of lace. A small hat, sky blue and decorated with plumes. People turned to stare as she walked. Jane was beside her, uncomfortably aware of everyone looking, and making sure no one was following.
Out to Long Balk Lane. This had been a place for men with deviant tastes until two years before, when the woman who owned it had been murdered. Now a man named Johnson had opened it once more, drawing the same clientele. Men with deep purses and twisted mind.
It was a large house, a darker shadow in the deep night, its stones blackened by the years. It stood alone, set back from the street. At the top of the drive, Rosie took a deep breath.
‘Ready?’ she asked.
‘Yes,’ Jane answered.
The brick wall at the back had tumbled. He could walk over it and move quietly through the overgrown garden. Two years of neglect. So much the better, Simon thought.
Light leaked from the shutters, enough for him to find rocks the right size to throw. He was ready, in place. Now he just needed to wait for to right time.
The guard answered the door. A big man, his hair cropped short and a face filled with prize fighter’s scars. Heavily muscled in his black suit, neckcloth tied tight.
‘What is it?’ He was ready to dismiss them and close the door.
‘I hear the owner wants girls,’ Rosie said quickly. ‘My servant has been ill-behaved. She needs to learn her lesson in a place like this.’
His eyes moved to Jane, sliding away from Rosie. Suddenly he froze, the tip of a knife pressing into the flesh under his chin.
‘Move back,’ Rosie told him. ‘Very carefully.’
Jane closed the door and searched him. Two knives and a cudgel. He tried to stop her. Her knife flashed, slicing through the flesh of his palm. So sharp he didn’t know what had happened until he saw the blood flow.
After that he was docile, bound hand and foot and left in the hall.
Rosie put her fingers in her mouth at let out a long shriek of a whistle.
‘You know what to do.’
As soon as he heard, Simon threw one rock, then a second. The satisfaction of shattering glass. He brought his boot down hard against the lock on the back door. Once, twice, three time before it gave and swung wide.
The guard stood, smiling and waiting for him.
Simon had a knife in his hand. He took a second from his sleeve.
‘I’m giving you one chance to run. Once I’m done here, there won’t be anything left.’
The guard laughed.
‘Look behind you,’ Simon told him.
The man just shook his head. ‘Do you really think I’m that stupid?’
The next second he was on the floor, clutching at his leg. Jane stood over him, wiping the blood from her knife on his coat.
‘You’ll live,’ Simon told him. ‘But she’s cut the tendons. You’ll never walk properly again. Now you can crawl out of her.’ He kicked the man’s knife away and strode on.
They searched in every room, emptying girls and men from each as they went.
Jane spotted the small staircase. She crept up and eased open the door at the top. The room was lit by a single candle in a dresser. A girl lay on the bed in a nightgown, paralysed with fear. Hair so pale it glowed white. One eye blue, the other violet.
A man sat in the chair.
‘What do you think you’re doing?’
‘I’m taking her home. And all the others who’ve been stolen.’ She looked at the girl. ‘Your name’s Anne, isn’t it?’
No words, just a nod.
‘Hurry down the stairs. You’ll see a woman. She’ll look after you.’
The smallest hesitation, then the girl hurried off.
‘I know who you are. You work with Simon Westow. I have friends in Leeds. Important men. We’ll destroy you.’
The men had all vanished into the night, hiding their faces. Rosie gathered the girls around her, shepherding them back into town.
The blaze had begun at the top of the house. It had quickly taken hold, lighting up the night sky.
‘No one was left inside, were they?’ Simon asked.
‘No,’ Jane said. ‘There was no one alive inside.’
She turned away and began to walk.
I know I put up a blog post earlier today but…well, this is a very special piece of news.
I found that this afternoon that my book – I don’t know which one(s) – will be part of the genre writing module in the creative writing degree at York St. John University (my friend Candace Robb is part of it, too).
I’d never seriously expected something like this. But I’m over to moon to find out about it. And I wanted to tell you.
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.
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.
Every so often I have to think about the things that make me write.
It’s a compulsion, there’s no doubt about that, and my first novel was published quite late in life (I was 55) that I’ve been filled with a hunger to say all the things I’ve wanted to say in books.
What changed everything for me was writing about Leeds. Leeds as it might once have been. When I began writing novels, I hadn’t loved in Leeds for 30 years. I had no idea what things were like in the day-to-day now. I was back often to see my parents, but I wasn’t here. I couldn’t write about it now and make it feel real.
The history of Leeds had captured me several years before that. I like to think it still does. But that’s what I keep checking it to consider. My next book (The Hocus Girl) has plenty of things from the city’s past: the first steam locomotive able to move heavy loads, Joshua Tetley opening his brewery, and the government using agent provocateurs – something uncovered and written about in a Leeds newspaper. Making history part of a tale is something I relish. I try to bring Leeds alive, to make people feel they were there, walking the streets.
Next spring, my novel Rusted Souls, the eighth in the Tom Harper series, is centred around the 1908 Suffragette Riot, which actually happened, although it wasn’t a great riot and the Suffragettes weren’t really behind it. My characters are involved in this history. Not in a Zelig way, but because it’s happening around them in Leeds. It’s natural that they’d be involved.
Leeds isn’t London. It doesn’t have that glamour. It doesn’t even have the big history of York. But it’s a city that made its fortune on wool, grew powerful and rich with industry, and saw its fortunes decline with industry began to decline after World War I. These days it’s money is in retail and digital. The thing is, rich or poor, it’s my home. I care about it. I’m proud of it, happy to be from here. If I have a loyalty to any place, it’s Leeds.
That passion for the city isn’t the only thing that makes me write – I like to tell a story and crime provides the perfect moral framework for drama and tension, good against evil. I like to create characters. Or perhaps I channel them, I’m not really sure.
As I said, it’s a compulsion. But you know what? I’ll never feel bad for writing about the place I feel in my bones.
I’m cheap. Well, of course I am, I come from Yorkshire; it’s in my DNA. And it’s quite true, I never pay more for something that necessary. I shop around. I’m unlikely to ever be a John Lewis customer.
That said, I do prefer to buy from independent shops, or those that pay their full whack of taxes. Things being what they were, though, sometimes a bargain from elsewhere can be too good to refuse.
Right now – and I don’t know how long it will last – a couple of my books are very cheap on Amazon.
The Tin God is a little over £2 on Amazon, both in hardback and for Kindle. It costs less that I can for my coffee at La Botega Milanese when I go into town. And, much as I like their coffee, a book lasts longer. This is one of my favourites, as Annabelle Harper becomes such a central character, and it reflects the local politics of the time – and the way women struggled for the vote. The offer is only in the UK (sorry) and you can find it here.
The Hanging Psalm is also cheap, although, costing more than £4 in both formats, it not quite as much of a bargain. But that price for a hardback? I’m astonished. Here is the page.
I don’t know who’s behind it, whether it’s Amazon or my publisher. But if you’ve been thinking of buying, I doubt there will be a better time. I have no idea how long the prices will last.
The Hanging Psalm is the first Simon Westow book. The second, called The Hocus Girl, comes out at the end of next month. It features undercover government agents (based on a true story from the period – nothing changes), Joshua Tetley about to open his brewery, a real-life female preacher, and the world’s first locomotive able to carry loads. It’s currently available to order for £15.66 right here – definitely the cheapest price around.
Time to go back to being personally cheap…