Audiobook Competition

 

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A copy of the audio version of Dark Briggate Blues, wonderfully read by Paul Tyreman. This is the mp3 version, so all eight hours fit on a single disc.

Well, you wonder, how can I get this wondrous thing?

It’s simple. Just write a comment under this blog saying in which decade Dark Briggate Blues is set. I’ll select a winner from the correct answers on April 16.

Go on, you know you want to.

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To Whet Your Appetite

My new book, Gods of Gold, is published in the UK on August 28th. Yes, I’d like you to buy it, of course I would, don’t silly. To give you a little inducement, here’s a taster, a teaser, the opening. It’s set in 1890, against the backdrop of the Leeds Gas Strike, and features Detective Inspector Tom Harper of Leeds Police.

Tom Harper pounded down Briggate, the hobnails from his boots scattering sparks behind him. He pushed between people, not even hearing their complaints as he ran on, eyes fixed on the man he was pursuing, leaping over a small dog that tried to snap at his ankles.

‘Police!’ he yelled. ‘Stop him!’

They didn’t, of course they didn’t, but at least they parted to let him through. At Duncan Street, under the Yorkshire Relish sign, he slid between a cart and a tram that was turning the corner. His foot slipped on a pile of horse dung and he drew in his breath sharply, the moment hanging. Then the sole gripped and he was running again.

Harper ducked in front of a hackney carriage, steadying himself with a hand on the horse’s neck. He felt its breath hot against his cheek for a second, then plunged on. He was fast but the man in front was even faster, stretching the distance between them.

His lungs were burning. Without even thinking, he glanced across at the clock on the Ball-Dyson building. Half past eleven. He forced his feet down harder, arms pumping like a harrier.

As they reached Leeds Bridge the man leapt into the road, weaving between the traffic. Harper followed him, squeezing sideways between a pair of omnibuses, seeing the passengers stare down at him in astonishment through the window. Then he was free again, rushing past the row of small shops and watching the man disappear round the corner on to Dock Street.

By the time he arrived the street was empty. He stood, panting heavily, holding on to the gas lamp on the corner, unable to believe his eyes. The man had simply vanished. There was nothing, not even the sound of footsteps. Off to his left, a cluster of warehouses ran down to the river. Across the road the chimneys of the paper mill belched their stink into the air. Where had the bugger gone?

 

Harper had been up at Hope Brothers on Briggate, barely listening as the manager described a shoplifter. The man’s mouth frowned prissily as he talked and rearranged a display of bonnets on a table. Outside, the shop boy was lowering the canvas awning against the June sun.

Harper scribbled a word or two in his notebook. It should be the beat bobby doing this, he thought. He was a detective inspector; his time was more valuable than this. But one of the Hopes lived next door to the new chief constable. A word or two and the superintendent had sent him down here with an apologetic shrug of his shoulders.

Then Harper heard the shout. He dashed out eagerly, the bell tinkling gently as he threw the door wide. Further up the street a man gestured and yelled, ‘He stole my wallet!’

That was all he needed. Inspector Harper began to run.

 

He tipped the hat back and wiped the sweat off his forehead. The air was sultry, hot with the start of summer. Where was the sod? He could be hiding just a few yards away or already off beyond a wall and clear away in Hunslet. One thing was certain: Harper wasn’t going to find him. He straightened his jacket and turned around. What a bloody waste of a morning.

He’d wanted to be a policeman as long as he could remember. When he was a nipper, no more than a toddler, he’d often follow Constable Hardwick, the beat bobby, down their street in the Leylands, just north of the city centre, imitating the man’s waddling walk and nods at the women gathered on their doorsteps. To him, the decision to join the force was made there and then. He didn’t need to think about it again. But that certainty shattered when he was nine. Suddenly his schooldays had ended, like every other boy and girl he knew. His father found him work at Brunswick’s brewery, rolling barrels, full and empty, twelve hours a day and Saturday mornings, his pay going straight to his mam. Each evening he’d trudge home, so tired he could barely stay awake for supper. It took two years for his ambition to rekindle. He’d been sent on an errand that took him past Millgarth police station, and saw two bobbies escorting a prisoner in handcuffs. The desire all came back then, stronger than ever, the thought that he could do something more than use his muscles for the rest of his life. He joined the public library, wary at first in case they wouldn’t let someone like him borrow books. From there he spent his free hours reading; novels, politics, history, he’d roared through them all. Books took him away and showed him the world beyond the end of the road. The only pity was that he didn’t have time for books any longer. He’d laboured at his penmanship, practising over and over until he could manage a fair, legible hand. Then, the day he turned nineteen, he’d applied to join the force, certain they wouldn’t turn him down.

They’d accepted him. The proudest day of his life had been putting on the blue uniform and adjusting the cap. His mother had lived to see it, surprised and happy that he’d managed it. His father had taken him to the public house, put a drink in his hand and shouted a toast – ‘My son, the rozzer.’

He’d been proud then; he’d loved walking the beat, each part of the job. He learned every day. But he was happier still when he was finally able to move into plain clothes. That was real policing, he’d concluded. He’d done well, too, climbing from detective constable to sergeant and then to inspector before he was thirty.

And now he was chasing bloody pickpockets down Briggate. He might as well be back in uniform.

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Something Even Newer

A few weeks ago I posted a couple of extracts from a 1930s piece featuring Sgt. johnny Williams of Leeds Police CID and his wife, Violet. That piece turned into a novella…and here’s the start of the second one, for your entertainment…

‘We have a visitor from America, apparently.’
‘Oh?’ Violet sat back as the waiter brought their cocktails, taking a small sip of the martini and nodding her approval. ‘That new bartender seems to have the knack,’ she said. ‘So who is this mysterious American?’
They were sitting in the cocktail bar of the Metropole Hotel, a ceiling fan turning just lazily enough to keep the air cool. The warm spring of 1934 had turned into an endless summer of heat hazes and frayed tempers in the city.
‘Someone called Oscar Arbramson,’ Johnny Williams told her. ‘That’s what Superintendent Randall told me.’
‘And why would the Leeds Police be interested? Is he, what do they call it in the pictures, on the lam from something?’
‘He’s a gangster. From Chicago.’ He nodded towards two men at a table on the other side of the bar. ‘That’s him, with his back to us. And the friend he brought along, Barney something-or-other.’
‘So you didn’t invite me here just to be a loving husband?’
‘Well, of course I did. I’m just mixing business and pleasure.’
Violet stared over at the pair. There was little to see of Abramson besides a pair of broad shoulders in a well-tailored suit. The other man looked just as large, with meaty hands and a face that seemed locked in a permanent snarl.
‘They don’t look quite the thing, do they? What are they doing here?’
‘I’ll find out tomorrow. I’m going to call on him bright and early.’
‘Just watch out if he opens a violin case.’
‘Are Americans notoriously bad on the instrument?’
‘It’s where gangsters keep their Tommy guns. You’d know that if you saw more films.’
‘What about cello cases?’ he asked.
‘Howitzers,’ she replied. ‘Absolutely deadly. Now that you’ve had a glance at them, where are you taking me for dinner?’

But it was luncheon before he caught up with the Americans. He’d been called out early to deal with an embezzlement. By ten, simply glancing through the accounts, he knew who was responsible. An hour later the man had confessed.
Johnny shook his head. Randall had assigned Forbes and Gorman to follow the gangster and his friend. They’d rung in from a telephone box; the pair were dining at Jacomelli’s.
He walked over to Boar Lane, rapping his knuckles on the roof of the battered Morris where the policemen were keeping watch, straightened his tie and strolled into the restaurant.
Abramson and Barney filled the table. Two large men, a sense of menace around them. They’d emptied their plates, forks on the crockery, knives still sitting on the crisp table cloth. Johnny pulled out the chair across from them, sat down and took off his hat.
‘How do you do?’
Abramson stared at him. Barney began to rise, a look of anger on his face, but the other man waved him down.
‘Let me guess, you’re a cop.’
‘Sergeant Williams, Leeds Police.’ He smiled.
Abramson leaned back and produced a cigar case from his pocket. He made a production of selecting a large Havana, cutting the tip and lighting it before he peer through the cloud of smoke.
‘Any relation to a reporter?’ he asked. ‘Can’t be your sister, she’s too cute.’
‘My wife,’ he replied. ‘You’ve met her, then?’
‘She stopped by while we were having breakfast. Wants to write a story about Americans visiting Leeds. What’s your angle?’
‘Angle?’ He thought about the word. ‘I don’t suppose I have one. Just a friendly little chat and a word of advice.’
‘Yeah?’ Abramson seemed amused. Barney was still tense, ready to pounce as soon as his boss gave the order. ‘What kind of advice would you have for me’
‘Just the usual. Obey the law, look right and then left before crossing the road, don’t kill anyone. Nothing that unusual.’
The man threw his head back and laughed.
‘You’re good. You out to go into vaudeville. With that accent you’d slay ‘em.’ He leaned forward. A very faint, thin scar ran from the tip of his eyebrow, disappearing into his temple. ‘You heard of Chicago, hotshot?’
‘Big place somewhere in the middle of America? A fire that had something to do with a cow, Al Capone, St. Valentine’s Day Massacre?’
‘That’s the one. Let me tell you something. Over there we don’t like smartass cops. They don’t last too long.’
‘That’s the difference, you see. We have a longer lifespan over here.’ He glanced at Barney. ‘You should really tell your friend to relax a little. His face is so red he looks like he’s going to have a heart attack.’
‘He’s excitable.’
‘Poor chap. Take him up into the Dales for a weekend. Very calming up there. Take a cottage for a few days.’
‘I’ll keep it in mind, Sergeant.’ The waiter brought two cups of coffee. ‘We were just making our plans for today.’
‘The art gallery’s very good,’ Johnny suggested. ‘Wonderful place to spend an hour or two.’ He stood. ‘I’ll leave you gentlemen to it. If you need anything, I’m around.’ He began to turn away, then stopped. ‘By the way, do you play the violin?’
Abramson stared at him, confusion on his face.
‘No. I’m a businessman. Why the hell would I?’
‘Never mind. How about the cello.’
The man shook his head and Johnny walked away.

At the station he telephoned the Evening Post.
‘I hear you saw our visitors.’
‘I popped over while they were having breakfast. I thought you might be there.’
‘I had a little distraction. Did they say what they were doing here?’
‘Looking for business opportunities, he claimed, although he didn’t answer when I asked why here. He’s rather gruff, isn’t he?’
‘I noticed that,’ Johnny told her.
‘And that chap with him just glowered the whole time.’
‘He did that to me, too. Seemed to be getting quite worked up.’
‘Abramson called me a dame,’ Violet said. He could imagine her frown. ‘I always thought they were those old dears who got awards for good works.’
‘Maybe he thinks you’re a young dame. He is American, after all.’

Losing The Plot

Everyone has their ways, I suppose. There are those who like to plot out every last their books and those who don’t. I fall very firmly in the latter camp. To me, books are about the characters. They drive everything and they can be awkward buggers at times; they won’t do what you expect.

Actually, that’s when the fun really begins, because they’ve taken on lives of their own. My father, a good writer himself, gave me one piece of advice that’s stayed in my head – if you create a living, breathing character, people will follow him anywhere. That’s what I try to do in my books. These people are alive, they’re not shoehorned in to fit circumstances. They live their lives and all I do is write down what happens to them.

Of course a book needs a plot. It needs conflict and drama. But above all it needs characters that are fully three-dimensional, who impose themselves on events, who have their fears and foibles, their certainties and hubris – in other words, who are human. What do you recall when you’ve read a book. In the vast majority of cases it won’t be how meticulously constructed the lot was (if it’s really that good you won’t even notice it), but the people.

When I begin a book I know the starting point and where it finishes. Everything in between is a mystery until it happens. Quite often I’ll sit down in the morning with no idea what’s going to come out. I’ll let the movie ply in my head and type what’s going on. Sometimes it runs very slow, sometimes I have to dash to keep up. Sometimes it’ll take me by surprise and lead me somewhere unexpected. But that’s the joy and frustration of writing a novel; at times it’s strangely reminiscent of herding cats.

I won’t say this works for all writers. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. But putting plot ahead of characters seems like placing the horse in front of the cart to me. If you don’t have characters to breathe into your ideas and make them live, all you have is a storyboard.

Torn From Today’s Headlines

A story ripped from today’s headlines. That’s the tag line they use sometimes for a novel that’s especially topical.

But what happens when you unknowingly write a novel that, it turns out, could have been ripped from the current headlines? You’re faced with a dilemma, that’s what.

Next February the fifth Richard Nottingham novel, entitled At the Dying of the Year, will be published. It’s set in late 1733 but there are strong parallels to events that have happened very recently in 2012 – events that occurred after I’d completed the book, I hasten to add. I’m not going to offer any details or even say what events – you’ll have to wait and see, but I will give one hint, that, in the wake of a greater outrage, an allegation was made about the late politician Peter Morrison (I refuse to call anyone Sir or Lord). Enough said. If you want to know more then Google is your friend and follow the trail.

Writing a novel is one thing. It’s a work of the imagination, and the events aren’t even the emotional centre of the novel; they’re the trigger for everything else. But realising that reality goes further than fiction is disturbing. And with the dawning of that fact comes an epiphany: I’d rather keep quiet about the connection than exploit it. I know, I’m writing this blog which is almost a signpost, but no one will remember it come February. Let the fiction stand on its own. Better than that piggyback on what has been hell for some people.

Leeds – An Occupied City

In the Civil War, Leeds was an occupied city. It changed hands several times in the fighting, finally being taken by Parliament forces in 1644 and a garrison station there under the leadership of Major (or Major-General) Carter.

The Scots troops who’d helped finally take the city did cause some destruction, with houses burnt, and in the wake Leeds was a depressed place, the wool trade that was its lifeblood in tatters for a few years. It would come back, of course, but not all would thrive. Several wealthy merchants who’d aided the Royalist cause received heavy fines, including John Harrison, one of the city’s great benefactors who gave Leeds St. John’s Church, the original grammar school (located more or less where the Grand Theatre stands today) and the Market Cross (which was at the top of Briggate by the Headrow).

To top it all off, early in 1645 there was an outbreak of plague that lasted most of the year, with the poor areas of Vicar Lane and the Calls the worst hit. The first victim was a little girl named Alice Musgrave.

As a novelist, not a historian, I’m not going to go into all the facts. Instead I offer an excerpt from a work-in-progress set in Leeds at the time that – I hope – sets the scene of despair and desperation.

He rode across the bridge and into Leeds, his uniform covered in dust and mud, the shine worn off his long boots. The sword at his waist tapped gently against the horse’s flanks as the animal moved.

He looked around at the place as the animal trotted. Several houses had been burned, with only a few, fragile blackened timbers remaining, lakes of dark water and slush where floors had once been. One of them must have been a fine place once, a rich man’s mansion, proud and bold. Now it would give shelter to no one.

The troopers on the street saluted him, but he only spotted a few local folk, scuttling quickly and quietly about their business, trying to remain unnoticed. The town seemed hushed, dead, as if a pall had descended and wouldn’t lift. It was hard to believe this had once been a bustling place, starting to grow fat on the wool trade. Since then it had been fought over, taken, lost, recaptured, and each time its fortunes had fallen a little further. Now it looked as though they’d reached their lowest ebb.

The biggest building stood right the middle of the street, cart tracks in the muddy road on either side. He dismounted, gave the reins to a soldier and entered. A clerk looked at him, then snapped upright in his chair.

“I’m Captain Eyre,” he said. “Here to report to Major Carter.”

That had been a week before, at the end of February 1645. He’d been seconded from Hull to serve as adjutant with the garrison of Parliament troops here. They’d stormed Leeds for the final time the year before, led by the Scotsmen who’d had their vengeance for the resistance in the burning and hangings, the looting and rape.

At least they were long since gone, praise God, sent back north of the border in disgrace. The commandant was trying to bring order here, to return Leeds to what it had once been.

The captain looked out of the mullioned windows and along Briggate. It was Tuesday morning, so the twice-weekly cloth market would be held on the bridge. The weavers would display their cloth on the parapets and the merchants would go around, deciding what to buy.

He’d been there on Saturday, dismayed by the poor turnout. No more than ten clothiers and just a handful of merchants, the deals that conducted in whispers. Orders were low, he’d been told, with men preferring to take their trade to Bradford and Wakefield, anywhere that hadn’t been torn apart by battle.

He’d walked the streets and seen the looks on the faces. Whether rich or poor, they all carried fear in their eyes. The world they understood had vanished. Instead of the Corporation there was martial law, the commandant issuing edicts and enforcing them with troops who patrolled or stood guard on the corners, the dull light glinting off their pikes. Men had to be off the street by nine, women had to dress with due modesty. Sunday worship could only be at St. John’s, and there could be no trade on the Sabbath. Whether it wanted to be or not, Leeds was becoming a city of God.

All the merchants and aldermen who’d supported the king were being assessed. They’d have their day in court, make their cases and receive fines. A few had already left, like lawyer Benson, with nothing left to his name after his house was torched to its bones.

Officially the Captain was adjutant to the garrison, but his true job was gathering intelligence, to learn of any Royalist plots and stop them. By itself that would be difficult enough in a place where he knew no one and all the citizens distrusted the soldiers, but he also had to uphold the laws. Already he’d ordered a whore whipped through the streets for plying her trade and a baker in the stocks after he sold adulterated bread.

This could be a good place, he decided. Trade could be rebuilt, normality return, the sound of laughter heard in the air again. With time and God’s good grace.

He turned at the knock on the door.

“Come in,” he said, hearing the familiar limp of Wilson, the pikeman who was his clerk. The soldier had been injured at York, a musket ball breaking the bone in his thigh, but he could write and do his sums, more valuable at a desk than on any battlefield. He was better doing this than begging on a corner somewhere.

The man had his hands pushed together in front of him, his face full of terror.

“What is it?” Eyre asked.

“There’s plague, sir, down on Vicar Lane. A little girl.”

Entertain Us: The Rise of Nirvana

Entertain Us: The Rise of Nirvana

Gillian G. Gaar

It’s probably not surprising that some of the best books about Nirvana have come from writers in Seattle. Charles R. Cross’s book on Kurt Cobain was largely definitive, and even Dave Thompson’s quick biography of Cobain, released within a month of the suicide, was well-researched and written. However, probably no-one’s written more about then band than Gillian Gaar (in the interests of full disclosure, she and I both used to write for Seattle publication The Rocket, as did Thompson, and it was owned by Cross).

It’s a book that’s full of detail and minutae, not a primer for anyone wanting to know the band’s career arc. She takes the tack – quite rightly – that the early years are the most interesting, and the interviews and research she’s undertaken to put everything together is impressive to the point of being terrifying. This isn’t a job, it’s just as much a labour of love, and she’s such a good, clear writer, that everything is laid out like a road for the reader. There’s plenty of depth about the Chad Channing years, as the band was getting into gear, and the comparisons of different versions of songs comes with the real knowledge of the music journalist and the devotion of a fan.

Every show the band played is documented, as is every recording session, radio session, festival, TV appearance. All through the focus is on the music and how, if not always why, it turned out the way it did. For most fans, Nevermind was the album that brought them to the band. By then Gaar was already a longtime fan, seeing them through the Sub Pop years, and she’s someone who sees the first album, Bleach, as seminal. In many ways she’s right. The ripples didn’t spread as wide as they did later, but it was a vital recording that signalled a shift in music, coming as it did in the same period that Mudhoney, Soundgarden and others to herald what became called grunge. But, as Gaar shows, Nirvana stood apart, and, as she shows further, did so throughout their existence and even into their strange afterlife.