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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How Do I Rate My Books?

As you hopefully know, I have a new book coming out next week (it called The Hanging Psalm, in case you weren’t aware). Take a big breath time, it’s the start of a new series, and my publisher has just accepted the follow-up, which will be appearing in a year’s time (I know, it’s hard to think that far in advance).

When something like that happens, though, I tend to look at those titles on my bookshelf with my name on them and have a think about them. It’s very rare for me to go back and re-read any. Certainly not for pleasure; I might have forgotten the details of the plots, but not the months of work that went into each one. If you’re a writer, by the time you’ve written something, revised it, gone through the publisher’s edits and then the proofs, you’re pretty much sick of seeing it.

But I have a surprising number of books out there. Quite often it astonishes me, makes me wonder just how that happened. And it makes me wonder what I think of them in retrospect. So, it’s time for an honest assessment.

 

I started out with the Richard Nottingham books. The Broken Token took several years to see the light of day. It was finished in 2006 and finally appeared four years later. In my memory, it’s curiously poetic, as is most of the series, a style that seemed to fit the character and the times – Leeds in the 1730s, for those who don’t know. Cold Cruel Winter was named one of the Mysteries of the Year by Library Journal, something that floored me. It’s a book that came from a single fact – the trial transcripts of executed men were sometimes bound in their skin. What crime writer wouldn’t relish doing something with that? And it was where I began to explore the grey area between right and wrong. The third book, The Constant Lovers, has its points, but taking Richard out of Leeds, even if it’s just into the surrounding villages, was probably a misstep. It diffused the focus. Leeds, tight and dense, is his milieu, and he’s been back in there ever since. The standout in the series for me, though, will always be At the Dying of the Year. It was the hardest to write, the one that cut deepest into me and left me depressed for a while afterwards. But the emotions are very raw and real on every page. Even thinking about it now, I can still feel them. Returning to Richard after a few years with Free from All Danger felt like a homecoming of sorts. I’d originally intended eight books in the series. That was number seven, but it left him at the end with some share of happiness, and God knows he deserves that.

I do have a soft spot for the pair of novels featuring Lottie Armstrong (Modern Crimes and The Year of the Gun). She’s so vibrant and alive, both as a young woman and in her forties. It’s impossible not to like her. The problem is that I painted myself into a corner; it’s impossible to ever bring her back, although she seems quite happy to leave things as they are. In different ways, I’m hugely proud of them both, and particularly of Lottie. I still feel she might pop in for a cup of tea and a natter.

The Dan Markham books (Dark Briggate Blues and The New Eastgate Swing) book came after re-reading Chandler once again and wondering what a private detective novel set in the North of England would be like. I found my answers. The original is the better book, harder and more real, and it spawned a play, to my astonishment. The second certainly isn’t bad, but it doesn’t quite catch the pizazz of the first.

Then there are the anomalies – a three-book series set in medieval Chesterfield. The first came as a literal flash on inspiration, the others were harder work, and the difference shows. I lived down by there for a few years, I like the town itself and I think that shows. There’s also a pair of books set in Seattle in the 1980s and ‘90s that hardly anyone knows about – they’re only available on ebook and audiobook. But I spent twenty years in that city, a big chunk of my life, and I loved it. I was involved in music as a journalist (still am, to a small degree), and the novels, still crime, are part of that passion. You know what? I still really believe in them. They’re pretty accurate snapshots of a time and place, and the scenes that developed in the town – the way music itself was a village in a booming city.

The Dead on Leave, with Leeds in the 1930s of the Depression, was a book born out of anger at the politics around and how they seem to be a rehash of that period. It’s a one-off, it has to be, but I do like it a lot – more time might change my view, but honestly, I hope not.

And that brings me to Tom and Annabelle Harper. I’m not quite sure why, but I feel that they’re maybe my biggest achievement to date. That’s a surprise to me, given that I swore I’d never write a book set in Victorian times. Yet, in some ways they feel like the most satisfying. More complex, yet even more character-driven. And I think someone like Annabelle is the biggest gift anyone can be given. She’s not the focus of the novels, but she walks right off the page, into life. I didn’t create here – she was there, waiting for me. And what feel like the best books in the series are the ones that involve her more, in an organic way: Skin Like Silver and The Tin God. Not every book works as well as I’d hoped; in Two Bronze Pennies I don’t think I achieved what I set out to do. My ambition was greater than my skill. But maybe I’m getting there. The next book in the series, The Leaden Heart, takes place in 1899, the close of a century, and I feel I’m starting to do all my characters real justice. I’m currently working on one set in 1908, so the 20th century is already here, and I still want to take them to the end of World War I, a natural closing point for the series. I feel that I’m creating not only good crime novels, and I strive to make each one quite different, but also a portrait of a family in changing times – and also a more complete picture of Leeds.

And that’s always been the subtext, although it took me a long time to realise it. Leeds is the constant, the character always in the background, changing its shape and its character a little in each era. And I’m trying to portray that, to take the readers there, on its streets, with their smells and noises. I’m hoping to have a novel set in every decade from 1890s-1950s (maybe even the ‘60s, if inspiration arrives), to show how the place changed.

In a way, the nearest I’ve come to running after the character that is Leeds and its essence is a collection of short stories, Leeds, the Biography, even if I didn’t realise it at the time. It’s based on anecdotes, snippets of history, and folk tales, and runs from 360 CE to 1963. For the most part, they’re light tales. But one has resonance – Little Alice Musgrove. That still stands as a good story (you can probably find it online)

But with The Hanging Psalm, out next week, I’m going back to an unexplored place, Leeds in the 1820s, when the Industrial Revolution was still quite new. The Regency, although there’s very little gentility to it; better to describe it as Regency Noir. The book is still too fresh for me to asses it fairly. But I do know how electric it felt to write. So I’m hopeful it will stand the test of time in my mind…and in the meantime, I hope you’ll buy it (definitely buy it if you can!) or borrow it from the library and enjoy it.

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Looking Ahead For Tom And Annabelle Harper?

It’s ironic, really. I always swore I’d never write a crime novel set in Victorian times. There era was overdone, with Conan Doyle, Wilkie Collins – even Dickens – and all who’ve followed in their footsteps. And now I have six of them out there, plus a seventh just completed.

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It still makes me shake my head. Especially the reviews that have come in so far for The Tin God. I’ve created something that people seem to love…

Actually, it all began with a painting by Atkinson Grimshaw, the Leeds artist. A woman standing by the canal, holding a bundle. The water is almost empty because of a strike, the smoky skyline of Leeds tries to peer through behind her. She’s alone, just staring.

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She was Annabelle. That’s how she came into my life. It simply grew from there. A short story at first. Then, after reading about the Leeds Gas Strike of 1890, a novel. An event where the strikers won in three days, even as the Council Gas Committee imported strikebreakers? I had to commemorate that.

So Annabelle came back. She told me all about it and introduced me to her husband, Detective Inspector Tom Harper and his assistant, Sergeant Billy Reed. Out of that arrived Gods of Gold.

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The books are unashamedly political. No apologies for that. But they’re also crime novels, the two intertwined in a heart around Leeds. The newest, The Tin God, is the most political of all, and one where Annabelle finally takes centre stage.

In fact, she doesn’t, although the plot revolves around her bid (along with six other women) to be elected as a Poor Law Guardian in 1897. Trying to stop the man who doesn’t want women in politics is the core. But the heart, the linchpin, is Annabelle trying to win in the Sheepscar Ward.

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The Tin God was a book that seemed to write itself. I was simply the conduit. And over the last few years, Annabelle (in particular) and Tom have become every bit as real to me as friends I meet. I know them, and they know me. They’re family, in a way.

I’d like to say that I have plans for them, but the truth is, they have plans for me. To tell their story to the end of the Great War. Whether that will happen or not remains to be seen. But I’d like to do it. Although the books themselves aren’t planned out, I know what happens in their lives, and in their daughter Mary’s, too.

The book I’ve just finished writing will actually be my last Victorian (assuming my publisher likes it, of course). No, I’m giving nothing away about it, except it’s set in 1899. If another follows, that will be after 1901, and we’ll be into the Edwardian and George V eras. There’s plenty of Leeds material – the 1908 Suffragette ‘riot,’ the start of the war, news from the Somme in 1916, the Leeds Convention of 1917, and finally, finally, the Armistice a year later.

That will prove interesting. I’d certainly never imagined writing an Edwardian crime novel. Or even given a second through to George V. But I have a strong impression that Annabelle and Tom will guide me through it all.

In the meantime, I’d be very grateful if you read The Tin God. And the other books in the series.

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The Kernel of Truth

For a long time I was jealous of my friend Thom Atkinson (read about him here). His short stories and plays, justly award-winning, hit a kernel of truth that I couldn’t seem to reach in my own writing (you really should read his work. He’s honestly that good). What I produced was readable, but it was all surface, it didn’t resonate deeply.

Maybe I hadn’t lived enough. Maybe I just hadn’t reached far enough inside. I don’t know.

I had a stack of unpublished novels, six or seven of them. Fair enough.

Finally, though, I did manage to touch that core and find that elusive truth when I wrote The Broken Token. I like to feel that the Richard Nottingham and Tom Harper books all manage that, to a greater or lesser degree. Some – At the Dying of the Year, for instance, or Gods of Gold and Skin Like Silver – have been very emotionally draining to write. When that happens, I feel fairly sure I’ve achieved work that’s the best I can do.

Some of my other books perhaps don’t delve quite as deep. But I hope that they each have their own truth that shines through.

This is a preface to saying I’ve just completed a book that was quite exhausting to write. Currently titled The Tin God, it’s the next in the Harper series, and Annabelle figures more largely than ever. Soon enough it will be with my agent and then, I hope, my publisher, who will give the thumbs up or down. If it’s success then I’ll let you know, of course. But the issues involved are timely. Women running for office – which they could in late Victorian Leeds, either for the School Board or as a Poor Law Guardian – and the problems they face from men.

My publisher will hopefully receive this new manuscript just after On Copper Street appears in hardback in the US, and everywhere as an ebook (obligatory ad!). I was a little stunned a couple of weeks ago when Booklist, an American publication, named it as one of the best crime novels of the last 12 months before its publication. That is heart-stopping and left me immensely proud.

Over lunch last week, a writer friend told me: ‘You own Leeds.’

I don’t (or if I do, where’s the rent?), but it’s lovely to be so associated with a city I care for so deeply, that’s helped me find the heart in my fiction.

I’ll be talking about that on June 8 with a great historical crime writer, Candace Robb, who feels about York the way I do about Leeds. Details are here – please come if you can.

A finally, I mentioned Richard Nottingham before. After four years away, he’s returning. Here’s a little teaser…

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So, About That Play…

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Some of you (hopefully all of you) know that I have a play on soon. It’s called The Empress on the Corner, and it’s Annabelle Harper’s story. Yes, that Annabelle from Gods of Gold, Two Bronze Pennies, and Skin Like Silver. If you don’t know about the play, you can find out here – it’s on June 4 as part of Leeds Big Bookend festival, with Carolyn Eden as Annabelle.

We’re presenting part of it: a couple of scenes live, script-in-hand (you won’t even notice the script), one as an audio play, and one on video. It allows the audience to see the possibilities of the production. Each scene will be put in context, and you’ll come away feeling you know Annabelle.

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On Friday we recorded the audio section. Then, on Saturday, thanks to the people at Abbey House Museum and Bob Jordan of Obverse Films, we recorded the video.

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Magical? Absolutely. In costume, with the hair and makeup just so, it was Annabelle speaking. Once the video is edited it’ll be on YouTube, of course, as a teaser for the play or for the many things it might become in time.

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It’s Annabelle’s World…

…but she’d like you to come and visit.

A few years ago (Four? Five?) I was looking at one of my favourite paintings, Reflections On The Aire: On Strike, 1879, by Leeds artist Atkinson Grimshaw and a story came to me, fully formed, out of the ether.

That was my introduction to Annabelle. Annabelle Atkinson, she was then, sitting and looking at the picture with me, telling me how it came about that she was in it, looking back a decade to that days she stood on the banks of the river to be sketched.

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We met again when I settled down to write Gods of Gold, set during the Leeds Gas Strike of 1890. She was Annabelle Harper then, freshly married, flushed with happiness but with her feet firmly planted on the ground. With a flourish of her silk gown as she sat, she pushed me over on the chair.

‘I was there, luv,’ she told me. ‘I saw it all happen. Come on, I’ll tell you about it.’

Since then, we’ve spent quite a lot of time together. She’s in three of my published novels – Gods of Gold, Two Bronze Pennies, and Skin Like Silver. The fourth, The Iron Water, comes out in July, and I’m working on the fifth. I’ve shared the way Annabelle has blossomed. She’s the emotional centre of the novels in so many ways. She’s become a canny, successful businesswoman and a member of the Leeds Women’s Suffrage Society – and one of its speakers.

It was one of her Suffragist speeches, brought to breathing, passionate life by Carolyn Eden at the launch of Skin Like Silver, that was the catalyst for the play The Empress on the Corner.

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‘That’s her,’ Annabelle told me the day after the launch. ‘She’s the one to be me. Now, you, you’d better start telling my story. Are you listening? I’ll begin.’

I didn’t have a choice – when you have someone like Annabelle, she dictates what will happen. And so I wrote her story. Or perhaps I simply wrote down what she dictated.

The presentation is still a work in progress, and it will be sections of the complete play, not the entire thing. But it’s the story of growing up in a poor Irish family on the Bank in Leeds in the mid 1800s. Of having two choices in life, mills or maids. Of luck, of taking the chance to use her good mind. Of understanding that there’s more, that she can raise her voice for others.

It’s a Leeds story. It’s a political story. It’s a love story. But above everything, it’s Annabelle’s story.

And she reckons you need to come and see it. Believe me, I’ve learnt, you don’t argue with Annabelle, she’ll win in the end.

So you’d better go here to buy your ticket and we’ll see you on June 4, 2.30 pm at Leeds Central Library. It’s part of the wonderful Leeds Big Bookend festival.

Annabelle has her ticket. She’ll be on the side of the front row, with a big grin on her face, pleased as punch. Say hello to her after they play.

The Play’s The Thing

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Book your ticket here.

Last year, at the launch of the third Tom Harper novel, Skin Like Silver, an actor named Carolyn Eden became Annabelle Harper, giving a speech of suffragism that Annabelle delivers in the book.

She inhabited the character and brought to life a woman who’s lived in my head for a few years now. I’ve tried to tell Annabelle’s story in fiction, but suddenly I saw another way. A play. A one-woman play.

The process of rehearsals has tentatively begun with a read-through and we’ll be moving ahead. The good people at Leeds Big Bookend will be giving us a chance to show some of it on June 4 at 2.30 pm in Leeds Central Library. It’s a work in progress, an exclusive preview. You’ll have a chance to see where it’s going, to become part of Annabelle’s story.

Made in Leeds TV have plans to film Annabelle’s story at historic locations around Leeds and she seems to be drawn to radio too. There’s no substitute for the live experience, but you might be treated to a sharing of more than the stage version as the project develops.

It’s a picture of working-class Leeds in the 19th century, from the grinding poverty of the Bank to relative prosperity as the landlady of the Victoria public house in Sheepscar, and her awakening to the world, to feminism and politics. It’s a story for all of today, as much for today as more than a century ago.

The pleasure and love along with pain. And hope. Because every story needs outrageous hope. Tickets are now on sale, and it will be worth your while. Annabelle will be very much alive in front of you.

You can find out more and book your tickets here.

You need to come.