The Ten Year Project

 

It’s hard to believe, but next Spring it’ll be 10 years since my first book set in Leeds was published – The Broken Token, in case you’re curious. There will be a new Tom Harper novel appearing then, the eighth in the series, which will mean I’ve published a total of  22 novels and a collection of short stories set in Leeds in the last decade.

That’s not counting a couple of plays and involvement in the exhibition The Vote Before The Vote, where Annabelle Harper stepped into Leeds history.

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Phew.

I’m going to celebrate it. 10 years is worth celebrating. It took a while to figure out how, though…

It has to be stories. After all, I’m a writer. So from November to next March I will have a short story with one of my Leeds characters each month. I’ll be starting with Dan Markham, taking him into the very beginning of the 1960s, then working my way back through time – Urban Raven, Lottie Armstrong, Tom Harper, Simon Westow, and finishing, quite rightly, with Richard Nottingham.

It’s going to be a challenge. I need to try and capture the essence of each of them, and in some cases it’s been a few years since we met. But I never like to make it easy for myself. I’ve even come up with a logo for everything 10th, just to warn you.

10 years

The Dan Markham story will appear in early November. I hope you’ll like in. In the meantime, you could read the new Simon Westow book, The Hocus Girl. It’s out in the UK in hardback now, and it’ll be available everywhere as an ebook from November 1.

Hocus Girl final

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The Character Of Leeds

Last Saturday I was invited to give a talk to  the Family History Section of the Yorkshire Archaeological & Historical Society on Leeds as a character. Something to set me thinking about this place I love and how to define and describe it. I made plenty of notes, and soon very away from them.

But this is a more condensed and controlled version…

A couple of reviewers suggested that if you cut me open, the words Leeds would run through me like Blackpool through a stick of rock. I’m not suggesting anyone does that, of course, but I think it does sum up to an extent how I feel about the damned, bloody place.

Leeds is a character in my novels. A shifting one, from 1730 to 1957, as the town’s grown and grown, swallowing up more ground than anyone could have imagined.

Celia Fiennes (1698), Daniel Defoe (1720), Thomas Gent (1733), Richard Pococke (1750) and others throughout the 18th century praised Leeds for its buildings and its market.

That Leeds has a lovely aspect. Take a look at the prospects drawn from Cavalier Hill or across the river, and we’re genteel and beautiful. It wasn’t, of course; you simply didn’t see the poor.

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Yet it’s the results of the industrial revolution that have defined Leeds, where we really start to take on our character and identity. Forged it, if you like. Bean Ing, Temple Mill, the Round foundry. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the most Yorkshire of sayings is ‘where there’s muck, there’s brass.’

In 1828 a German nobleman, described “a transparent cloud of smoke was diffused over the whole space…a hundred hot fires shot upwards into the sky and as many towering chimneys poured forth columns of black smoke” over Leeds.

10 years later, Barclay Fox noted “a vast dingy canopy formed by the impure exhalation of a hundred furnaces. It sits on the town like an everlasting incubus, shutting out the light of heaven and the breath of summer. I pity the poor denizens. London is a joke to it. Our inn was consistent with its locality; one doesn’t look for a clean floor in a colliery or a decent hotel in Leeds.”

leeds late c19

And just this year a WHO report noted that people in Leeds endure worse levels of air pollution than many parts of the country, including London.

Engels, Dickens, and many others saw the dirt and human misery in Leeds. It was hardly a secret.

1842 Report of Robert Baker, town surgeon, after the cholera epidemic. In Boot and Shoe Yard, the commissioners removed 75 cartloads of manure from the yard. Human excrement. The houses here were reputed to pay the best annual interest of any cottage property in the borough.

Yet there are plenty of beautiful architectural examples of Victorian wealth and civic buildings. The Town Hall, the Corn Exchange, the Pearl Assurance building and many more. Leeds is a dichotomy.

We might not have cartloads of manure sitting in the ginnels any more. Maybe we don’t have the pea-souper fogs and our shirt collars aren’t black by the time we get home from work, but Leeds is a dirty as it was 150 years ago.  We have a different kind of pollution. Most of the industries have long gone. We build very little now. But we transport, often ourselves, to get to a job that sells things or moves it, or is involved in digital business. But the bad air has the same effect. The hangover of the dirty old town won’t disperse. The difference is that the powers that be have put their eggs in tow baskets – digital and retail.

There is continuity, though. So many of the old poor neighbourhoods remain the new poor neighbourhoods, the donut of despair that surrounds the city centre. Some don’t really exist any more, of course. We don’t have the Leylands and Sheepscar is all warehouses now. But you walk on those streets and you can hear the faint echoes of the people who made their lives there, in English, or the Irish accent of the Bank, or the Yiddish outside the corner shop on Copenhagen Street.

Buildings create a place, but it’s the people who give it character.

While we remember the great and the good, the Thoresbys, the Gotts, the Marshalls and Murrays, it’s the ones without memorials or their names in the history books who really made Leeds. They worked the machines and the looms, they built those grand places on Park Row. People like that are where I find my character of Leeds.

When I look at the city, I see it in layers that build one up the other. Zara at the top of Kirkgate? Take away that building and what was there before and before and you reach the White Swan Inn and the gaol where Richard Nottingham – a real person, not just my creation – was constable. The strange thing is that while virtually every building would be alien to him, his feet would readily find their way around a number of the streets between the Headrow and the river. That layout hasn’t changed a bit. But it might be the only thing that’s remained the same.

In many ways, our history began, not with the founding of Briggate or a settlement growing up around the church on Kirkgate, but with the opening of Bean Ing Mill. That’s when people began pouring in. We’re children of the industrial revolution. Whatever history we had remade itself in the machine age. It’s probably one reason why Leeds has very few folk tales. There’s Jenny White’s Hole, but even that seems 19th century, and the Town Hall lions – the same. About the only old one isn’t even a tale, more a little joke that John Harrison, the merchant and benefactor, loved cats so much that when he had his house built on Briggate, at the corner of what’s not Duncan Street, he had holes cut in all the interior doors so the cats could move around freely.

That said, there is one small story, not a folk tale, that someone typifies Leeds to me. In 1812, with corn prices high, there was a riot during the market in on Briggate to protest the prices ordinary folk had to pay in order to eat. It was led by a figure named Lady Ludd – the Luddites or machine breakers were feared working-class figures back then.

lady ludd

Now, Lady Ludd might well have been a man in a frock and boots and rouge. Or it might actually have been a woman. The rumours still persist that it was either radical bookseller James Mann or his wife Alice. It doesn’t matter either way, although I do like the idea of a man in bad drag leading a rioting mob. It does my heart good.

We were bolshie long before the word was invented. Leeds was a hotbed of radicalism – pretty much from the start of industrialisation. The Northern Star was published here, we were important in the history of Chartism. From the 10-hour act to the later part of the century when Isabella Ford and Tom Maguire worked with unions to get better pay and eight-hour days, Leeds people have stood up for their rights.

We love a good riot, even over dripping. When Mosley brought his fascists to town, 30,000 Leeds people went out to Holbeck Moor to let him know he wasn’t welcome. We stand up and be counted and we’ll make fun of and humiliate those who get above themselves. Humour has long been a British weapon, but round here we’ve refined it into a deadly one.

I’m lucky. The factor that my writing covers more than 200 years in Leeds gives me the chance to look at it in different eras. Of course, you could ask why I set most of my books in Leeds. To me, the answer is simple. I grew up here, I moved back here. I know the streets, I’ve walked them, I know how they feel under the soles of my shoes. I know how all the pieces fit together. I understand the people, I don’t have to imagine their voices, I can hear them in my ear.

Elegy – A Richard Nottingham Story

Richard Nottingham rarely makes an appearance these days. Right now, at least, my focus of Tom Harper (and The Leaden Heart is just out – please buy a copy!) However, eighteen months ago Richard was in Free From All Danger, the first book in several years to feature him. Yet people still seem to love him. They ask if there will be more. A few weeks ago I had a spate of requests that me me back into things I’d written about him. I came across this, a story I’d started and never finished.

This time I completed it, looking back into the far past, to Cold Cruel Winter, a pivotal novel for me. The second with Richard, my first for Severn House, one that was named one of the 10 best mysteries of the year by Library Journal in 2011. It established him and it helped establish me.

Hopefully, this story – and it’s small, it’s personal (although longer than I expected) – does Richard justice.

 

 

Leeds, August 1736

Two years. It always surprised him. It should be longer, he thought. It felt longer. Time past, time passing. But not so quickly now, as if someone had slowed the hands of the clock. A chance to keep memory close. To hold on to ghosts.

Richard Nottingham stirred. The dog days of summer, brilliant light through the cracks in the shutters. He’d woken before first light, just lying in bed and letting his thoughts wander. He heard his daughter Emily leave to go and teach at her school. Then Rob Lister, her man, now the deputy constable in Leeds, had gone with his clank of keys and the solid tread of his boots across the boards. Lucy the servant moved around downstairs, opening the door to the garden and tossing the crumbs for the birds.

Life went on.

He poured water in the ewer and washed, then dressed in old breeches and thin woollen stockings.

 

The road was dusty and rutted, the hot air tight in his lungs. Sun flickering through the leaves onto the water of Sheepscar Beck. He crossed Timble Bridge and walked along Kirkgate to the Parish Church, then over the path he knew so well.

Two years, eight months, and thirteen days since she’d been murdered.

 

 

He went to visit his wife, to talk to her, the way he did every single day, thinking of nothing in particular. Just a few minutes of conversation, a chance to hear her voice in his head, to try and make amends once more, although he already knew she forgave him.

And then he saw it. The pieces smashed and scattered across the grass.

For a moment he couldn’t move. It had to be a dream. Then he was on his knees, scrabbling around all the pieces, the fragments, and piecing them together on her grave until her name was Mary Nottingham once more. Beloved. Died 1733. Beside it, the memorial to their daughter Rose was intact.

Why? Why would anyone do that? He looked around and saw that a few others had been damaged. But he didn’t care about them. Only this one.

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‘You must have heard them.’

Jeb looked after the ground, sleeping in a small shed at the back of the burying ground. He was tall, like a long streak of water, a man in his fifties, back bent, straggly hair grey and thin.

‘I din’t,’ the man insisted. ‘I told you.’

He stank of ale, eyes rheumy.

‘For God’s sake, Jeb, someone took a hammer to that stones,’ Nottingham said in disgust. ‘And you were so drunk you never stirred.’

His mind was raging and he strode away to the jail. The smells in the building were so familiar. But there was another man behind the desk where he once sat. Simon Kirkstall. The new constable.

‘Visiting old glories?’ The man had a politician’s face, smooth and shiny, the periwig clean and powdered, his long waistcoat colourful in sharp reds and yellows.

Prissy. Exact. That was how Rob had described his boss. Fractious, a know-nothing who knew everything. Nottingham had listened and commiserated, glad to be gone from the job. He’d chosen to walk away from being Constable of Leeds and never regretted his decision. The corporation had given him the house and a small pension, enough for the little he desired.

‘I’m here to report a crime, Mr. Kirkstall.’

The constable picked up a quill, dipped it in the ink and waited.

‘What’s happened?’

‘Someone’s been destroying gravestones at the church.’

Kirkstall put the pen down again.

‘I see.’

‘My wife’s was one of them.’

The man chewed his lip.

‘I’m sorry to hear that. But…’ He gave a helpless shrug. ‘You know how it is. Too few men and too much crime. A murder, robberies, a young man missing for a week. I’ll make sure they ask around and try to find something. But that’s all I can promise for now.’

Nottingham stood for a moment, staring at the man and seething.

‘I see. I’ll bid you good day, then.’

 

He wandered. Down to the bridge, watching carts and carriages lumber along in the heat. Past the tenting fields with all the cloth hung to dry and shrink, through the rubble of the old manor house and around, back to Lands Lane.

Sadness, anger, emptiness.

Why?

Up on the Headrow, as he walked by Garraway’s Coffee House, a sharp tap on the glass made him turn.

Tom Finer sat at the table, his hand resting against the window.

‘You look like a man with the world on his shoulders,’ he said as Nottingham settled on the bench across from him. ‘Would a dish of tea help? Coffee?’

‘Not today.’

Nor any other day; he’d never developed the taste for them. Ale was fine for him.

After almost twenty years away, older and claiming to have left his crooked past in the capital, Finer had returned to Leeds. Nottingham had still just been a constable’s man when he first knew him. Finer had a finger in everything, but nothing was ever proven against him before he vanished one night.

He seemed smaller than the last time they’d met, as if he was slowly withering away with age. In spite of the warmth Finer was well wrapped-up in a heavy coat, with thick breeches and socks.

‘You must have been to the churchyard.’

Nottingham looked up sharply.

‘Why? What do you know?’

‘Not much more than you. I heard talk first thing so I went down there. I’m sorry.’

‘Do you have any idea who…?

Finer shook his head.

‘If I did, I’d tell you.’ He paused. ‘But did you notice which ones they were?’

‘My wife’s. Why? Who else?’

Finer was silent a few moments, chewing on his lower lip.

‘Go back and look again,’ he suggested. ‘Look outside your own pain.’

‘Why?’ Nottingham asked. ‘What is it?’

Finer stared at him.

‘You’ll see.’

 

He stood by Mary’s grave, resting his hand on the broken stone, and let his gaze move around. He understood what Finer had been trying to tell him. If he’d been thinking he’d have noticed straight away.

One was the memorial to Amos Worthy, the man who’d kept Leeds crime in his fist until the cancer rotted him and pulled him into the ground. Someone he’d hated and liked in equal measure.

The other was the stone for John Sedgwick, Nottingham’s deputy, beaten and killed in his duties.

Messages for him. From the past.

He gathered the remains, puzzling them whole again on the grass.

Why? Why would someone come crawling out of history now? He was no one these days. No longer the constable, not a man of note. Nobody.

 

Nottingham walked the courts and yards, asking his questions. He had no position any more but folk remembered. But all his talking brought nothing. No one knew, no one had an answer. Not even a hint. The closest he came was at the White Swan, when the landlord said someone had been asking for him.

‘Who?’

‘He wasn’t much more than a lad.’ The man shrugged. ‘No one I knew. Looked like a Gypsy, if you ask me. Left his lass and bairns standing in the doorway.’

Strange, he thought. Were the two things connected?

Morning became dinnertime. He pestered men as they ate. Nothing. Over the bridge and south of the river, into the streets that led off the London Road. No Joe Buck to ask these days. He’d left Leeds, searching for something more, the black servant Henry gone with him.

The town he’d known for so long was changing.

 

The church bell rang four as he walked back up Marsh Lane. Head down, lost in his thoughts as the dust rose from his footsteps. He’d go out again later, round the inns and the beershops. Someone knew and he’d find out.

‘I heard about it.’ Lucy the servant eyed him. ‘Who did it, have you found out yet?’

He slumped into the chair and shook his head.

‘I will, though.’

‘There was someone here looking for you earlier. Came at dinnertime.’

Nottingham cocked his head.

‘Just a lad. Not much older than me. Had a lass and little ‘uns with him.’

‘What was his name?’

‘Didn’t tell me, just that he’d come back later.’

‘Did he look like a Gypsy?’

Lucy thought.

‘Aye, happen he did. Who is he?’

‘I don’t know.’ Very strange indeed. He gave the girl a strained smile. ‘We’ll find out if he comes back.’

 

Emily returned home in a fury. She’d been to the churchyard and seen it for herself. Nottingham listened to her, seeing so much of Mary in her face.

‘Why would they do that to mama?’ she asked.

‘To hurt me.’ It was the only answer. Some sweet destruction to shatter his past. Before she could say more, there was a knock on the door. Maybe one mystery would be solved, at least.

Yes, he was young, dark hair hanging straight to his shoulders. Ragged clothes, a bright hoop in his ear. But tall, bulky, already a man from the look on his face. Someone half-familiar, a face he believe he almost knew. A man with a smile on his lips.

‘Hello, boss. How are you?’

With those words, it flooded back. All Nottingham could do was stop and stare. Joshua Forester, the young cutpurse he’d taken on five years before. His girl had died, the lad had been beaten and he’d chosen to go off with a band of Gypsies. But he looked well from it.

‘Come in, lad, come in. Your family, too.’

Soon they were seated around the table. Lucy brought bread and cheese and small beer, standing by the door to catch this glimpse into Nottingham’s past.

‘I don’t remember your wife’s name,’ Josh said and reddened.

‘Mary. She’s dead.’

‘Boss, I’m sorry.’

‘I should tell you that John Sedgwick’s in the ground, too. Someone killed him.’ The boy always had high regard for Nottingham’s deputy constable. Old days, probably best forgotten. ‘And you, what have you been up to?’ He smiled at the children. ‘I can see some of the results.’

‘That’s Frances,’ he said, indicating the girl. The name of his girl who’d died. ‘And the boy’s called John. My wife, Nancy. She’s part of the Petulengro clan. I work with them. I’m a horse dealer now.’ He lifted his hands to show the thick calluses on his palms and fingers. ‘We’re camped on Woodhouse Moor for a few days, on our way down to Buckinghamshire. While we were here I wanted to see you.’

‘And you’re very welcome’

It did make his heart soar to see someone doing so well, the new life amongst all the death and the senseless destruction. They talked for almost an hour until Josh gathered together his wife and family. At the door he saw them off just as Rob Lister was returning. Emily’s man and the deputy constable of Leeds.

‘Company?’ he asked.

‘Someone who worked for me a while ago. Passing through Leeds.’

Lister glanced at the family walking towards Timble Bridge.

‘They look like Gypsies.’

‘They are. And you and I have something to discuss.’

‘Aye,’ Lister agreed. ‘We do.’

 

The night was balmy. It wasn’t hard to keep watch over the graveyard, and he wouldn’t trust Jeb to stay awake and sober. Nottingham never slept much any more. He sat in the church porch, letting the darkness wrap around him. He listened to the soft snuffling of animals in the dark, the last sounds of humans fading, then felt the embrace of the hours.

A few times he stood and walked around, as silent as possible.

But no one came. No more damage.

With first light, he ambled up Kirkgate, smelling the cooking fires the servants had lit in the grand houses. Briggate was beginning to come to life, the butchers in the Shambles under the Moot Hall opening their shutters for early customers. He passed without a word, fading into the background.

Tom Finer was up with the lark, already in Garraway’s, reading the London newspapers and enjoying his coffee.

‘You look like a man who’s spent a restless night,’ he said with a smile.

‘I have.’ He settled back on the bench. ‘How did you know?’

Finer raised a thick eyebrow. ‘Know what?’

‘About the gravestones.’

‘A little bird told me.’

Nottingham wrapped his fingers around the old man’s wrist. It was bony and brittle in his grip, as if it might snap all too easily. He stared into Finer’s eyes.

‘Which little bird?’ When the man didn’t answer, he squeezed. ‘That was my wife’s gravestone.’

‘A young man I pay to gather gossip.’ Finer tried to look unaffected, but his mouth as stretched and the skin was tight over the bones of his face.

‘A name?’

‘You wouldn’t know him.’

Probably not, now he was no longer constable. But Rob Lister might. ‘A name,’ Nottingham repeated.

 

‘I know the lad,’ Lister said as they ate dinner in the White Swan. Stew for him, bread and cheese for Nottingham and mugs of ale on the table in front of them both. ‘I’ll find him this afternoon.’

Rob had grown into a thoughtful young man. Hard when the job demanded, but compassionate, too, and utterly in love with Nottingham’s daughter, Emily. Seeing them together, the tenderness and humour between them, he was always reminded of the way Mary approved of the match: ‘They’re perfect for each other, Richard. Like two halves finding each other.’

Nottingham would go home this afternoon and rest, ready to be out again tonight. What kind of man harmed gravestones like that? And why those three? What grudge, what anger could move someone like that? All through the night, as the stars moved through the sky, he’d tried to come up with names and found nothing that fitted.

Who?

 

He’d been wearier than he imagined, sleeping into the evening to wake disoriented and with aching limbs.

Downstairs he sat with Rob as he ate. A young man’s hearty appetite after a long day of work.

‘He’ll meet you at eight on Timble Bridge.’

‘Does he know who did it?’ Nottingham asked.

‘He wouldn’t say.’

‘He’ll tell me.’ He’d make damned sure of it.

‘Watch out for him. He’s a little weasel. He’ll try to rob you if he can.’

‘But will he tell me the truth?’

Lister considered the question for a moment. ‘If you don’t leave him any other choice. Take your knife.’

 

First, the graveyard. Still full light, the evening warm enough to sweat as he worked, picking up all the fragments. He’d cleaned up Mary’s headstone yesterday. Now he tidied Amos’s and John’s. He’d almost finished when he felt someone kneel beside him and looked across.

Josh Forester, with a sad smile on his face and a colourful scarf knotted at his neck.

‘I went to your house, boss,’ he said. ‘Your lass’s man reckoned as you’d be here. Says you visit all the time.’

‘Every day. It’s all I have left of her.’

‘I understand.’ He ran hard fingertips over the carving in the stone. ‘I don’t know who’d do this, but I’ll tell you something I’ve learned. It’s probably not worth much, but a headstone doesn’t mean anything.’

‘I know.’ Nottingham’s voice was hushed.

‘Frances, she went in a pauper’s grave. No markings. You remember that, boss.’ He tapped the side of his head. ‘But she’s still here. They’re alive as long as someone remembers. This…it’s just trappings, isn’t it?’

‘Maybe it is.’ He pushed himself upright, feeling the creak in his knees. ‘But it means something to me. I have to meet someone. It won’t take long. If you wait, we can go for a drink.’

Josh smiled. Bright white teeth. Young teeth. ‘Aye, I’d like that. I’ll be right here, boss.’

 

He stood on Timble Bridge, hearing Sheepscar Beck burble and flow under his feet. It had been a dry summer and the water was low. The sound was pleasing, musical and rich. It filled his heart. But he was ready as he heard footsteps approaching.

A boy? He didn’t know why he was so surprised. The lad looked to be ten or eleven, with suspicious eyes that darted around, dark, matted hair, and dirt ingrained into his skin.

‘Don’t worry, I’m not going to hurt you,’ Nottingham said.

It was like coaxing a feral animal. Like the wary boy he’d been himself at that age, living for three years on the streets, surviving by wit and cunning and ruthlessness.

He placed two pennies on the ground and moved away.

‘I only have one question – who’s been damaging the graves?’

‘I’d never seen her before.’

‘Her?’ The word shook him. He couldn’t believe it. It was impossible to imagine any woman doing that. He took a deep breath. ‘Tell me about her.’

‘I couldn’t see much. It were dark and she had a shawl over her hair. And a hammer in her hand. I wun’t going to get too close to that.’

‘Where were you?’

‘Sleeping. There’s a dip in the graveyard near High Court. I were in there and heard her.’

‘Is there anything you remember?’

‘She meant it,’ the boy said. ‘Not just for the sake of doing it. Like she hated those people. She knew which ones she wanted.’

‘I daresay she did.’

‘And she weren’t young. You could see that. She moved slow, like it hurt her.’

‘You’re an observant young man.’

The boy shrugged and scooped the money from the ground.

‘Wait,’ Nottingham told him and brought out his purse. The boy darted for it, knife out to cut the strings. But Nottingham turned away, grabbing him by the hair and pushing him down to his knees. ‘Don’t. You’re too slow. I was stopping this long before anyone even dreamed of you. I was going to give you tuppence more.’

‘I’m sorry, mister.’

‘Maybe you are.’ He pushed the boy away, took out the coins and threw them on the dirt before walking away towards Leeds.

 

‘A woman?’ Josh Forester frowned, cupped the mug of ale and drank. ‘That seems odd.’

They were sitting in the White Swan, a welter of conversation all around their heads. It felt strange to be here with Josh. His memories of the lad were of someone so young, so full of pain. And here he was, grown, filled-out. A man with a life that suited him.

‘It surprised me, too,’ Nottingham admitted. ‘But why not? Women can hurt, too.’

‘Do you think she’ll be back?’

‘I don’t know.’ He leaned back. The woman had done her damage. Why would she need to return?

‘And you’ve no idea who it is, boss?’

‘None at all.’ He gave a weary smile. ‘I’ll be out there again tonight. Maybe she’ll decide she hasn’t had enough yet. Who can tell?’

Josh smiled. ‘Do you fancy some company?’

He stared at the young man. ‘Are you sure?’

‘Yes. We’re going south tomorrow, this will be the last chance.’ He took another drink. ‘You changed my life, boss. I’d like to spend more time with you.’

 

It was a companionable silence. A warm, dry night, with just enough moon to throw light across the graveyard. They settled in the church porch and waited. The last drunks rolled and sang their way home. The nightjars called and turned silent.

A snuffle of animals in the distance. A badger, a fox.

He found himself starting to doze, chin settling on his chest, then quickly sitting upright, stretching his neck and looking round sheepishly at Josh.

It must have happened again. He was aware of the touch on his shoulder, then warm breath and words whispered into his ear.

‘Footsteps, boss. In the churchyard.’

Silently, he stood, ready, feeling the other man stir behind him. But he waited. Impossible to tell yet who it might be. A couple seeking out a private place. Someone with no better place to sleep.

Time seemed to stretch. He breathed slowly, listening for the faintest sound. Then it came: the tapping on steel on stone.

Nottingham pressed himself against the church wall, turning his head, waiting to hear it again, to know where the woman was in the graveyard. Josh had already disappeared, moving like a ghost through the night.

It was unmistakeable. Mary’s headstone once again. Without thinking, he started to run, feeling every stride in his knees. He needed to get there before too much damage was done.

He knew every inch of this ground, moving sure-footed without even needing to look.

But he wasn’t fast enough.

Josh had beaten him to the spot, big hands clamped around a pair of thin arms, stopping her from struggling.

‘She’s not going to cause a problem, boss.’

‘Keep her still. I want to see her face.’

Nottingham pulled the shawl away. A small, faded woman with stringy grey hair. A thin mouth, most of the teeth missing. Eyes filled with hate. She drew back her lips and spat at him. But there was no power. It dribbled down her chin.

He didn’t recognise her. Nothing about her.

‘Who-’ he began, but her rusted voice cut through his question.

‘Abraham Wyatt.’

The years turned away and he groped for her name. Caroline. Something like that.

‘Charlotte.’ The word seemed to come of its own accord and he saw her cold grin.

‘Now you remember, don’t you? You killed him, you and Worthy and that other man.’

They had, and the man had needed to die for all he’d done. Back then he’d let her go, though, never expecting to see her again.

‘Why? Why try and demolish my wife’s headstone?’ He didn’t understand that. But the answer was simple.

‘Because you don’t have one, and I’ve watched you come here and spend time with her.’ Her eyes glistened. ‘I knew this would hurt you.’

She understood too much, he thought. Nottingham tried to picture her as she’d been when he last saw her, but the image refused to come into his mind. All he could see was the woman as she was now, living on the past and her anger. She’d loved Wyatt; that had never been in doubt. She’d remained devoted to him through all the years he’d been exiled, transported to the Indies.

‘What do you want to do with her, boss?’ Josh’s question interrupted his thoughts.

‘Take her to the jail.’

She fought, pulled against him and dragged her feet. But the young man was bigger, stronger, used to wild beasts. A few minutes and the night man had her in a cell.

‘What’s the charge?’ he asked.

Nottingham didn’t know.

‘Ask Mr. Lister in the morning.’ Rob could think of something.

 

Outside, the night was still, heavy with the scent of flowers.

‘Thank you,’ Nottingham said.

Josh smiled and shook his head.

‘The least I could do, boss. I told you, I owe you a lot.’

‘On your way tomorrow?’

‘We pack up first thing.’ He raised his head and studied the sky. ‘In an hour or two. Then south.’

‘When you come through here again…’

‘I’ll stop, boss. I promise. You look after yourself.’

‘You, too. And that family of yours.’

They shook hands. Nottingham stood and watched as Josh strode up Briggate, out towards the Gypsy camp on Woodhouse Moor. Finally he turned and began to walk back to Marsh Lane.

A headstone could be replaced. But the woman could never destroy his memories. Josh was right. Mary was remembered.

Want A Free Book?

Well, of course you do. Who wouldn’t? I mean…a free book. FREE. The downside…it’s one of mine. And you’d do well to pay attention. I’m from Yorkshire, I very rarely give anything away.

Free from All Danger, the seventh, and possibly final, Richard Nottingham book has just come out in paperback. I have a copy or two of it right here, and I’d like to give one away. Who knows, maybe it’ll be too you – although I’m afraid postage rates mean UK and NI only…sorry.

“If you have any appreciation of good storytelling, you will enjoy this book… Free From All Danger is historical crime fiction right out of the top drawer.”

I’ll get to the details in a minute. But first, a little about Richard Nottingham, the fictional character and the real person.

It’s certainly an interesting coincidence, as Richard has been on my mind lately. In my books he’s the Constable of Leeds in the 1730s, married to a woman named Mary, and at the beginning of the series he has two daughter, Rose and Emily. There was a real Richard Nottingham, and that’s exactly what he did, although it was probably an honorary role in reality, a sinecure.

A few years ago I tried hunting down records about him. I found a few, but on his birth and death what I discovered wasn’t too satisfactory.

More must be online now, because I’ve managed to dig up one or two items. And I’ll warn you now, one of them shook me.

According to the register for Leeds Parish Church, St. Peter’s, or Leeds Minster as it is these days, a Richard Nottingham was born on July 15, 1683, but died in 1685.

Another boy of that name was born July 13, 1691 and baptised seven days later. His father was also named Richard. The family lived on Kirkgate.

Richard Nottingham born 1691

He had a sister, Jean, born in 1696, an older sister, Mary, born 1687, and a brother named Samuell who was a year younger than Richard.

Richard Nottingham senior was Constable of Leeds, and we know his son succeeded him in 1717. That’s the same year he married, on the 4 April. It took place in Middleton, and his wife was named Mary Tenant.

Richard and Mary Nottingham. Exactly the same as in the books. I didn’t know that when I started to write those books. I had no idea at all. To discover just how right I’d been, well, yeah, it shook me….

Richard had his run-ins with the Quarter Sessions, as these two records show.

There’s also a record of him paying one shilling and threepence in rates for ‘some land,’ although maddeningly, it doesn’t say where in Leeds that was.

RN rate book 1726

Did he and Mary have children? I haven’t uncovered any yet, but if any turn up and they’re daughters named Rose and Emily, I’m going to be seriously worried.

Richard died at the age of 49, quite reasonable for the times. May 16, 1740. So far, I haven’t managed to trace a will.

Richard Nottingham burial

Right, how can you win a copy of Free From All Danger?

“Nickson is at the top of his game in this fairly clued whodunit.”

It couldn’t be simpler. All you need to do is send an email to chrisnickson2@gmail.com. That’s it. No reason for wanting the book, nothing at all.

On April 10, I’ll select a winner and notify them.

Good luck!

“…outstanding characterization—Nottingham is a very human and endearing character—and an intricate and satisfying plot, as well as excellent depiction of the setting.”

Free From All Danger 1

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…

My City of Immigrants

In the light of all the intolerance and hatred in the world at the moment, it feels important to me to say this.

 

When I was in my early teens, at the tail end of the 1960s, I used to take the bus into town every Saturday morning for a look around the record and book shops in Leeds. Even clothes, because in those distant days I had an interest in fashion.

It was a trip down Chapeltown Road, through what was a vital, flourishing Afro-Caribbean community, where people from SE Asia were also making their home. Out of the window I’d be intrigued by signs for the Polish Club, the Serbian Club, Ukrainian Club. We’d pass a Sikh Gurdwara that had once been a Congregation Baptist Church, and further down, a synagogue. Going through Sheepscar, I could see all the Irish pubs – the Roscoe, the Victoria, the Pointer, the Regent, and more, all before I reached the city centre and hopped off outside the ABC cinema.

That was one bus ride, in one part of town. It told a story of immigration that wasn’t all recent. It never occurred to me that these people were any less Leeds than me. They were here, they were making their lives, working, raising their children, the same as everyone else.

The first reference to a Jew in Leeds that I’ve seen is from middle of the 18th century. The same for a black, an army drummer boy. By the 1830s there was a small Jewish community here, and by 1840 there was a Jewish cemetery and services were held in a loft on Bridge Street, with a total of 56 Jews identified in the 1841 census.

Certainly by the 1830s there was an Irish community in Leeds, centred on the Bank, the poorest area of town. As was common in England at the time, they were sometimes regarded as less than human, relegated to the very worst part of town. The famines of the 1840s brought more Irish immigrants, many of whom worked at the mills in the area.

                               St Patrick’s Church                                           Victorian court on the Bank

The big Jewish influx came towards the end of the 19th century, fleeing the pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe. Understandably, the several thousand who arrived in Leeds settled where there was the safety of other Jews and the common language of Yiddish – in the Leylands, just north of the centre.

                                                 The Leylands around 1900

The early 1900s saw a very tiny group of Chinese in Leeds as well as a few Poles settling here. A few Italians had lived here since the 1880s.

Of course, it didn’t all go smoothly; there were tensions between Irish and English, between English and Jews, which culminated in a riot in 1917, when youths charged into the Leylands, believing none of the Jewish community had volunteered to fight in World War 1, which was very much wrong.

An Indian soldier served with the Leeds Pals during that war, and quite possibly the first Indian Sikh settled here in 1930, with the first Muslim in 1943, with more arriving from the Indian subcontinent in the early 1950s.

By then, of course, the Windrush had docked, and West Indian immigrants had begun to arrive, with some making their homes here, followed by others.

West Indian 1980

West Indian Carnival, Chapeltown Road, 1980

But all of those followed those Poles, Ukrainians and Serbs who come during World War II to fight, then married and settled here.

Since then, people have arrived from many other countries – quite possibly most of the nations on Earth.

The point is that immigration is nothing new in Leeds. It’s been happening for centuries. Go back several generations and most of us have our family origins somewhere else. An ancestor of mine arrived here from East Yorkshire in the 1820s. In those days, that made him an outsider, but he was one of thousands drawn here by industry and the promise of money.

All through my books, I’ve had immigrants. There’s Henry, Joe Buck’s black servant in the 1730s, a recurring character in the Richard Nottingham series. Romany travellers in Cold Cruel Winter. The Irish are all through the Tom Harper books, and a focus on the Jews in the Leylands in Two Bronze Pennies. West Indian musicians – working as street cleaners – pop up in Dark Briggate Blues. Perhaps they’re there to make a point, but really, it’s simply a reflection of life as it was.

The fact is that people want a better life for themselves and their children. They want to feel safe. It doesn’t matter where you’re born, it’s a common human impulse. And once they settle here, these people are as much Leeds as the rest of us. They’ve added and contributed to my hometown and made it a better place.

I’m proud that my city is a city of immigrants.

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.

Hanging Psalm revised