It’s Competition Time!

It’s April, and spring is supposedly here. Not that you can prove it by the weather in Leeds. Below freezing at night, slicing winds during the day making a mockery of the sunshine. Anyway, as we hope for something warmer soon and the chance to return to libraries next week (my books are available to borrow, you know), how about a competition?

Three novels, one from each of my main characters. There’s The Broken Token, my very first novel, the book that introduced Richard Nottingham. The Hanging Psalm, the opener to the Simon Westow series – the third, To The Dark, came out not too long ago and could use a plug), and finally, The Leaden Heart, the seventh in the Tom Harper series. His newest, Brass Lives, comes out in June, and I certainly won’t mind if you pre-order it now. This place will give you the cheapest price.

Those are your prizes. To win, simply reply with the name of Simon Westow’s young assistant. It’s not hard to find. You have until April 18, when I’ll pick a winner. Sadly, postage rates mean it has to be UK only.

Good luck!

Win Your Christmas Presents

Well, some of them…

As you may know, the third Simon Westow book, To The Dark, comes out in about six weeks, blinking into the light in that strange limbo time between Christmas and New Year.

It should have arrived at the end of September, but Covid has upended everything. Honestly, I’m grateful that’s it’s being published at all.

It a dark, hard book, set in Leeds in the late winter of 1823, and much of it happens around Cynder Island, a part of Leeds that no longer exists by that name – it’s right around Sovereign Street these days. Back then it was on the edge of the river. People lived and worked there, and the old Flay Crow Mill was already falling down.

It’s a book of murder and deceit. Of violence had revenge.

It’s hardcore.

It’s Leeds.

To prime the pump for publication and take care of some of your Christmas present, I’m going to give away a set of five books. Yes, that’s five. The first two Simon Westow novels, The Hanging Psalm and The Hocus Girl (“outstandsing…historical mysteries don’t get much better than this” – Publishers Weekly), The Tin God from the Tom Harper series, The Broken Token, which kicked off the Richard Nottingham sagas and was my first published novel. To round it out, The Anchoress of Chesterfield, the most recent John the Carpenter novel.

How can you win, you ask? Simple, comment under the blog post with the name of the mill where part of To The Dark takes place; it’s mentioned above. I’ll select a winner on November 30. Sadly, postage costs man UK only. Sorry.

Good luck, and if you’re on NetGalley, please request To The Dark. And I’d be grateful if you left a review.

Richard Nottingham: The Lost Girl

When the world fell apart I was working on the fourth Simon Westow book (the third is ready, out in six months). But those books run on anger, and it’s hard to feel that right now. Somehow, Richard Nottingham seems to make more sense in this world.

The Molten City is just out in the UK, and I’d love for you to buy it – Fox Lane Books (kirstie@foxlanebooks.co.uk) can obtain copies easily. But in the meantime, spend a little while with Richard.

10 years

 

Leeds, October, 1740

 

Today was a good day.

He’d woken and for once his knees didn’t hurt too sharply, he could walk comfortably without relying on a stick for his balance. It was a morning of spun softness; the sun was shining, he could feel the fleeting kiss of late autumn warmth on his face, and the falling leaves made lush patterns of reds and golds and greens on the ground.

Richard Nottingham stood by Timble Bridge, listening to the quiet music of Sheepscar Beck as it trickled over the rocks. For once he felt at peace with the world, at home in this bag of bones and flesh that was his body.

A deep breath and he marched on into Leeds. At the Parish Church made his way towards two graves. Places he visited almost every day, where his daughter and his wife lay. A chance to bow his head, to talk to them. A few words for Rosie, far more for Mary. Each morning when he woke, he still hoped to find her next to him, no matter that she was seven years gone.

Finally he turned away and found himself staring at a girl who had a round, frightened face and large eyes.

‘Well,’ he asked kindly, ‘who are you?’ He started to reach into the pocket of his breeches for a coin; these days more children were begging on the streets than ever before.

But he stopped; this one didn’t have that look. The clothes weren’t rags. Her face had smidges of dirt, but she was mostly clean. Her dress was made of good calico, with no rips or tears. Her stockings were coarse wool, yet they were whole and the shoes fitted her feet.

‘Someone said you were the constable, sir.’

He smiled. ‘I was, but that was a long time ago. Now, why would you need the constable?’

Nottingham could see where tears had made their tracks down the her cheeks. For a moment he felt the pain well up in the girl, then she forced it down again and made herself speak.

‘It’s my mother, sir. I can find her anywhere.’

‘What do you mean?’ He felt a stir, a sense of something awful.

‘I went to play yesterday and when I got home, nobody was there. I asked but no one knows where she is.’

A bonny girl. Seven, maybe eight years old. The look of someone who’d been cushioned from the very worst of life and never had the scramble of surviving on the streets. He straightened up and looked at her.

‘Why don’t we go and find out, eh?’

‘Can you help me find her?’

He held his tongue. Nottingham wanted to promise an answer, but he knew it was better to wait and discover the truth. Without thinking, the girl reached for his hand. He squeezed it lightly. Some assurance. The contact of another person. They were probably what she needed most just now.

‘What’s your name?’ he asked.

‘Sally,’ she told him. ‘Sally Virginia Arthur. What’s yours?’

‘Richard Nottingham,’ he replied. ‘Where did you spend last night?’

‘In my home. I kept thinking my mother would come back and everything would be all right’ Her voice faltered, fumbling and lost. ‘But she never did, so I came out to look again as soon as it was light.’

She was turning her head, peering at every face she saw, filled with the hope of spotting her mother.

The house was tucked at the very back of Turk’s Head Yard. The door opened under his touch. As soon as he entered he could feel the emptiness. The chill where no fire has been set that morning. A husk of silence covered the place.

The kitchen was clean. Nottingham ran his hand across the table; only a thin film of dust. The girl hadn’t lied. This time yesterday, people had lived here.

One room upstairs. A larger bed, and a small one for the girl. A woman’s dress hung from a nail, plain brown homespun. A clean apron. Stockings folded on a chair. She hadn’t run off.

‘Why don’t you tell me about your mother,’ Nottingham said. Anything to keep Sally’s mind busy. ‘And your pa.’

There was no father, none that the girl could remember. Only men who stayed a few nights then left again, but not many of those she could recall.

‘What’s your mother’s name?’

‘Hannah Elizabeth Arthur.’ She said it with pride, then looked around and the tears begin, as if the words had invoked a sense of finality. Nottingham put his arms around her and stroked her hair. He waited, letting it all flow out of her, until she was gulping for air and sniffling and rubbing at her eyes. He took a handkerchief from his pocket and put it in her tiny hands.

‘What does your mother do?’

She needed money to rent a house like this. It was a good court, artisans lived here, a large step up from the single room that was home to so many families. The clothes weren’t expensive or new, but they weren’t falling apart, either. There was food in the kitchen. Hannah Arthur was surviving well.

‘I don’t know.’ Her face was serious. ‘But she always spent a lot of time in the cellar. People would arrive and they’d go down there. She wouldn’t let me go down with them, and she kept the door locked.’

Curious. More than enough to leave him wondering.

‘Shall we go and take a look? You and me, together?’

Sally nodded and stayed close, as if she was terrified he might disappear in the same way as her mother. A simple lock in the cellar door, easy to pick with the tip of his knife. A candle and tinder at the top of the stairs. Nottingham waited until the flame took hold, bright and wide.

‘Be careful,’ he warned her. ‘Hold on to my coat as we go down.’

Nottingham kept one hand against the wall to steady himself and made sure of each step beneath his boots. This was no place to take a tumble. He held the candle high, letting the light pool, feeling the relief as his feet touched the hard earth of the cellar floor.

A bench with eight tall candles. A single chair. Strange enough. And tools of some kind. He moved closer, Sally’s hands keeping a firm grip on his coat. One short look was all he needed. Now he understood why the woman had money. And with the knowledge, his fear for her grew.

‘I think we should go and tell the constable about your mother, don’t you?’ He tried to keep his voice bright, not to scare her. ‘He might be able to find her.’ Hesitantly, she nodded her agreement, still staring at the table. However much she looked, Sally would know never know what her mother did.

‘He’s a good man,’ Nottingham continued. ‘I trust him. He’s married to my daughter.’

 

The coloured cloth sales were done for the morning, men grumbling and complaining as they noisily dismantled the trestles. Farther up Briggate, the Tuesday market vendors shouted their wares: fruit, butter, a chicken for your dinner to please your man, missus. With Sally holding tight to his hand and still examining every face, he crossed to Kirkgate and passed the White Swan, loud and hearty with the smell of hot meat and beer as weavers spent some of the profits from their sales. Nottingham ducked inside and bought a small pie.

The jail stood next door. Everything about it was so familiar: the way the door stuck as he pushed it open.  Inside, it was comforting, musty, the warmth from the iron stove spreading around the room. The young man sitting on the other side of the desk raised his eyebrows as he saw the girl.

‘This is Mr Lister,’ Nottingham told her. ‘He’s the Constable of Leeds. And this is Sally Arthur.’ He handed her the pie. ‘You sit down and eat this; you must be hungry by now. I’ll tell him about your mother. We’ll be just down there.’ He pointed towards the cells. Hois voice softened. ‘Not far, I promise.’

‘Boss…’ Lister began once they were alone. Nottingham had been in charge once, Rob a constable’s man at first and then the deputy. The old habit wouldn’t die.

With a finger to his lips, Nottingham spoke in a rushed whisper, explaining what had happened.

‘The mother’s a coin clipper,’ he said. ‘She has small, sharp shears and metal files in the cellar, and there’s a pot and small brazier for melting the silver.’

It was a hanging offence, the same as counterfeiting. Yet it was so easy. The clipper removed small pieces of silver coins with the shears and filed the edge smooth; once there was enough, melt them down. Work with enough people and it was a business that could turn a handsome profit.

‘Maybe…’ Lister began, but Nottingham shook his head.

‘It’s definite. She was making enough to live reasonably, and the girl said she didn’t have any other job.’

‘I’ll go and take a proper look at the house.’

‘Somewhere, you’re going to find her dead.’ His voice was filled with the sorrow of inevitability. ‘I can feel it.’

2

Lucy raised her eyebrows when he walked into the house on Marsh Lane with the girl holding tight to his hand. On the walk out here she’d searched fiercely around, hoping to find her mother somewhere in the crowds. Her free hand clutched a shawl around her shoulders.

‘This is Sally,’ Nottingham said. ‘She’ll be staying here for a little while.’

‘Only until you find my mother.’

‘Yes,’ he agreed. ‘After that you’ll be going home again.’

‘Let’s have a look at you,’ Lucy said. ‘You could use a good wash, that’s a fact, and I daresay you’d like something sweet. I just baked a cake yesterday.’

She took charge, the way she’d done with everything in the house since she first arrived. Lucy was part of the fabric of the building now, a stout, warm presence who took care of the family. Through the window he could see his granddaughter Mary in the garden. She was four now, another stray who’d found a home here. She’d arrived when she was no more than a baby, left outside St. John’s Church; she’d never known anywhere besides here. Now she stood with the tiny spade he’d paid the blacksmith for forge for her, tongue poking from her lips in concentration as she tried to dig a big hole in the ground; God only knew the reason, but it was occupying her. There had been one more lass for a while, but Annie had gone to live with Mrs Williamson as her servant.

‘I don’t know what Emily will say when she comes back,’ Lucy told him.

He grinned. ‘She’ll probably take one look and wonder how much learning she can put into her.’ His daughter ran a dame school for poor children. Those families who could, paid a little. For the others, it was free. But the education never lasted long and it never could never go deep; too many needed to work as soon as they were old enough. He lowered his voice. ‘Be gentle with her. I think she’s going to need plenty of kindness.’

 

Rob Lister picked up the tools, the files and the shears. The pot was empty; maybe that meant something, maybe not. A small hand broom lay on the floor. He held it up and ran his finger along the bristles, watching one or two tiny particles of silver sparkle like dust motes as they fell. Everything was scrupulously clean, table and floor.

He’d found no sign of a struggle. He heard his deputy, Tommy Warner, clumping around as he searched the bedroom. The man was loud, with a face full of scars he’d never bothered to explain. But his mind was agile, he was loyal and honest, and his eyes picked up the smallest clue.

‘Anything?’ he called.

‘Not a damned thing. All her life is still here.’

Lister tensed and reach for his knife as the door opened. But it wasonly Richard Nottingham.

‘One of your men is looking for you. There’s a body.’ He stopped, took a slow breath and frowned. ‘A woman, he said. Over by the mill garth at Quarry Hill.’

‘Do you want to come with us?’ Rob asked.

‘Yes,’ he replied, not even thinking, then paused and added, ‘If you don’t mind.’ Four years had passed since he’d done any work like this. He’d felt no sadness when he finally left it behind. Instead, he relished a life that was his own, mingling solitude and family, a chance to walk and leave the world out of his thoughts. There, in his mind, he could travel the roads of the past, a green summer country where his wife and older daughter were still alive.

(c) Shipley Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Nottingham stood and exhaled slowly as he looked down at the corpse. It was Hannah Arthur. Young Sally was the image of her, the same round cheeks and bushy fair hair. He turned away, not wanting to see the terror fixed on her face or the stab wound that had killed her.

‘I’m going to need to talk to the girl,’ Rob told him.

Of course. He needed all the information he could find. ‘She’s at the house.’

Lister issued his instructions, then the two of them set off together. No words, just uninterrupted sorrow and loss.

 

He sat by Sally, his arm around her shoulders for comfort, listening as Rob asked his questions. Was this how he’d been when he was constable? Relentless, burning with the need to know, to discover all the answers, whatever the coat?

‘Sir,’ she said when he’d finished, ‘What about my mother? Do you know when she’ll be back?’

The two men glanced at each other.

‘Sally…’ Nottingham began, and she turned her head to look up at him. Hopeful, wide brown eyes begged him for something good. But she deserved honesty, however much it hurt. ‘I’m sorry.’

Before he could say more, she broke away from him, wailing as she ran off into the kitchen.

‘Lucy will look after her.’

‘I had to do it, boss.’

He nodded. ‘I know. Maybe Warner and the others have come up with a name or two.’

‘She didn’t have any idea what her mother was doing,’ Lister said. ‘That was obvious.’

The poor child. Eight years old and her life had come unmoored. Suddenly alone, completely lost. She wasn’t the first, she wouldn’t be the last. He’d been that age when…no, no matter, that was in another time.

Rob could look after the crime; finding the killer was his job. Nottingham needed to discover if Sally had any relatives who could take her in. An aunt, perhaps, or an uncle.

The girl had thrown her arms around Lucy, as if she could stop her from being swept away. Sally’s head was buried in the woman’s apron as she cried. Lucy whispered and stroked the girl’s hair. She shook her head at Nottingham and waved him away, never pausing in her words.

There were a few useful things he could do. Go back to Turk’s Head Yard and talk to the neighbours, see if they knew of any relatives. And he could try to discover who else was clipping coins in Leeds.

Men came and went from the Arthur’s house. Some women, too. That was what the others in the yard told him. The death shocked them, scared them, too; it was always that way when murder arrived close to home for respectable folk. They’d heard no shouting or arguments. Yet while their mouths gave out condolences, their eyes said that it was no surprise. Any woman involved in crime had it coming.

None of them had really known Hannah Arthur well. She and the girl kept to themselves. No-one remembered a mention of family; it was always just two of them. An attentive mother, but, you know…

He left, discouraged. Later, when she was ready, he’d ask Sally. He’d offer her warmth and listen to her memories and grief.

By the time he walked back up Briggate, his knees were beginning to ache and he had to lean heavily on the stick. Too much walking and the day was far from over yet.

He found Tom Finer in Garroway’s coffee house. He spent most of his days here, breathing in the warm steam of the air; the dampness was kind to his lungs, he claimed. Finer was more than an old man now, his face as weathered and ancient as the grove of towering oaks that stood outside town. Each year he seemed to shrink inside the layer of heavy clothes he wore to keep himself warm.

But he knew more about crime in Leeds than anyone else. Finer listened, tilting his head to hear more clearly, asking Nottingham to repeat a word or two. Then he sat back, stroking his chin. On the table, a plate covered with breadcrumbs. Next to it, a saucer and a cup with the dark, thick remains of coffee.

‘I’ve never heard of the woman,’ Finer said eventually. Over the years his voice had developed into a deep rasp, that sounded curiously musical. ‘She can’t be anyone too important in the trade.’

‘She made a little money,’ Nottingham said.

All Finer did was shrug. ‘Hard not to do if you’re clipping coins. The big difference comes when you’re making a lot of money. You know what they say: the greater the risk, the larger the reward.’

And the risk was always there. He had no doubt that Hannah Arthur knew the penalty. But how else to support herself and her daughter?

‘Who’d murder a woman like that?’

Finer snorted, a wheezing noise more like a cough.

‘Don’t be an idiot, Richard. Plenty of people. Maybe she’d cheated someone. Perhaps one of the people bringing her coins to clip wanted more. It could be someone saw the chance of a quick profit. Or one of the people who bought the silver she melted down.’

‘It didn’t happen at home.’

Finer examined his fingernails. ‘Where was she?’

‘Quarry Hill, right on the mill garth.’

‘How?’

‘Stabbed in the back.’

‘Henry Wilson,’ Finer said. No hesitation. Then a faint smile. ‘Your son-in-law will have his name on a list.’

‘Who is he?’ Nottingham had never heard of him.

The man exhaled slowly. ‘He arrived, what, it must be three years ago now. After your last time as constable. Someone whose ambition exceeds his brain. That’s a dangerous combination. You know it as well as I do.’

Nottingham stared out of the window at the people passing on the Head Row. A cart trundled, pulled by a slow-moving, swayback old nag.

‘Is he violent?’

Finer nodded. ‘He can be, if it will get him what he wants.’

 

3

‘We’re already looking for him, boss.’

Nottingham recognized Rob’s smile. Indulgent. The man knew his job, he didn’t need help from someone whose days in the job were all behind him.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I should have guessed.’

‘Maybe you’d be better spending some time with Sally.’

A gentle nudge away from things. Let us get on with it. He understood, even if it made him feel old and irrelevant. But perhaps that was what he’d become. Keeping the law was a job for younger men.

‘You’re right,’ he agreed. Yet as he walked down Kirkgate, he could feel the tight knot of resentment in his belly. He was the one who’d taken a chance on hiring Lister in the first place. And now…

He stopped at the Parish Church, a chance to ease his legs. The day was turning brisk, the sun vanishing as deep autumn clouds rolled in and the wind tipped out of the north. By tonight the weather would turn cold, a reminder that winter was just around the corner. Time for a bigger fire in the evening and another blanket on the bed.

Nottingham paused at the graves. The carving remained still crisp on their stones, even as the years passed. He traced out the names. How long before his name appeared below his wife’s? Sometimes he wished life would rush by quickly so he could join her in the ground. Often, though, he felt peace enough simply coming to talk to her.

You’d like this girl, he said. She’s as lost as the rest of us, she seems so fragile and trusting. It might only be for a day or two; she may have relatives who’ll take her. He heard the faint echo of his wife’s response: what if there’s nobody? But they both knew the answer: Sally Arthur would become a part of the family. They were all waifs, orphans making their home together.

 

‘She’s sleeping,’ Lucy told him. ‘I gave her one of those old wives’ remedies that Hester Bailey up the road makes. Some rest is the best thing for her right now.’

The horror would still be there when she woke, but at least she’d have some time free of it.

‘Did she say much?’

‘No, poor little thing.’

Little Mary came over to him, looking up with wide, beseeching eyes. What choice did he have? Nottingham hoisted her on to his lap and listened carefully as she told him about her day. Then the front door opened and she was gone, siding down to the floor and scampering away as she called out, ‘Mama! Mama!’

‘I’ve already heard we have a guest,’ Emily said as she attended to her daughter. She shook her head as she hefted the basket of books on to the table.  ‘You know how they love their gossip. Three different people must have told me as I came home.’

They talked, picking over the supper Lucy served as darkness fell. Nottingham lit the candles and closed the shutters, piling more coal on the fire.

Emily tucked Mary into her small bed, then he told her a story. It was a ritual he’d begun when she first arrived, back when she was a tiny baby and filled with wonder at the world. He’d continued as habit and pleasure. The joy of words and weaving a world. Old Jem, the travelling storyteller, had often stayed in the house when he was still alive, and Nottingham remembered many of his tales. Where he lost the track, he discovered his own.

Once Mary’s eyes closed, he crept out of the room, pulling the door closed, and glanced in on Sally. Her head moved; she was awake, her face was streaked with tears

‘I didn’t dream all those bad things, did I?’ Her voice was tentative, the words feeling their way. He knew that a part of her didn’t want to hear the answer.

He settled on the edge of the bed, feeling his knees ache as they bent. Reaching out, he pushed a stray lock of the fair hair behind her ear.

‘No, you didn’t. I’m afraid they’re all real.’ He waited, watching her eyes in the remains of twilight beyond the window. The loss, the loneliness. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘My mother’s really dead?’

‘Yes, she is.’

The girl pushed her face into the pillow. Nothing would make the truth vanish. No wishing, no praying. But let her do what she could.

‘Do you have any family?’ he asked. A small shake of her head. ‘No uncles or aunts?’

‘No.’ Her voice was muffled, beyond hope. ‘Mama never mentioned any.’

‘Don’t you worry, you can stay here,’ Nottingham said. ‘We’ll look after you. At least you don’t need to think about that.’

He left her. When she was ready, she’d come down. But he knew he was offering a small consolation. She’d be entering a different world, a place without her mother, where everything was familiar but strange, all the signposts of the past vanished.

 

The family had gone to bed. Lucy, Emily. He’d looked in Sally once more. She was turned away from him, impossible to tell if she was asleep or awake. Sleep, he hoped; some rest and escape.

Nottingham banked the fire. He had single candle on the table beside him, its flame flickering as he read the Leeds Mercury. Even with his spectacles, the print blurred a little after half an hour.

Rob returned just as he stirred himself. Lister shed the greatcoat, poured himself a mug of ale and downed it in a long, single swallow.

‘How’s the girl?’ he asked

‘The way you’d expect,’ Nottingham replied. ‘Did you find him?’

Rob nodded. His face was drawn and grim.

‘He killed her. Admitted it before he died.’ Nottingham said nothing, simply waited for the rest. ‘I didn’t have any choice, he refused to give up.’ A sad, eloquent shrug. ‘I didn’t have any choice. But he did give us something else.’

‘What?’ He had his murderer. How could there be more than that?

‘It turns out there’s another man running it all.’ A glint in his eyes, the anticipation of what lay ahead.

‘Who?’

‘Sir Walter Carew. We’re going for him at first light. And we’re going to take him alive.’ He placed the mug back on the table and sighed. ‘Sorry, boss. It’s been a long day and I need my rest.’

He heard the boots on the stair, a soft murmur of voices, then silence. Nottingham followed, washing in the ewer and settling between cold sheets, imagining his wife beside him, the warmth of her body for comfort through every night.

Carew tomorrow. But that wasn’t his battle; Rob was right. In any fight, he’d be too slow, too awkward. The men would have to look out for him. Besides, he had enough to do right here, to help Sally find her new life.

 

There are seven Richard Nottingham books – The Broken Token, Cold Cruel Winter, The Constant Lovers, Come The Fear, At The Dying Of The Year, Fair and Tender Ladies, and Free From All Danger, as well as a short story called Convalescence (which is only available for Kindle). The Broken Token has just been reissued in paperback to celebrate 10 years since its first publication. But all are very easily avaialbe as ebooks. He, his family, his friends and enemies, all keep a special place in my heart.

9781906790844

Free For You…

These are awful times, and we all feel powerless. There’s very little I can do as a writer, but…I can read the openings of my books and post them on Yu Tube, one or two of them a week. Maybe it’ll be a couple of minutes of stress-free time for you.

Here’s the first.

 

And from tomorrow, March 22, until Thursday (the maximum they allow), the Richard Nottingham short story Convalescene is free to download from Amazon. Find it here.

I know it’s not much, but perhaps I can take your mind of the world for a short time.

An Interview, Teaching, A Book

10 years

February has barely begun, but it feels like a flying start.

I’ll begin with the teaching. I’m involved in the Leeds Year of Reading, and proud to be part of it. Because of that, yesterday I went in and taught two writing workshops to students at my old school. Truthfully, it felt as if I’d achieved one of my ambitions. My day there was long ago, but I received an excellent education, and some of the English teachers were among the first to encourage my writing. This is some small way I can give something back and I greatly enjoyed it, even if I’m not one of nature’s teachers.

Secondly, the interview. It’s with Mystery People. You can read online here, but i’m also posting it in full here. It’s quite lengthy and conducted by the woman who first publishe me – she put out The Broken Token 10 long years ago.

And that leads on to the book. As I’ve said (often), The Molten City comes out at the end of March. And that month will also see The Broken Token available in print again, after so long as just an ebook or audiobook.

9781906790844

And the 10th anniversary celebrations are just beginning!

The Return Of The Broken Token

 

10 years

Next spring marks the 10th anniversary of the publication of my first novel, The Broken Token (I’m pretty certain that the launch took place on May 10 – in Leeds, of course). I’d certainly never imagined all the things that have happened since, and all the book that have come out. At that time, I was working on the second in the series.

My small publisher sold out to a larger independent publisher later that year, and they understandably didn’t want the back catalogue, so physical copies of the book quickly vanished.

Thanks to Creative Content, it’s been available ever since as an ebook and an award-winning audiobook, named one of the Independent on Sunday’s 10 Best Audiobooks of 2012.

And now, to make the tenth anniversary, it’s coming back into print as a paperback. Creative Content approached me, and I’m very happy to continue our partnership. It’ll be a trade paperback, priced at £9.99, and should be available from February. Richard Nottingham will be back!

However, I do still have one mint copy of the original paperback, which I’ll be giving away in a contest next spring. That’s real collector’s value. I’m serious; someone on Amazon is offering a new copy for £161. You’ll need to stay turned to find out all the details.

Meanwhile, here’s the cover of the new paperback:

9781906790844

Where Do The Characters Come From?

Just to start, I have to tell you the Kirkus Reviews, one of the major trade journals in the US, has given The Hocus Girl a starred revew (they also gave one to my last book, The Leaden Heart). you can read the full review here, but this is the final line: “This historical tour de force reminds readers who come for the mystery that life hasn’t changed for the disenfranchised.

I’ll take that.

Meanwhile..

10 years

 

They say that an author draws on people he knows for his characters.

I beg to differ.

I feel that in many cases I simply channel the people who populate my books. But if they have any traits, they’re not from people I know; they’re all small facets of me.

Richard Nottingham, for instance, is a very straight arrow, an utterly honest and upright man. Someone to be admired. He’s who I’d like to be, in an ideal world. The Leeds equivalent of the sheriff from a Western (albeit an old one). Amos Worthy is that creeping darkness in my soul. It’s there, I just need to let it out.

Dan Markham is cooler than I’ll ever be, a man at home in a jazz club or standing up to a criminal. He has style, something I’ve always aspired to but never achieved. Carla, his girlfriend, is the creative spirit I always wished I could be. But I never have quite managed to throw off the shackles of society.

Lottie Armstrong. She’s strength in adversity, someone who doesn’t give up. I suppose in some ways I have that, since I kept on fight to be published and eventually got there. But she’s a woman and that automatically makes her stronger than any man. And revisiting her 20 years later, she’s still got the resilience under all the sorrow. Urban Raven, from The Dead on Leave, has some of the same qualities. But with a crude plastic surgery face, his obstacles are more visible and obvious.

Simon Westow is resourceful, brave, intelligent, a man who’s overcome his past. That’s not me, of course; I’ve been far luckier than that. But I’d like to believe I had to spirit to be able to work my way up. Maybe I would, too. But probably not. Jane…Jane is my real darkness, the side we keep in because that’s what society teaches us. There are times I feel as isolated from the world as her. As an only child I’m good at keeping things inside, at being able to compartmentalise everything in my head. She’s the extreme, with everything coloured by a very deadly nature.

Tom Harper? He’s perhaps as close as I’ve come to a younger me, and his hearing problem certainly mirrors my own

Annabelle? No, Annabelle is channelled. She truly did come out of the ether. But thank God she’s here.

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.

annabellecard 200_2

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

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.

1715prospect

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.