The Real Lives Behind The Blood Covenant

Last month my new novel, The Blood Covenant, was published in the UK. The catalyst for Simon Westow in the book is the brutal deaths of two factory boys at the bullying hands of overeers, which brings back memories of his own childhood in the workhouse and the mills.

This was real, and the dig for the site of what became Victoria Gate shopping centre in Leeds brought up the bodies of local children, factory children, who’d lived short, horrific lives. They weren’t the exception, as testimony to the Sadler Committe in 1832 showed. I’m profoundlky grateful that Big Issue North asked me to write about the reality. It’s in the issue published today (January 17) – and it’s a magazine that’s always worth your money.

The testimony is harrowing, but it’s a window on their lives.

First page
Second page

Another Extract from The Blood Coventant

Another short extract from The Blood Covenant that I hope will tempt you into buying a copy (or asking your library to buy one – maybe even both!) Most bookshops seem to have copies now, although it’s not out until the 30th officially. If you ask them nicely, they might well be able to get it to you for Christmas…for online ordering, this place has the cheapest price, with free UK postage, and they can get it straight out.

Jane’s turn this time.

Jane turned off Boar Lane on to Albion Street and knew someone was there. She had the sense of him before she could see anything. Tightening her grip on the hilt of the blade, she peered into the darkness.

            Suddenly he was in front of her, no more than three yards away. As if he’d appeared from nowhere. Looming like a giant. Tall, broad as a house. If she allowed him to come close enough, he’d be able to crush the life from her.

            The bayonet that usually hung from his belt was in his right hand.

            Perkins. Arden’s bodyguard, grinning at the sight of her.

            ‘You and your boss, you’ve been poking in places where you don’t belong. Causing trouble for Mr Arden’s friend.’

            Jane didn’t reply. She was watching him, her mind racing over the advice Dodson the crippled soldier had given her. A dirty fighter, brutal, with years of experience. If he won, he’d leave her for dead without a qualm.

            A weak right knee. That was what Dodson had said. Not much, but it was something.

            Perkins moved towards her. Only a single pace, but it was enough. He was going to use his size and weight against her. He had to be in his fifties now, grey hair cropped close against his skull; old for work like this. But he still had power. What he’d lost in speed he made up for in trickery.

            Jane could see it in his eyes; he believed she was an easy target. A girl who’d have no fight in her. He took another pace forward. She tried to feint to her right, but he was already moving to stop it. Old, but not so slow. And not slipping on the packed, frozen snow.

            He wanted to keep her moving backwards until she was pinned against the wall. Once that happened, he could take his time. Finish her as quickly or slowly as he wanted.

            She was watching. His eyes, his hands. His feet. They’d give the clues. Even knowing she might die here, she felt calm. She touched the gold ring. A single step back, to see what he’d do. His eyes glinted, as if he already sensed victory.

            Good, she thought, let him. Maybe he’d let down his guard a little.

            Perkins swung his arm, the bayonet slicing through the air. But that wasn’t the danger; it was a diversion, he’d put no power into it. He was shifting his balance, preparing to kick her. As soon as he raised his foot, she darted forward with a kick of her own.

            She put all her weight behind it. She felt the hobnails on the sole of her boot crash into his right knee. The feel of something giving in his leg. He staggered, arms out to try and keep his balance. Mouth shut tight to stifle the cry. Eyes filled with fury and surprise.

            She could run. He wouldn’t be able to follow. But if she did that, Jane knew he’d recover and come for her another time. When that happened, she wouldn’t have the smallest chance of staying alive.

            The thoughts flew through her head in a moment. No hesitation. She kicked his knee again. This time it gave. He fell on to the pavement, scrambling backwards so he could try to defend himself.

Coming VERY Soon…

It’s December, which means it’s less than four weeks to Christmas, and a little over that until the UK publication of The Blood Covenant.

Today, or very, very shortly, it will be available to read on NetGalley. If you’re a blogger or reviewer and registered with Severn House (my publisher), it going to be waiting for you.

Or you could pre-order the book and there’s a good chance you’ll have it by Christmas. Here has the best price, with free shipping.

Plenty can’t afford it. Ask your library to buy a copy. That way plenty of people will be able to read it.

It’s not a cosy read. But factory bosses working children 12-14 hours a day, and overseers brutally punishing them isn’t comfortable reading. This isn’t the Regency of Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer. This is Regency Noir

Bringing them some justice…it’s bloody and hard. But worth the pain.

What would you do if they were your kids?

This is a book that means a lot to me. It’s stirred my anger in a way that little else has. If you read it, please leave a review.

Thank you, and I hope it moves you.

A Trailer…for The Blood Covenant

It’s coming…six weeks and it will be here. How about a littel trailer to tell you the heart of the book. One minute and ten seconds of your time.

From early December it will be abailable on NetGalley. If you’re a reviewer of blogger and want a copy, please let me know with your email address.

Meanwhile…remember…

This is Regency Noir.

This is necessary.

This is Leeds.

A Little Of The Blood Covenant

Hard to believe that time barrels along so fast, and that The Blood Covenant will be out in just a few weeks, on the 30th of December. If you order it for Christmas, though, there’s a very fair chance it will arrive in time (just a hint and a nudge).

It’s a very angry book, about finding justice for those who’ve been abused. Those who don’t have the power to fright for themselves. For Simon Westow, it’s more than it job, it becomes something very person, and very, very dark. But not only him. Jane, too, is going to have to face demons she thought long since vanished.

Here’s an abridged extract from near the opening. A way to whet your appetite and have you clicking online to order, I hope. Remember, please, every time you buy from an independent bookshop, all the angels cheer. The cheapest price, with free postage, is here.

‘You testified to the commission that was in town three years ago, didn’t you?’ Dr Hey asked

            ‘Yes,’ Simon answered.

Oh, he’d talked to them. Men sent from London, part of an investigation around the country into child labour and abuse. Simon knew all about that; he still carried the scars on his body. As he spoke, seeing them sitting safe behind their polished table, he relived all the punishments and torture he received as a boy, at the mill, as an inmate of the workhouse. Year after year of it, from the time he was four until he turned thirteen, when he could take no more and walked away, knowing that even death would be better. Just the memory made the skin of his hands turn clammy and his heart beat faster. He’d talked. But he didn’t believe they’d ever really listened.

‘What made you think about that?’ Simon asked

            ‘A pair of deaths I had to examine recently.’ Hey pulled some papers from the inside pocket of his coat. ‘I made a few notes I wanted you to see. Read them and come to see me when you have chance.’

            Back in the old stone house on Swinegate, Simon read as he ate supper, then spent the evening quietly brooding. For once he scarcely paid attention to Richard and Amos, the twins. Little else existed beyond the thoughts in his head.

            ‘What is it?’ Rosie asked after she’d put the boys to bed.

            ‘No need to worry. It’s nothing like that.’ Simon took a deep breath and told her. ‘He made a copy of what he’d written when he saw the children’s bodies. The older boy was ten. He’d lost two fingers on his left hand when he was younger. His body was covered in bruises, it looked like he’d been beaten with a stick or a strap. It was much the same with the younger one. He was just eight.’

            ‘Who did it?’ Rosie asked. Her fists were bunched, fingernails digging into her palms.

            ‘A mill overseer,’ he replied.

            ‘Which mill?’

            Simon shook his head. ‘He didn’t put that in there.’

Now he was out here, walking as he tried to stay ahead of his memories and pain.

The sky had cleared. It was colder now; his breath bloomed in front of his face. The remnants of rain dripped slowly from gutters. The stink of the manufactories had returned to fill the air.

Simon walked.

Damn Hey. He’d released the past from its cage. Now it was out here, hounding him, snapping and snarling at his heels. All these years and still it wouldn’t leave him. But better for Simon to be doing something than be restless and wakeful at home.

            He’d gone from Sheepscar across to Holbeck, along the river all the way to the ferry landing as he tried to exhaust his mind. He’d sensed Leeds grow silent around him as people gave up on the last dregs of night. He was tired, his legs ached and his feet were sore. But he knew he’d be out here for a long time yet. Bloody Hey.

Simon made his way past the warehouses on the Calls. Bone-weary, needing to sleep. But the images, the history, the pain kept raging through his head. He was just a few yards from the river, able to hear the water lapping and smell the low, thin perfume of decay.

A sound cut through, the creak of oars in their rowlocks. Late to be out, he thought. Maybe someone was stealing from the barges moored at the wharves. Never mind, he decided; it wasn’t his business. Not until someone paid him to retrieve what might be taken.

            ‘Grab him under the arms. Get him out of there.’

            The night watch, taking care of some drunk who’d fallen in the river. It happened at least once a month. A man would grow fuddled, lose his way and walk into the water. Some jumped, dragged down by despair. A very few were lucky; they were pulled out and survived. Most drowned, found bobbing downstream when morning came.

            ‘He weighs a bloody ton.’

            ‘You don’t need to be gentle, he’s already dead. Just grab him. Oh Christ, his throat’s been cut. The constable’s going to want to see this one.’

            Simon felt a chill rise through his body, colder than the night. The men were on Pitfall, only a few yards downriver from Leeds Bridge. Two of them, standing and stretching their backs. Between them, lying on the stones, a shape that had once been a man. Simon could make out the jacket and the trousers, soaked and stained by the water. The men from the watch turned at his footsteps, surprised to see another living soul out at this hour.

            ‘Can I see him?’

            One of the men shook his head. ‘You don’t want to do that,’ he said. ‘The dead are never pretty, mister.’

            ‘I know,’ Simon told him. ‘I’ve seen my share.’

            A short silence. In the glow from a pair of lanterns, he caught the two men glancing at each other. A penny for each of them helped make up their minds.

            The light caught the corpse’s face. Simon knelt, brushing away some dirt and a piece of cloth that was caught in man’s hair. He lifted the chin. A straight, deep gash across the neck. Clean and quick. But definitely no accident. Murdered and tossed into the river. He hadn’t been dead long, either; it couldn’t be more than an hour or two. Nothing had nibbled at his eyes yet, the flesh still intact and fresh.

            He didn’t recognize the face.

            One of the men coughed.

            ‘There’s something else, sir.’ He raised the lantern. ‘You see? Down there.’

            The right hand was missing. Severed at the wrist. It looked like a single, swift blow had gone through the bone. For the love of God. Before or after he was dead?

            ‘The constable will be wondering who you are, sir. He’s going to want to know about someone asking to see the body.’

            ‘Tell him it’s Simon Westow. The thief-taker. He knows me.’

Of Podcasts And Old Leeds And Going To Farsley

This week, I’m afraid, I have a few links for you, along with a promise of an upcoming excerpt from The Blood Covenant, which comes out at the end of December. That will be next week.

But the links, well, there’s a lot of meat there. A little while ago the Leeds Library, Britain’s oldest subscription library, founded in 1768, interviewed me. It covers music, music journalism, researching history and Leeds in general. Very wide-ranging, and I bare all. Well, maybe. And you can find it right here.

As many of you may know, I love Leeds. Yeah, it’s not really a secret, is it? A couple of people say I bleed Leeds, or that if you open me up, it’s written through me, like a stick of Blackpool rock. A website posed me the interesting question, to name my five favourite books on old Leeds. It took plenty of thought, but I did come up with them. It’s right here, with my brief explanations.

Next week, November 4th, I’ll be appearing at the Constitutional in Farsley with the lovely Frances Brody, in an event put on by an excellent new indie bookshop, Truman Books. If you can, I hope you’ll come. Read about it here.

Finally, since I’m all links today, this is the cheapest place to pre-order The Blood Covenant (or Brass Lives), with free UK postage. And for the Kindle, click here.

From The Grave To The Page

Would you read this book? I hope so.

In 2016 in Leeds, archaeological excavations at the site of what is now the luxury shopping centre of Victoria Gate uncovered 28 bodies in was once burial ground of the Ebenezer Chapel. Until 1797 it had been a place of worship for Baptists, then it was taken over the Methodists. The graveyard had been closed in 1848, and the building itself demolished in 1936.

Ebenezer Chapel

That’s the background. But with the digging, the horror was about to begin. It’s what provided the inspiration for The Blood Covenant, the new Simon Westow book that’s due in December. History was unearthed and walked on to the page.

12 of those bodies were children and examination showed that nine of them had experienced diseases like rickets and anaemia. But there’s far more than that. They’d spent most of their short lives starving. Quite literally starving, in a rich, industrial city.

Dr Jane Richardson of the Archaelogical Services WYAS, told the Yorkshire Evening Post: “What makes these stand out is not the fact that remains were found, but the malnutrition they show us. It was the most grim part of Leeds at the time, and malnutrition was so prevalent. You can only imagine what these children must have gone through.”

The lived in absolute poverty, according to academic Malin Holst: “We’ve analysed quite a few populations that were very poor, like in Rotherham, but these really stick out,” she said. “They lived in these hovels in the backyards of back-to-back housing, and you could only get to them through tunnels – which were so small even a coffin could [not] fit through. If you can imagine trying to get sewerage or rubbish out, or even just trying to see sunlight – impossible. Children as young as six would’ve been working 12 hours a day in factories, it was just horrible.”

Think about that. They were working, earning money. Everyone in the family would be labouring, bringing home a wage yet they had no choice but to live like that. One of the bodies belonged to a child aged between eight or ten. The growth was so stunted it looked to be three or four.

In 1834, after the cholera epidemic, Dr Robert Baker reported on various areas of Leeds to the Board of Health, pinpointing the worst places in Leeds. Of the area around the chapel, he wrote: “I have been in one of these damp cellars, without the slightest drainage, every drop of wet and every morsel of dirt and filth having to be carried up into the street; two corded frames for beds, overlaid with sacks for five persons; scarcely anything in the room else to sit on but a stool, or a few bricks; the floor in many places absolutely wet; a pig in the corner also; and in a street where filth of all kinds had accumulated for years.”

Never mind horror fiction. The facts are far worse. There were real children who lived short, terrible lives and died like that, breathing in the soot, barely seeing the sun.

The skeletons were examined on the TV programme The Bone Detectives. You can watch it here.

Reading about it, seeing the bones. That was the moment The Blood Covenant took shape. All too often, those children were abused by overseers in the mills and factories. That’s simply a documented fact.

Simon Westow had been a victim himself during his years in the workhouse and the factory.  It had stayed with him, scarred him mentally and physically. When Dr Hey handed him notes he’d made about the bodies of two factory children from Ebenezer Street, it drew out his old ghosts.

‘He made a copy of what he’d written when he saw the children’s bodies. The older boy was ten. He’d lost two fingers on his left hand when he was younger. He was covered in bruises, it looked like he’d been beaten with a stick or a strap. It was much the same with the younger one. He was just eight.’

            ‘Who did it?’ his wife asked. Her fists were bunched, fingernails digging into her palms.

            ‘A mill overseer,’ he replied.

            ‘Which mill?’

            Simon shook his head. ‘He didn’t put that in there.’

Simon is going to give those children some justice. But it going to prove harder, and far deadlier, than he’d or his assistant Jane imagined.

The cheapest place to pre-order The Blood Covenant is here and UK postage is free. It’s published at the end of December.

Well, will you read this book?

One I Made Earlier, But You Haven’t Seen Yet

Time seems to be zipping by. I suppose it always does, but the second half of 2021 seems to be flying by. Brass Lives came out in June, and it’s already time to look ahead. It’s actually not that long since I write this – well, not to me, at least. The fourth Simon Westow novel, The Blood Covenant.

This is the book I started to write before the first lockdown knocked the world off-kilter, and there was no place for anger for a while; only sorrow and compassion, with a very large dose of fear. That resulted in me writing a very different books, which will appear next year.

Then the details about the mismanagement of Covid started to appear, the number of lives that might have been saved, the friends who benefited from a lack of oversight of all manner of things. The anger roared back. I picked up this book again. It’s not the same piece I started. The fury is stronger. It’s a very personal book, for Simon (it takes him back to the abuse he faced in his young days), for Jane, and for me. No regrets about that.

The Blood Covenant is published in hardback in the UK just after Christmas and you can pre-order it now. The ebook will appear worldwide on Febraury 1, 2022, abnd the hardback in other parts of the world in March. The best price I’ve seen is here.

Yes, it’s filled with anger – reading it again, it burns off the page. But there is still some tenderness in there, and some justice. It’s brutal at times, but no apology for that. Here’s what it’s about:

Leeds. November, 1823. When a doctor from the infirmary tells thief-taker Simon Westow about the brutal deaths of two young boys at the hands of a mill overseer, Simon’s painful memories of his childhood reawaken. Unable to sleep, he goes for a walk – and stumbles upon the body of a young man being pulled from the river.

Simon and his assistant, Jane, are drawn into investigating the deaths, seeking a measure of justice for the powerless dead. But the pursuit of the truth takes them on a dangerous and deadly path. Can they overcome a powerful enemy who knows he stands above the law in Leeds – and the shadowy figure that stands behind him?

I think this is one of the very best things I’ve written. The heat is there in every word. It’s not genteel. It’s hardcore. It’s Leeds. I may be wrong, but I don’t believe I am. I hope you’ll give it a read and find out.

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!