Big, Big News

This has appeared in the US today. It’s an interview in Publishers Weekly, the biggest of the American publishing trade magazines. It’s the first US interview I’ve had. That alone would make it a big deal. That it’s in something so influential is the icing on the cake. Even better, their starred review of The Hocus Girl is on the following page.

Here’s the interview – which will give you a bit more background to the book.

PW Interview Hocus

And here’s the review. Honestly, I’m still fizzing with pleasure.

HGPWreview

Prolific? Me? Honestly, No…

People keep telling me I’m a very prolific writer. It happened again just over a week ago. I’ve published a number of books over the last few years, definitely more than one a year.

But that’s not prolific. When I hear that word, I think about the way groups worked in the 1960s. They worked hard, and some of them made huge music strides and produced glorious work under pressure.

Let’s look at the Beatles as an example.

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They fully broke through in the UK at the end of 1962. Between 1963 and 1966, by which time they were a global phenomenon that had never been seen before, they released:

  • Seven LPs
  • 13 Eps
  • 15 singles

On top of that, they also made two films, toured Britain and the world, and appeared countless times on radio and television. Think of the material Lennon and McCartney penned in that time. It truly changed the entire musical landscape.

That’s prolific. That’s influential.

I’m just an amateur, a dilletante by comparison.

I will remind you, though, that The Hocus girl is out in hardback in the UK and from November 1 it will be available everywhere as an ebook.

The Hocus Girl is powerful, persuasive and almost impossible to put down.” – Fully Booked.

“This historical tour de force reminds readers who come for the mystery that life hasn’t changed for the disenfranchised.” – Kirkus Reviews, starred review.

Shouldn’t you give it a try?

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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.

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Cut Me And I Bleed Leeds

Cut me and I bleed Leeds. Not red, but blue and gold and white.

Maybe it’s true. The place is in my heart, my soul, my DNA, with all its soot and grime, its failings and its joys. Leeds is me and I’m bloody proud to be one tiny part of it. In my books (like The Hocus Girl, which was published in the UK on Monday, hint hint), I try to make Leeds itself as important as important as one of the people on the page.

For a long time it wasn’t that way. At 18 I was happy to move elsewhere and I ended up abroad for a long time. But eventually, with that twitch on the thread, Leeds called me home. I moved back six years ago last week and I’ve never felt as if I ever fitted anywhere quite so well.

I’ve been thinking about the first time I realised quite what Leeds meant, when it became more than home, school, the city centre and our neighbourhood. It was probably towards the end of winter in 1961, when the teenage son of my mother’s boss (poor lad) took me to my first match at Elland Road to watch Leeds United play. February or March, maybe. Certainly a grey, dank day, and I was all wrapped up in my dark blue gaberdine school raincoat. My school was very much rugby league – all the boys were taken to the park to play – but football in the playground. Boys and girls had separate playgrounds, covered in sharp gravel, and boys had to wear short every day, no natter the weather. It meant constant sabs on the knees.

I loved football back then, in the way that only a young boy can. So the trip was magical, to an area of town I’d never seen before. Far enough away that it might have been another country. Then into the schoolboys’ pen, and so many people. All the noise.

I don’t remember who we played or what the score was. But all these men singing and cheering for Leeds resonated in me. It stirred something, somewhere in the dirty, black and white world that was the start of the Sixties.

Of course, I didn’t understand what or where or why or how. Really, that didn’t come for decades, not until absence made my heart grow fonder.

Not everyone develops an attachment to their hometown. Not everyone feels the needs to know how it became the way it is, or to celebrate the nameless and forgotten who helped to form it. That’s fine. It’s why I write about the place, to understand it in it’s different eras, its different shapes, from small town to grand city to something in decline. I just happen to be someone who was touched by the madness.

It’s not a perfect place, God knows. I shout and criticise it with the best of them. My Leeds is one that welcomes people from everywhere. It started with the Irish, the Romany, the Jews, and now from every country on earth. To me, they all have someone to give. They’re all Leeds.

So yes, Leeds is me. Take a saw to me and there will be Leeds written right through the middle. I used to think that was funny. Now, though, I say it with pride.

But please don’t actually cut me or saw me open, okay?

 

Related to this, I’m part of a panel on Saturday October 12 at the Leeds Library on Commercial St, talking about locality in crime fiction. I’m sharing the session with France Brody, June Taylor, and the German writer Ursula Maria Wartmann. It will be chaired by another crime novelist, Ali Harper. All the details are here.

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More From The Hocus Girl And Big News

A week and a half until The Hocus Girl is published in the UK.

Yes, I do believe it’s a good book, one of my very best (if you want to know, I feel it’s up there with Cold Cruel Winter, At The Dying of the Year, The Tin God, The Leaden Heart, and The Year of the Gun). It brings real depth to the characters, which you can never do with the first book in a series; at that point, you’re still getting to know them yourself. But Jane in this book…I knew from The Hanging Psalm that she was someone special, but in this she blooms…well, you’ll have to read the book and see, won’t you?

And…BIG BIG NEWS…to put the icing on the week, the publisher has said they’ll be putting out the third book with Simon Westow and Jane at the end of September 2020 (hard to believe such a time exists!). It’s called To The Dark.

Meanwhile, have two more brief extracts from The Hocus Girl to push you to buy it/reserve from the library.

 

As he walked back towards Leeds, Simon sensed someone behind him. Trying to be quiet and doing a piss-poor job of it.

Close to Lady Bridge the path curved, the bushes at the side growing thick and wild. For a handful of seconds, he’d be out of sight. That was long enough. Simon slipped the knife from his sleeve.

By the time the man appeared, head moving from side to side in confusion, Simon was hidden from view. He loosened a second knife in his boot. Give it another few moments. Long enough for the follower to grow frustrated.

Screened behind the leaves, Simon held his breath. A broad, hulking man with a vicious expression was staring this way and that. A club dangled from his belt, next to his knife. Very likely another weapon or two hidden on his body.

The man turned, eyes searching, then stared at the road beyond the bridge. Lady Lodge stood alone, surrounded by a field and a hedge before the hill rose towards a row of half-built houses.

Simon eased himself out from the branches, tensed then dashed forward. Just five paces, but he was moving fast enough to send the man sprawling as he caught him behind his thighs.

The man tried to turn. Before he could struggle, Simon was on him, kneeling on his back, the edge of his blade against the side of his neck as he searched him. Two knives and the club. Simon tossed them into the beck. It had only taken three seconds, and the rush of it left his breathing ragged.

‘I don’t like people following me.’

No response.

‘Why are you doing it?’

‘Orders.’ The man’s voice was stifled in the dirt. Simon grabbed him by the hair.

‘Whose orders?’

‘Curzon.’

Now he knew who this man was. The magistrate’s bodyguard. Whittaker, the former government man.

‘And why does Mr Curzon care what I do?’

‘You’ve been asking questions about his case.’

‘Is that a crime now?’

‘It is if you try to stop justice.’

‘No, Mr Whittaker.’ He felt the man stir at the mention of his name. ‘I’m trying to stop an injustice. You’re going to go back and tell your master that.’

Whittaker snorted. ‘Do you reckon that’ll be the end of it? He’ll give up and apologize because you’re not happy? He’s more powerful than you’ll ever be.’

‘That doesn’t mean he’ll always win. You might want to remind him of that.’ He felt the man tense under him, ready to try and move. ‘Don’t,’ Simon warned. He pressed the steel hard against Whittaker’s neck. ‘I’ll have you dead before you even reach your knees.’

‘We’ll be seeing each other again.’

‘I daresay we will.’

‘Next time things be different.’

‘We’ll find out about that, won’t we?’ He rose swiftly, standing back with his knife ready. ‘Your weapons are in the water. The current won’t have carried them far.’

Simon walked away, alert, ready for Whittaker to chase after him. But he didn’t come.

Curzon had set his dog to warn Simon off. If his case was so strong, why would he need to do that?

 

She needed him to follow her to the churchyard. She’d be waiting there, waiting for him.

The man was twenty paces behind her, she judged. Even in the crowd she could pick out the rhythm of his feet as he followed her. She’d have plenty of time to prepare.

Jem was over by the wall, sitting and watching. He stirred as he saw her. Jane gave him a small sign: stay there, don’t move. Then she stood, as if she was slightly lost, waiting for someone. The knife was concealed in her hand.

Whittaker came up behind her. He probably thought he was quiet, but to her ears, he might as well have been an army on the move. He was close when she turned, and for the smallest moment his step faltered. Then he was on her, leering, his eyes hungry.

‘So you’re Westow’s little slut. People tell me you’re dangerous. There’s nothing to you.’

His hand moved, cupping her breast, fingers squeezing so hard that the pain shot through her. It shocked, it hurt, but Jane didn’t let her face betray a thing. One second, two and then three. Just long enough for him to think her had her cowed. The hilt of the knife rubbed against her gold ring as she let it slide in her fingers. Her right hand shot up and the blade carved a line down his cheek.

He jumped back as if he’d been burned, raising his hand to his face and bringing it down to stare in disbelief at the blood.

‘You bitch!’ he shouted.

Jane didn’t move. She stood with the knife in her hand. Her voice was quiet and calm, hardly more than a whisper.

‘I’m going to kill you,’ she told him. ‘For Henry.’

She took a step forward and Whittaker retreated, still pressing a hand to his face. Blood seeped through his fingers, dripping down his neck to stain the white of his shirt.

He kept moving, watching her until there was enough distance for him to turn his back and walk off.

She’d bested him. Humiliated him. He wouldn’t let this rest. He couldn’t; he was a man. Jane knew that before she began, but she didn’t care. The next time, though, he’d be cautious. He’d be slow. That didn’t matter. She’d do exactly as she promised.

‘Did he hurt you?’ Jem had run across as soon as it was safe.

‘He tried.’ She could still feel Whittaker’s touch on her body. Her breast ached. The mark of his fingers would show in a few hours. The hurt went deeper in her, to her core. She wouldn’t forget and she’d never forgive. ‘But I hurt him more.’ She turned to the boy. For now she’d put it out of her mind; there would be time to think about everything tonight. ‘Have you found the man with the limp?’

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A Taste Of The Hocus Girl

In a little more than a fortnight, The Hocus Girl will be out in the UK (Amazon is already sending copies to customers). If you’re a blogger or review, the book is available on NetGalley.

Yes, I really do want you to buy it. I’ll try to persuade you and twist your arm.

But perhaps a few short extracts might convince you. You can order from your local bookshop. Give them the business, keep them going. And if you can’t afford it, then please ask your local library to stock it. Libraries are vital to us all. We need to use them, to fight to keep them open.

I hope you enjoy this – please let me know.

 

Near the top of Kirkgate, Simon pushed open the heavy door of the gaol. The place was old now, mortar crumbling between the stones, cold even in the spring sun. The clerk at the desk raised his head.

‘Mr Westow,’ he said in surprise. ‘Have you brought someone for us?’

‘Davey Ashton. Do you have him in the cells?’

‘No, sir.’ The man frowned and pushed the spectacles up his nose. He put down his pen and rubbed the fingers of his right hand. ‘There’s no one by that name. When was he arrested?’

‘This morning.’

The clerk’s expression cleared and his mouth turned down. ‘Is this the sedition case?’

‘Yes.’

‘They’re questioning him at the Moot Hall. I’ll warn you now, though, they won’t let you in. It’s supposed to be secret, but I’ve heard there have been arrests all over the West Riding. Breaking up a rebellion, that’s what they’re saying.’

Simon felt a chill rise through his body. Rebellion was a capital crime. The death penalty. Hanging. In God’s name, what was going on?

‘Who’s the magistrate?’

‘Mr Curzon.’

He knew all about Curzon. A mill owner, a rich man who paid his workers as little as he dared and worked them as hard as he could. A man who’d honed away his compassion and conscience and replaced them with gold.

He’d be putting his questions, damning Davey to hell and threatening him with transportation for life or the noose. Simon felt the desperation clawing in his belly. He had to do something. But he wouldn’t even be able to see Davey until Curzon was done. And he didn’t know how he could save his friend.

‘I see. Thank you.’ A nod and he left. At least he knew his enemy now.

 

‘The government’s spying on Englishmen?’ For a moment, Simon wasn’t sure he’d heard properly.

‘You make it sound as if that’s something shocking,’ Miller snorted. ‘They’ve been doing it for centuries. They’re petrified, Simon. Terrified. With the price of food so high and wages low, they’re afraid we’re going to rebel like the French did thirty years ago and send them all to the guillotine.’

‘More Peterloos.’

No one would ever forget the day when a Manchester magistrate sent the cavalry to break up a political meeting. Fifteen had died, hundreds were wounded.

‘Or worse,’ Miller continued. ‘They’re taking no chances. So they’re sending agents to spy on people.’ He shrugged and drank again.

A spy. Simon considered the idea.

‘What else do you know?’

The man shook his head as an answer. ‘That’s it, Simon. Little things I’ve heard and put together. It might not be true. But I’ll wager good money it is.’

It was. He could feel it in his bones. He took out another coin and slid it across the table.

‘I’d like to know more about this spy. If you can find anything. Anything at all…’

Miller rubbed the thumb and the stubs of two fingers together. Money. ‘I’ll let you know.’

 

 

With great care, Jane emptied the sack. Five pieces made from silver. Barstow had stolen eight. Simon had recovered the watch; two still missing, exactly as the man had said. She stacked everything in the corner, tucked out of sight behind the chair, wadded her shawl and pushed it deep into the sack. A moment later she emerged into the daylight, the fingers of her right hand curled tight around the knife.

Someone was behind her. She could hear him, the way the rhythm of footsteps matched her own. It wouldn’t be Barstow; he didn’t have the skill or the courage. Not that it mattered. Jane was going to lead him through the courts and yards and finish up behind him. Then she’d make him regret this.

She didn’t even need to think where she was going. Leeds was imprinted in her mind, in her feet. She’d walked every inch of the town time and again, she’d lived on its streets when she was a child. Sometimes knowing where to turn and how to hide could be the difference between staying alive and dying.

 

It only took five minutes before she came out of a tiny ginnel to see the figure ahead of her, gazing around, unsure which way to turn. Jane stopped, staring in disbelief. Not a man at all. A woman. Taller and heavier than her, several years older, with a tumble of thick dark hair that hung like a rat’s nest over her shoulders. She wore an old, patched cotton dress too short to reach her clogs, a threadbare shawl gathered on her shoulders.

For a second, Jane was too stunned to move. Then she breathed slowly. Man or woman, it didn’t matter. This was a threat.

The woman tensed as Jane pricked her back with the tip of her knife and whispered, ‘Why are you looking for me?’

‘He paid me. Two pennies.’ She opened her fist to show a pair of coins.

‘Who?’ Jane wanted to hear the name.

‘Him.’ That was her only response.

‘Why? What does he want?’

‘He said I had to see where you went then go back and tell him.’ Her voice shook. ‘Please… don’t hurt me.’

Jane took two steps back. Something was wrong. As soon as he heard her voice, Barstow would have known exactly who she was. Every crook in Leeds knew she worked with Simon, and the thief-taker didn’t hide his address. This woman came from someone else. Who?

‘Then you’d better tell him I managed to lose you.’

‘I can’t.’

Silently, Jane took another pace away from the woman, eyes fixed, knife ready for any movement.

The woman turned, lunging. Light glinted on the blade of a long dagger. But all she caught was air. Before she could recover, Jane was on her. A slash opened the girl’s arm and her knife clattered to the ground. Jane kicked it away.

‘Do you really want me to kill you?’

A shake of the head. The girl pressed the edge of her shawl down on the wound, trying to staunch the blood. Her face had turned pale.

‘Then don’t come after me again,’ Jane warned. ‘Ever.’

For a moment she stared, then turned and walked away. Even as she did it, Jane knew she was making a mistake. If this had been a man, she’d have killed him. She’d been too cautious. Too generous. Too stupid. Too weak. This wasn’t finished yet. As certain as morning, the woman would return.

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