Something Secret And New

The next Simon Westow novel, To The Dark, was due to come out in the UK at the end of September. Unsurprisingly, that’s now been pushed back to the end of December. Publishing is in a state of upheaval at the moment. The fact that it’s still on the schedule at all seems like a miracle.

However, while it lies in limbo, I can treat you to the opening of the book, as a thank you for buying The Molten City, or signing up for the Severn House newsletter, which lets you get the ebook of it free of charge until the end of April.

And as a special bonus, as part of the First in a Series promotion, Gods of Gold is available everywhere as an ebook for 99p/99c until the end of May. Not bad, huh?

But now, I’m going to whet your appetite for a few months in the future…not even available to pre-order yet. You’re the first to see it – shhh!

Leeds, November 1822

 

She sensed him there, behind her in the fog. Jane reached into the pocket of her skirt and took hold of the knife.

From Briggate to Wood Street, then all the turnings and twists through to Vicar Lane, he followed. Growing bolder and closer all the time.

She smiled. Good.

She could run; she knew that. Run so he wouldn’t be able to follow. The urge for safety filled her chest, to vanish through the cramped courts and yards.

But she didn’t. Jane wanted him to find her. She tugged her cloak closer to her body and stopped, listening.

A small cough. No more than five yards away now. The scuff of a heel on the cobbles. Four yards. Then three.

Jane took a breath and turned.

‘Well, well, well.’ He took two paces forward. A swagger in his step once he could see her face, his voice like oil. ‘Looks like it’s just you and me out in this, don’t it?’ He pulled something from his pocket. A silver sixpenny piece. ‘See that? It’s yours if you’re a good lass.’

Jane stared at him.

‘They all like it,’ he said. ‘Talk about Big Tom for days afterwards, they do.’

The coin danced across his knuckles, twirling from one finger to the next and next, then back again. A trick to mesmerize and distract the gaze.

This was the man she’d been told about. Always the same. She watched his free arm start to move, edging towards the blade in his belt.

One flash of her knife, over before he realized. The empty tinkling of the coin as it landed on the cobbles. He stared at the hand in horror. He only had two fingers left.

‘That’s for Bessie Colbert,’ she said.

Another flick and the blood began to run down his cheek. She leaned close and turned his head, waiting until he was looking into her eyes. ‘That’s what rapists get. If I ever see you again, I’ll kill you.’

She disappeared into the fog. He began to howl.

 

 

Leeds, February 1823

 

‘No, no.’ Alderman Ferguson shook his head as he walked, pushing his walking stick down into the packed snow with each step. He started to slip and grabbed the sleeve of Simon Westow’s greatcoat to keep his balance. ‘Damned weather. I wish it would all melt.’

‘It’s already started,’ Simon said. ‘It’ll be gone soon enough.’

The thaw had begun that morning. He could hear the slow drip of water from the eaves of buildings, leaving pock marks like smallpox scars in the snow below. After two weeks of being snowed in, things were finally changing. The roads had stayed open, the coaches still travelling between towns, but there had been plenty of accidents. Simon had heard of three horses breaking legs and having to be killed; a good coach horse was valuable property. The skies hung low and grey, but the air was warming. The worst was definitely over.

In Leeds, the snow had fallen a dirty grey colour. The factory smoke and soot that filled the air tainted it before it even reached the ground. Drifts that piled against buildings had a thin black crust, and every path remained treacherous; Simon was grateful for the hobnails on the soles of his boots.

‘Maybe it is,’ Ferguson grumbled. ‘Can’t come soon enough for me.’ He pulled the top hat down on his head and tried to burrow deeper into his coat. Tight trousers emphasized his spindly old man’s legs as he walked up Briggate, away from the Moot Hall. ‘I’m ready for spring and some warmth. Aren’t you?’

‘Always,’ Simon agreed. The only crimes since the snow had begun to fall were men stealing food or fuel to feed their families. Nothing there to bring any income to a thief-taker. He was ready to be busy and earning again. Still, he was better off than most; he had money in the bank. He’d enjoyed a good start to the year.

Sir Matthew Fullbrook had asked him to recover all the items stolen from his house while the family had been away over Christmas and New Year. When they returned, most of the family silver was missing.

It took Simon three days to track down the thief, hiding among the poor and desperate in one of the courts off Kirkgate. Laurence Poole. Simon and his assistant, Jane, had cornered him in his room at the top of a tumbledown house. The only way out was through the window, jumping twenty feet or more to the flagstones, and Poole wasn’t ready to die yet.

They found everything except a single spoon that Poole had sold to keep himself alive. When Simon returned it, he’d noticed the mix of gratitude and relief on Fullbrook’s face. The set was valuable, it was worth a fortune; far more than that, it was his history. An heirloom that had been in the family for generations. Fullbrook settled the bill promptly, in full, with no quibble. He chose not to prosecute, and Poole walked free.

They crossed the Head Row, Ferguson moving cautiously. It was curious how bad weather could age people, Simon thought. Back in the autumn, the man beside him had strode out, hale and full of life. Now he was frail and old. Cautious and fearful of broken bones that might never set properly.

They parted by George Mudie’s print shop. The alderman still had to walk along North Street to his house near the Harrogate Road in Sheepscar. He’d manage, and in a few days the warmer weather would revive him. By spring he’d seem ten years younger again.

Mudie was fitting type into a block. His fingers moved deftly, eyes flickering to acknowledge Simon before returning to his task. The air was heavy with the smell of ink.

‘I want to get this set and printed today. Out on the streets first thing tomorrow. A new ballad about a coach disaster on the turnpike where a brave young man saves some of the passengers and wins the heart of a girl.’

Simon laughed. ‘And when did this tragedy happen?’

He shrugged. ‘Yesterday. Last week. Never. Who cares? It’s got death and romance. That’s what people want. Once a few of the patterers begin singing it, it should sell.’

‘A racket.’

Mudie shrugged once more. ‘Show me something in this life that isn’t. We’re all just trying to make a living.’

He finished and stood straight, pressing his hands into the small of his back, then pushed a pair of spectacles up his nose.

‘What brings you here, Simon? Boredom?’

‘Waiting for the snow to melt. As soon as that happens, we’ll have more crime.’ He smiled. ‘After all, we’re all just trying to make a living.’

Mudie snorted. ‘Some enjoy a better one than others.’

It was true enough. Being a thief-taker could pay well, better than he’d ever imagined when he began. But in those days he knew nothing. He was still a youth, barely older than the boy who’d walked out of the workhouse at thirteen to find his own life. All he had was his size and a quick brain. They’d both served him well over the years, the foundation of everything he did. In the early days, he and his wife Rosie had worked together. Then she had their twin boys, Richard and Amos, and stopped taking risks. Most of the time.

Now he had Jane to help. When she first came to him she’d been a feral girl, living on the streets. Someone who possessed the rare gift to follow without being seen, who could vanish in plain sight. But she was a girl who kept the world at a distance. She built walls around her thoughts and cut herself off. For two years she’d lived with him and Rosie, sharing their meals and sleeping in their attic, but they’d still hardly known her. Since the autumn she’d made her home with an old woman, Catherine Shields, and for the first time, she seemed content.

George was right. He was bored. Two weeks without a stroke of work had left him restless and searching for ways to fill his days. He’d walked around town. He’d taken his sons out sledging in Holbeck and Beeston. Snowball fights on the little scraps of tenter ground that remained as the new factories ate up the land. But they had their tutor each morning.

Simon read the Mercury and the Intelligencer eagerly, hoping someone had put in an advertisement offering a reward for the return of lost goods. But there was nothing, and he was cast back on his own devices. He didn’t read books, he didn’t play chess or backgammon. He had nothing but work and his family to fill his life. Twice this week Rosie had chased him out of the kitchen for disturbing her while she was busy.

‘You’re pacing,’ Mudie told him. ‘And you’re bothering me.’

It was easier to leave. As Simon strolled back down Briggate, he jammed his hands deep in the pockets of his greatcoat and stared at the faces he passed. Some hopeful, most downcast, intent on simply surviving. A man coughed deep and spat to clear his lungs. The air was foul. It had been for years, ever since the factories started spewing their smoke. But the factories made money and plenty of it, at least for a few. For many of the others they meant jobs, the cash each week to keep body and soul together. And every week more and more people arrived in Leeds to seek work. It was as if they truly believed the streets were paved with gold.

But the only things the cobbles here held was a struggle.

‘People are going over to Flay Cross Mill.’

He hadn’t seen Jane arrive. But there she was, at his side, matching his pace as he walked. Since winter began she’d taken to wearing an old cloak of faded green wool. With the hood pulled up, no one ever noticed her.

‘What’s going on there?’

‘I don’t know.’

Something, Simon thought. It had to be something. And that was better than nothing.

The mill stood down by the bend in the river, out on Cynder Island. It had been there for generations, maybe even centuries, with its hammers for pounding and fulling good Leeds cloth. No one knew how it had come by the name, but the building had been empty and gradually sinking into ruin for a long time. The wooden scoops of the water wheel that powered it had rotted away to nothing. Beyond the shell of the mill the river lapped against the shore, cold and dark.

A crowd had gathered, twenty or thirty people. The usual gaggle of boys and girls, hoping for something gruesome, and men and women with nothing else to fill their days. Simon pushed his way to the front, squeezing into the gaps between people. Jane stayed close to the back, listening for gossip and news.

The best he could make out, melting snow had revealed the body. He could see a pair of trousers and some leather boots. The rest was still covered. Simon held his breath as the coroner brushed slush away from the corpse’s face.

For a moment, Simon couldn’t believe what was in front of him. He knew this man with his pale skin and serene expression. He’d last seen him a few weeks ago, not long before the snow arrived. Laurence Poole hadn’t been so peaceful then. He’d begged and tried to fight to hold on to his loot from the Fullbrook robbery. By the time Simon left, the man was close to tears of desperation.

 

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.

Los_Beatles_(19266969775)_Recortado

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?

Hocus Girl final

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

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.

Hocus Girl final

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?’

Hocus Girl final