Finding The Leaden Heart – Skin Like Silver

It’s interesting to revisit the Tom Harper series of books leading up to the publication of the seventh, The Leaden Heart, on March 29 (obligatory self-promotion inserted). I’ve found myself think deeply about them and understanding things that hadn’t always made sense to me before.

Writing Skin Like Silver, I knew the books were taking a turn, and that Annabelle Harper was fighting her way forward to become a more important character, someone more than Tom’s assertive, gobby wife. And she succeeded. She became involved with one of the growing issues of the 1890s – suffragism. This was before woman had any representation at all, even on the local level (that would start in 1894), and a full decade before the Suffragettes formed.

The idea of women standing up was at the heart of the novel, but somehow or other, Annabelle’s involvement with the Suffragist movement, becoming a speaker, grew into a central idea. I thought of it as her book, and perhaps it was, although that would change (if anything really is Annabelle’s book, it’s The Tin God. But more of that next week).

Skin Like Silver did make me understand how important she could be in the series, and that the idea of family needed a greater and greater role. Well, I had no choice. Annabelle demanded it. And with this much of the complexion of the series changed. While it didn’t become about her – although she’s figured strongly in the books since, the series has turned more into the chronicle of a family in late Victorian/Edwardian times as much a series of crime novels.

It was a sign that Annabelle was carrying everything before her that she was there for the book launch at the Leeds Library, giving one of the Suffragist speeches she makes in the book. A surprise for the audience, too, when she appeared out of the darkness. Actor Carolyn Eden did a remarkable job (as she has several times with Annabelle), inhabiting the character.

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Very likely all crime writers believe the same, but I realised that the Tom Harper novels were more than just murder mysteries. It sounds pretentious, and God knows I want them to entertain, but I wanted them to be more. Windows into how people lived and struggled. What Leeds was like back then.

I’m still trying. And here’s me rabbiting on about the book just before the launch.

I still love this book. It feels bigger than its pages, somehow. With the writing of it, the entire series pivoted. I’m still a little astonished by that. It proves writers are conduits. The words flow through us, rather than being formed by us. And that’s a piece of magic I don’t want to investigate too closely in case I jinx it.

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How Do I Rate My Books?

As you hopefully know, I have a new book coming out next week (it called The Hanging Psalm, in case you weren’t aware). Take a big breath time, it’s the start of a new series, and my publisher has just accepted the follow-up, which will be appearing in a year’s time (I know, it’s hard to think that far in advance).

When something like that happens, though, I tend to look at those titles on my bookshelf with my name on them and have a think about them. It’s very rare for me to go back and re-read any. Certainly not for pleasure; I might have forgotten the details of the plots, but not the months of work that went into each one. If you’re a writer, by the time you’ve written something, revised it, gone through the publisher’s edits and then the proofs, you’re pretty much sick of seeing it.

But I have a surprising number of books out there. Quite often it astonishes me, makes me wonder just how that happened. And it makes me wonder what I think of them in retrospect. So, it’s time for an honest assessment.

 

I started out with the Richard Nottingham books. The Broken Token took several years to see the light of day. It was finished in 2006 and finally appeared four years later. In my memory, it’s curiously poetic, as is most of the series, a style that seemed to fit the character and the times – Leeds in the 1730s, for those who don’t know. Cold Cruel Winter was named one of the Mysteries of the Year by Library Journal, something that floored me. It’s a book that came from a single fact – the trial transcripts of executed men were sometimes bound in their skin. What crime writer wouldn’t relish doing something with that? And it was where I began to explore the grey area between right and wrong. The third book, The Constant Lovers, has its points, but taking Richard out of Leeds, even if it’s just into the surrounding villages, was probably a misstep. It diffused the focus. Leeds, tight and dense, is his milieu, and he’s been back in there ever since. The standout in the series for me, though, will always be At the Dying of the Year. It was the hardest to write, the one that cut deepest into me and left me depressed for a while afterwards. But the emotions are very raw and real on every page. Even thinking about it now, I can still feel them. Returning to Richard after a few years with Free from All Danger felt like a homecoming of sorts. I’d originally intended eight books in the series. That was number seven, but it left him at the end with some share of happiness, and God knows he deserves that.

I do have a soft spot for the pair of novels featuring Lottie Armstrong (Modern Crimes and The Year of the Gun). She’s so vibrant and alive, both as a young woman and in her forties. It’s impossible not to like her. The problem is that I painted myself into a corner; it’s impossible to ever bring her back, although she seems quite happy to leave things as they are. In different ways, I’m hugely proud of them both, and particularly of Lottie. I still feel she might pop in for a cup of tea and a natter.

The Dan Markham books (Dark Briggate Blues and The New Eastgate Swing) book came after re-reading Chandler once again and wondering what a private detective novel set in the North of England would be like. I found my answers. The original is the better book, harder and more real, and it spawned a play, to my astonishment. The second certainly isn’t bad, but it doesn’t quite catch the pizazz of the first.

Then there are the anomalies – a three-book series set in medieval Chesterfield. The first came as a literal flash on inspiration, the others were harder work, and the difference shows. I lived down by there for a few years, I like the town itself and I think that shows. There’s also a pair of books set in Seattle in the 1980s and ‘90s that hardly anyone knows about – they’re only available on ebook and audiobook. But I spent twenty years in that city, a big chunk of my life, and I loved it. I was involved in music as a journalist (still am, to a small degree), and the novels, still crime, are part of that passion. You know what? I still really believe in them. They’re pretty accurate snapshots of a time and place, and the scenes that developed in the town – the way music itself was a village in a booming city.

The Dead on Leave, with Leeds in the 1930s of the Depression, was a book born out of anger at the politics around and how they seem to be a rehash of that period. It’s a one-off, it has to be, but I do like it a lot – more time might change my view, but honestly, I hope not.

And that brings me to Tom and Annabelle Harper. I’m not quite sure why, but I feel that they’re maybe my biggest achievement to date. That’s a surprise to me, given that I swore I’d never write a book set in Victorian times. Yet, in some ways they feel like the most satisfying. More complex, yet even more character-driven. And I think someone like Annabelle is the biggest gift anyone can be given. She’s not the focus of the novels, but she walks right off the page, into life. I didn’t create here – she was there, waiting for me. And what feel like the best books in the series are the ones that involve her more, in an organic way: Skin Like Silver and The Tin God. Not every book works as well as I’d hoped; in Two Bronze Pennies I don’t think I achieved what I set out to do. My ambition was greater than my skill. But maybe I’m getting there. The next book in the series, The Leaden Heart, takes place in 1899, the close of a century, and I feel I’m starting to do all my characters real justice. I’m currently working on one set in 1908, so the 20th century is already here, and I still want to take them to the end of World War I, a natural closing point for the series. I feel that I’m creating not only good crime novels, and I strive to make each one quite different, but also a portrait of a family in changing times – and also a more complete picture of Leeds.

And that’s always been the subtext, although it took me a long time to realise it. Leeds is the constant, the character always in the background, changing its shape and its character a little in each era. And I’m trying to portray that, to take the readers there, on its streets, with their smells and noises. I’m hoping to have a novel set in every decade from 1890s-1950s (maybe even the ‘60s, if inspiration arrives), to show how the place changed.

In a way, the nearest I’ve come to running after the character that is Leeds and its essence is a collection of short stories, Leeds, the Biography, even if I didn’t realise it at the time. It’s based on anecdotes, snippets of history, and folk tales, and runs from 360 CE to 1963. For the most part, they’re light tales. But one has resonance – Little Alice Musgrove. That still stands as a good story (you can probably find it online)

But with The Hanging Psalm, out next week, I’m going back to an unexplored place, Leeds in the 1820s, when the Industrial Revolution was still quite new. The Regency, although there’s very little gentility to it; better to describe it as Regency Noir. The book is still too fresh for me to asses it fairly. But I do know how electric it felt to write. So I’m hopeful it will stand the test of time in my mind…and in the meantime, I hope you’ll buy it (definitely buy it if you can!) or borrow it from the library and enjoy it.

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The Kernel of Truth

For a long time I was jealous of my friend Thom Atkinson (read about him here). His short stories and plays, justly award-winning, hit a kernel of truth that I couldn’t seem to reach in my own writing (you really should read his work. He’s honestly that good). What I produced was readable, but it was all surface, it didn’t resonate deeply.

Maybe I hadn’t lived enough. Maybe I just hadn’t reached far enough inside. I don’t know.

I had a stack of unpublished novels, six or seven of them. Fair enough.

Finally, though, I did manage to touch that core and find that elusive truth when I wrote The Broken Token. I like to feel that the Richard Nottingham and Tom Harper books all manage that, to a greater or lesser degree. Some – At the Dying of the Year, for instance, or Gods of Gold and Skin Like Silver – have been very emotionally draining to write. When that happens, I feel fairly sure I’ve achieved work that’s the best I can do.

Some of my other books perhaps don’t delve quite as deep. But I hope that they each have their own truth that shines through.

This is a preface to saying I’ve just completed a book that was quite exhausting to write. Currently titled The Tin God, it’s the next in the Harper series, and Annabelle figures more largely than ever. Soon enough it will be with my agent and then, I hope, my publisher, who will give the thumbs up or down. If it’s success then I’ll let you know, of course. But the issues involved are timely. Women running for office – which they could in late Victorian Leeds, either for the School Board or as a Poor Law Guardian – and the problems they face from men.

My publisher will hopefully receive this new manuscript just after On Copper Street appears in hardback in the US, and everywhere as an ebook (obligatory ad!). I was a little stunned a couple of weeks ago when Booklist, an American publication, named it as one of the best crime novels of the last 12 months before its publication. That is heart-stopping and left me immensely proud.

Over lunch last week, a writer friend told me: ‘You own Leeds.’

I don’t (or if I do, where’s the rent?), but it’s lovely to be so associated with a city I care for so deeply, that’s helped me find the heart in my fiction.

I’ll be talking about that on June 8 with a great historical crime writer, Candace Robb, who feels about York the way I do about Leeds. Details are here – please come if you can.

A finally, I mentioned Richard Nottingham before. After four years away, he’s returning. Here’s a little teaser…

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The Empress on the Corner – Some Thoughts

After a long time, it happened.

The Empress on the Corner appeared in public. In part, anyway. As part of Leeds Big Bookend festival, Carolyn Eden became Annabelle Harper. She’d done it briefly, at the launch for Skin Like Silver. But this was longer, more intense, as she recounted some of the scenes from Annabelle’s life.

It wasn’t the entire play, and there were different formats – a couple of scenes performed live, script-in-hand, two recorded on audio, like a radio play, and one on video, filmed in the Victorian pub at Abbey House Museum in Leeds.

A sharing, to explore the possibilities for the future.

Pretty much a full house, about 50 people, more than I could have hoped, really. And we’d had a good build-up. Friday brought this piece in the Yorkshire Post.

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Then, Saturday morning, we were on BBC Radio Leeds with Nick Ahad. Listen here; it starts about 40 minutes in – plus you’ll hear a fragment of one of the audio scenes.

The play tells the story of Annabelle’s life, as you’ll have gathered. The compressed version from yesterday is very much a work in progress. The festival believed in the idea enough to put it on, and Leeds Libraries believes in it enough to give us a grant, for which we’re very grateful (not a royal we; this has become very much a joint enterprise between myself and Carolyn, who’s also teaching me a lot about theatre. It’s very different from the publishing end of things). And there are plenty of others to thank, too, who’ve helped us – more than I can name here. But I hope you know who you are and that we’re grateful.

From the feedback forms, people enjoyed it. And that, of course, was the whole intention. But with a performance as good as this, that’s understandable.

One of the highlights for many was the performance of the suffragist speech from Skin Like Silver. While we didn’t film the Bookend performance, this was Carolyn’s first outing as Annabelle from the book launch, just as a reminder.

We intend to do more with the play. Quite what directions remain to be seen. But for an author, it’s so wonderful to see someone come to such perfect life. I don’t feel I created Annabelle. She found me. Maybe she found Carolyn, but that would be a silly idea, wouldn’t it? But I feel lucky to have found someone who is Annabelle.

Stay tuned to discover where it all goes.

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The Soul Awakes

Annabelle Harper. A successful woman, with the Victoria public house at the bottom of Roundhay Road and three bakeries, all of them making money. Respected all around Sheepscar, she’s become the empress on the corner, and happily married to Detective Inspector Tom Harper.

And then a political awakening. But simpler to let her tell you herself. Better yet, come down this Saturday and here her tell it to you. You can get tickets here.

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I’m going to tell you a story…

 

I still can’t quite believe it happened, although I know it did. We had a coalman who used to deliver to the pub. He retired and a new one showed up. Cocky little devil. Thought he could fob me off with stuff that wasn’t worth the money. When I told him I wasn’t standing for it, he told me that maybe my husband needed to give me a clout or two. I picked up a shovel and I swear I’d have gone for him if he hadn’t turned and run off. I needed to take a walk to try and calm myself down. I ended up by the outdoor market – couldn’t even remember getting there. I must have looked a sight because this woman came up, a little old dear, and asked if I was all right. “Looks like a man’s got to you,” she said. She put a pamphlet in my hand. Votes for Women. All I did was glance down at the title, couldn’t have been more than a second. Blow me down if she didn’t disappear. Like I’d dreamed her up. But I had the pamphlet. Took it home. A fortnight later and I had the parlour full of books. I wanted to know it all. Those words I read…it was like someone had looked into my head and put everything I’d thought down on paper. It made sense. Me, I’d hardly read a book in my life. Who had the time? Once I was done with school, I was too busy working. Now I was sitting there going through them like the pages were the most important thing in the world. And Tom, bless him, he took it all in his stride. Didn’t even blink when I started going to the suffragist meetings. I was worried what the police might think, an officer’s wife involved in all that. He told me to go ahead, to do what I felt was right. I did. I listened. I liked what they had to say. But most of them, they’d never needed to do a day’s graft. They’d never had to try and feed a family on a mill girl’s wages. Course, it wasn’t long before I was up on my hind legs, saying this or that. Putting me two pen’orth in. That was how I met Miss Ford. She was in charge of it all. She’d worked with the unions, helped with strikes. People respected her. Mind like a razor, sharp as you like, and a heart as big as Yorkshire. She sat me down. Told me I could make a good speaker for the Suffrage Society. I thought she was joking, that it was her way of gently telling me to shut my mouth. But she was serious. I didn’t know which way to look. And she made me think that I did have something to give. Something different. I said yes, then I wished I hadn’t. My mind was whipping backwards and forwards like nobody’s business: I was going to back out. I was going to do it. Then everything I tried to write sounded so false. Be yourself, Tom told me. Who was I? A jumped-up piece of muck from the Bank whose husband had left her a pub. What did I have to tell anyone?  It wasn’t as if I knew any answers. Even when I was up on that podium I wasn’t sure I could go through with it. My teeth were chattering so hard they must have heard it in London. Then someone was saying my name and people were looking at me and it was too late to run away.  

Well, now I know what it must be like to be on the halls. I feel like I should sing a song or something. You don’t know me. No reason you should, really. I run a public house in Sheepscar. Nothing grand but it pays the bills. And I grew up on the Bank, on Leather Street. I know what they say: you grow up on the Bank and you’ll never amount to anything. I’ve heard it all my life. I started out in the mills when I was nine. It’s a hard life, I can tell you that right now. Moved into service a few years later because it paid better and it wasn’t as dangerous. I’m still not above scrubbing a floor if it needs it, or giving something a cleaning. Most of the girls I played with ended up doing the same. Maids or mills. If I ever see them now, the ones who are married have five or six children and husbands who bring in next to nothing every week. They survive, and that’s all they do. It’s down to the pawnbroker with the good clothes of a Tuesday morning so they can last until their men are paid. Redeem everything Friday evening. Do you know what they wish for when they’re walking down the street holding everything of value that they own? That their little ones will have something better. But they won’t. Do you know why not? Because there’s no one to speak up for them. They live, they die. Probably half of the girls I played hopscotch with when I was in pinafores are in the ground now. I’m not saying having the vote would put everything right. I’m not a fool. Men will still run things, same as they always have. There’ll still be more poor people than you can shake a stick at. But at least we’ll have a say. All of us. That’s the women on Leather Street, where I grew up, as much as anyone here. Maybe they need it even more than us. I’ll tell you something else. Every day, every single day, I see women with all the hope gone from their faces. It’s been battered away long before they’re old enough to work. And we need hope. That’s why every woman needs the vote. Every man, too. The only way those men standing for Parliament will ever do anything is if they need our votes to win. Half their promises will still vanish into thin air. Of course they will, they always do. And they still won’t do anything more than they absolutely have to. (Pause) But for the first time they’ll have to listen to us.

And that was it. I couldn’t believe I’d said it all. Couldn’t believe I’d made that much sense. At least I wasn’t shaking anymore. And to see their faces and hear them clapping, well, it didn’t seem like that could be for me. But Miss Ford must have liked it – she wanted me to start speaking regularly. I had to take a deep breath before I said yes. As soon as I agreed to that, she started talking about having me on the committee. Give them an inch and they want a mile. I said no. All that travelling hither and yon. Not when I had the pub and the bakeries. And…

I was up the duff. Couldn’t be. That’s what I thought at first. After all, I hadn’t caught before. I thought the miscarriage meant I couldn’t. So I wasn’t about to say anything till I was sure. Not tempting fate. And I was older, not one of the young lasses popping them out. Tom, he was over the moon. (Smiles) Once he picked his jaw off the floor, any road. From the way he tried to look after me you’d think no one had ever had a bairn before. You have thought I was the best family china. How do you think you got here, I asked him finally? And your ma, and all those before her. It’s nature. That shut him up and he let me get on with things. There was work to do. I tell you what, nature decided to make hard work of me in the end. It had the last laugh. The best part of twenty-four hours in labour. Sweating and cursing and screaming. I was holding the midwife’s hand so hard I’m surprised I didn’t break her fingers. But it was worth it. Called her Mary, after Mary McLaughlin I grew up with on Leather Street. That’s right, I’m talking about you. Bit over a year now and into everything when she’s awake. Daren’t take your eyes off her for a moment. Talk to her da and you’d think butter wouldn’t melt. He’d learn quick enough if he spent all day with her. She won’t want for anything, I’ve already made sure of that. She’s lucky. I have the brass. Not like most round here, where the hunger never leaves the eyes. But I’m going to make sure she knows what the world is really like outside the door. She needs that. I owe her that. I’ve not forgotten all those years when I was muck. Scratch me hard enough and it’s still under there. I want my Mary to have the things I never did. The vote. Rights. A life that doesn’t have to depend on a fella. The things that matter. Might as well wish for the moon, eh? It’s like having a tiny hammer and chipping away at a big block of stone. You keep doing it and nothing seems to happen. But you keep believing that one day the stone will just fall apart. Maybe I can get in a few blows. Do my bit. Yes, I speak at meetings. Maybe it helps, I don’t know. I sold the bakeries. Miss Ford asked me to be secretary of the Suffrage Society. No going out of Leeds, she promised. Aye, I thought, I can do that. But there weren’t enough hours in the day to do everything, not with this one scampering around. The shops gave me what I needed. But maybe I didn’t need that any more. I’ll never get rid of this place, though. The Victoria, it’s home. Don’t want anywhere else. They’ll have to carry me out of here in a box. Won’t be for a long time yet, not if I have anything to do with it. Too much to do. And here I am, barely started. Up from the muck and still a long way to go. What I’ve learned: you do what you have to do. You get on with it.

So, About That Play…

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Some of you (hopefully all of you) know that I have a play on soon. It’s called The Empress on the Corner, and it’s Annabelle Harper’s story. Yes, that Annabelle from Gods of Gold, Two Bronze Pennies, and Skin Like Silver. If you don’t know about the play, you can find out here – it’s on June 4 as part of Leeds Big Bookend festival, with Carolyn Eden as Annabelle.

We’re presenting part of it: a couple of scenes live, script-in-hand (you won’t even notice the script), one as an audio play, and one on video. It allows the audience to see the possibilities of the production. Each scene will be put in context, and you’ll come away feeling you know Annabelle.

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On Friday we recorded the audio section. Then, on Saturday, thanks to the people at Abbey House Museum and Bob Jordan of Obverse Films, we recorded the video.

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Magical? Absolutely. In costume, with the hair and makeup just so, it was Annabelle speaking. Once the video is edited it’ll be on YouTube, of course, as a teaser for the play or for the many things it might become in time.

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It’s Annabelle’s World…

…but she’d like you to come and visit.

A few years ago (Four? Five?) I was looking at one of my favourite paintings, Reflections On The Aire: On Strike, 1879, by Leeds artist Atkinson Grimshaw and a story came to me, fully formed, out of the ether.

That was my introduction to Annabelle. Annabelle Atkinson, she was then, sitting and looking at the picture with me, telling me how it came about that she was in it, looking back a decade to that days she stood on the banks of the river to be sketched.

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We met again when I settled down to write Gods of Gold, set during the Leeds Gas Strike of 1890. She was Annabelle Harper then, freshly married, flushed with happiness but with her feet firmly planted on the ground. With a flourish of her silk gown as she sat, she pushed me over on the chair.

‘I was there, luv,’ she told me. ‘I saw it all happen. Come on, I’ll tell you about it.’

Since then, we’ve spent quite a lot of time together. She’s in three of my published novels – Gods of Gold, Two Bronze Pennies, and Skin Like Silver. The fourth, The Iron Water, comes out in July, and I’m working on the fifth. I’ve shared the way Annabelle has blossomed. She’s the emotional centre of the novels in so many ways. She’s become a canny, successful businesswoman and a member of the Leeds Women’s Suffrage Society – and one of its speakers.

It was one of her Suffragist speeches, brought to breathing, passionate life by Carolyn Eden at the launch of Skin Like Silver, that was the catalyst for the play The Empress on the Corner.

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‘That’s her,’ Annabelle told me the day after the launch. ‘She’s the one to be me. Now, you, you’d better start telling my story. Are you listening? I’ll begin.’

I didn’t have a choice – when you have someone like Annabelle, she dictates what will happen. And so I wrote her story. Or perhaps I simply wrote down what she dictated.

The presentation is still a work in progress, and it will be sections of the complete play, not the entire thing. But it’s the story of growing up in a poor Irish family on the Bank in Leeds in the mid 1800s. Of having two choices in life, mills or maids. Of luck, of taking the chance to use her good mind. Of understanding that there’s more, that she can raise her voice for others.

It’s a Leeds story. It’s a political story. It’s a love story. But above everything, it’s Annabelle’s story.

And she reckons you need to come and see it. Believe me, I’ve learnt, you don’t argue with Annabelle, she’ll win in the end.

So you’d better go here to buy your ticket and we’ll see you on June 4, 2.30 pm at Leeds Central Library. It’s part of the wonderful Leeds Big Bookend festival.

Annabelle has her ticket. She’ll be on the side of the front row, with a big grin on her face, pleased as punch. Say hello to her after they play.