Win Your Christmas Presents

Well, some of them…

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

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

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

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

It’s hardcore.

It’s Leeds.

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

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

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

Already Here And Coming In The Next 12 Months.

Just this week, my publisher put up a blog interview with me about what these last 10 years of publishing books has been like. You can read it right here. It touched on a few things, book things, but to my amazement, the decade has stretched beyond that.

There have been a couple of plays, The Empress On The Corner, a one-women play about Annabelle Harper and her life, with scenes performed at various places in Leeds. One was filmed at the Hark To Rover pub in Abbey House Museum.

New Briggate Blues was commissioned by Leeds Jazz Fest in 2018. It featured Dan Markham (Dark Briggate Blues) and revolved around memories of Studio 20 Jazz Club in Leeds. Two characters plus a live jazz quintet, and both performances sold out.

 

The biggest thing, though, came with my involvement in The Vote Before The Vote, an exhibition at Leeds Libraries about the Victorian Leeds women who worked towards suffrage. It coincided with the publication of The Tin God, when Annabelle Harper runs to become a Poor Law Guardian. I wasn’t the historian who did most of the work, but I helped, and I’m hugely proud to be have been part of it – and that Annabelle wrote herself into Leeds history.

Of the books, perhaps the thing that truly blew me away happened in 2011, when Cold Cruel Winter, my second novel, was named one of the 10 best mysteries of the year by Library Journal. I was quite literally speechless for a while.

So what lies ahead? Here’s a taster:

“The end of this year brings the third Simon Westow novel, To The Dark, then a new Tom Harper, Brass Lives, sometime next summer. I’ve just finished writing A Dark Steel Death, the tenth Harper mystery. I couldn’t comment on rumours that I’m making headway in the final Harper book…”

And here’s the cover for TO THE DARK. What do you think?

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Finally, a bit of micro fiction.

He poured hot water into the bowl, watching the soap bubble. Pushed the masks down with a spoon. Once it cooled he’d rinse them off, wring them out and hang them to dry. This is how we live now, he thought. This is how we stay alive.

What People Are Saying About The Leaden Heart (And Some Thoughts Of My Own)

Last night I was in a library talking to people about The Leaden Heart. I was happy to do it – and not just because it’s one of my favourite libraries, the one I used all through my childhood.

I’m proud of it. It’s out there with my name on it. Months of work and thought went into the writing. I want people to read it.

One gentleman said he thought it was the best of my books, with strong parallel stories and very tight plotting. That last bit, if it’s there, is more good luck that planning. I don’t plot. My characters lead the stories. The most I do is nudge them.

This morning I’ve been thinking about what he said. It chimes with the reviews the book has received. I’m gratified. I honestly believe that with The Tin God, my writing moved up a notch. That’s something every writer wants, to make each book better than the last. We learn, we strive to improve. It’s there too in The Hanging Psalm and now this. And having gone through the publisher’s edit for The Hocus Girl, which appears this autumn, I feel it’s also in that.

But I’m glad others see it. More than people may really know.

Thanks to all who’ve read the book. I’d love it if all of you did, whether it’s buying a hardback or ebook. And if you leave a review, may your soul be blessed.

Meanwhile, a look at some of those reviews might sway you.

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On Sale! On Sale!

Apologies to those outside the UK, but it’s out of my hands…

For those of you who do live in the UK, though, Amazon currently has the hardback of The Tin God for £4.30. That’s actually £6 cheaper than I can buy it with an author discount from my publisher. The Kindle ebook is £4.14.

I don’t generally advise people to buy fromAmazon, but this is too hard to refuse. Go here for all the details (and I hope one or two of you will buy).

Not only that, but the Kindle version of The Crooked Spire is currently 99p – right here.

Thanks.

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Finding The Leaden Heart – The Tin God

Tom Harper is returning very soon – just over a month from now – but it’s impossible for me to look ahead to The Leaden Heart without glancing back at The Tin God.

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I’m immensely proud of this book, not only for what it is, but the things it spawned. It celebrated real history, women being able to vote and stand as candidates in some local elections, an event that was the first real step on the road to the democracy we understand these days. And Annabelle Harper was at the heart of it, running to be a Poor Law Guardian for the Sheepscar ward. She was one of seven working-class women around the city running to be Guardians.

But there was a man who would do anything to keep women out of politics. Anything at all.

That didn’t stop Annabelle giving speeches – like this one.

The clues the man left at every scene were snippets of folk songs, so Harper consulted a local song collector, a real name named Frank Kidson. Out of this book came this article I wrote on the man:

And, of course, a playlist of music he’d collected that featured in the book.

For once, Annabelle really did take centre stage, even if it was Tom and his men who had to solve the crime. She had to try and be fearless, not easy when someone was trying to kill you.

The book was launched at an exhibition called The Vote Before The Vote. I was incredibly proud to be involved with it, celebrating those Victorian Leeds woman who were working for the vote and women’s rights before the Suffragettes appeared in 1903. I was even more proud that Annabelle had her own board as part of it. From fiction, she’d stepped directly into Leeds history. She’d have been over the moon.

That launch even sparked a film of its own, a glorious mystery from film maker Daisy Cale.

The book was a gift. It came to me in a flash when a historian friend – who actually curated The Vote exhibition – said ‘Why doesn’t Annabelle run for office?’ After that it was all so clear.

I did my only blog tour for the book, and it received some glowing reviews – and even a wonderful review in the Morning Star. These are some snippets or click here to read more.

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It left me with a problem, however. How do I top it? Can I top it?

The Leaden Heart is my attempt at doing just that. You’ll be the only ones who can judge whether I succeed. And you can do it soon – even pre-order the book…

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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.

Thank You

It’s almost four weeks since The Hanging Psalm was published, three since the launch event. The conventional wisdom is that there’s a two-week window after publication in which to make a splash about a book, something that can be especially important with a new series.

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I’m perhaps luckier than most; with a gap between UK and US publications, I have two of those windows. That said, one isn’t any easier than the other. So many books appear these days, from traditional publishers and independents, that it’s hard to be heard above the noise.

Reviews help. They help beyond compare, especially in these days when we’re all online. But still, the most important is word of mouth. I don’t expect everyone to like my books. Historical crime is niche enough. Leeds historical crime is an even smaller niche. and I certainly don’t expect everyone to like all my books (although I can live in hope).

But, if you do like one, please tell your friends. Ask your local library to stock a copy – most library services will order the book if they don’t already have it. Like every other author, I love people taking my books out of the library. They’re such a vital community resource and they need to be used as much as possible. Read all you want and it costs you nothing. What could be better than that?

There’s also a bonus for writers. Not only do we receive the royalty when the service buys a copy, we receive a small amount whenever someone borrows one of our books, whether a physical or ebook copy. Win-win, truly.

Yes, I want to sell books. I want people to read what I write. That’s why it’s out there. But I depend on people like you. Without you, it all falls apart very quickly.

So I thank you for all you’ve done, and hope I can keep you entertained and make you think for quite a few years yet.

One final thing. If you’re in the UK and haven’t read The Tin God yet (I’m immensely proud of that book, and of Annabelle Harper in it), the hardback is currently £10.07 on Amazon (sorry, US readers). Not my favourite retailer, but if you’re looking to give the feminist in your life a Christmas gift, well…this would definitely fit the ball. Maybe you can see the printing sell out – that would be a great present for me.

But whatever happens, thank you all.

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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.

Hanging Psalm revised

The Tin God Launch – The Film

I know many of you don’t live in Leeds, so there was no chance of you attending the full launch of The Tin God on Saturday. And for some who do live here, well, it was a hot, sunny weekend, a Bank Holiday; there were other commitments.

I asked a young filmmaker who’s won awards for her work to document the event.

She came up with an absolutely wonderful piece of work, and I’m grateful.

 

There’s also a full report on the event that you can read right here, and it’s an absolute cracker!

How Annabelle Changed Me

A couple of things have surprised me about The Tin God. Of course, I’m over the moon about the reviews it’s being receiving, far better than I could ever have expected.

I set out to write a crime novel, a continuation of the Tom Harper series. And really, that’s what I did. But what people seem to see as the heart of the book is Annabelle’s fight to be elected as a Poor Law Guardian. That astonished me, but also gladdened my heart. It’s important, it’s vital, and it means, perhaps, that I’ve written something that reaches out beyond genre to deal with something bigger. As a writer, I don’t think you can ever aim to do that. If it happens, it’s serendipity.

The book has also changed me a little, made me more aware, more vocal on issues. And since I completed it, I’ve been assisting the curator of an exhibition called The Vote Before The Vote, about the Leeds Victorian women who worked for equality and the Parliamentary franchise, perfectly apt for the centenary of some women receiving the vote. Most of these figures are unknown, written out of suffrage history, and they deserve so much more than that. The exhibition runs for the month of May in Room 700 at Leeds Central Library, and there will be a website with all the information.

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I’m very, very proud to be involved with this. I feel I’m contributing something to the history of my city. Happy, too, as the official launch for The Tin God takes place during the exhibition. And especially because Annabelle has her own board there as part of it all, melding fact and fiction. Emblematic of the working-class women who were involved in the long struggle. She’s become a part of history in a very tangible way, and I suspect that somewhere, she’s beaming with pride, although she’d never admit it.

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On that note, I’ll give you a little from one of her election speeches, and hope it makes you want to buy the book. If you’re anywhere close to Leeds on Saturday, May 5, between 1-2 pm, come to the launch. There may well be more than you expect – and you’ll have the opportunity to see an important exhibition.

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This takes place after someone has set fire to a hall when Annabelle is set to give a speech. Instead, she addresses the crowd out on the street.

‘This happened because someone is scared of women. Not just as Poor Law Guardians or on School Boards. He’s afraid of women. Frightened of half the population. What is there to worry him? Do you know? Because I’m blowed if I do. Just three years ago there were fewer than two hundred women as Poor Law Guardians in the whole of England. Two hundred out of a total of thirty thousand. It’s not exactly taking this over, is it? We want to increase that number here. People believe we should. Important people. The Archbishop of Canterbury, no less, thinks there should be more of us. I’ll tell you what the Secretary of State for India said: “No Board of Guardians is properly constituted when it is composed entirely of men. Having regard to the fact that so large a proportion of the population of our workhouses are women and children, it seems vital to me that women should take their part in Poor Law administration.” Even the men at the top of government and the church think we belong. The one who set fire to this place – to your hall – he’s swimming against history. Women are running for the offices they can hold, and some of them are going to be elected. If not this time, then next, or the one after. We’ve started and we’re not going to stop. That tide he’s swimming against, it’s going to drown him.’ Harper watched as she looked around the faces, her breath steaming in the air. She was smiling. ‘I’ll tell you something else. You vote for me, and you can help send him packing. More importantly, you’ll be electing someone who wants to help the poor, not punish them. You there, John Winters, Frank Hepworth, Catherine Simms. You all know me. You know where I live. Maybe the Temperance people might not like the landlady of a public house holding office. Yes,’ she told them, ‘I’ve heard that grumble. But you know that when I start something, I do it properly.’ She paused and drew in a breath, straightening her back so she seemed taller. ‘You’re ratepayers. You can vote. I’m asking you to put your X next to my name. Thank you.’

And remember. vote for Annabelle Harper!

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