Another Extract From The Hanging Psalm

It’s just over three weeks until The Hanging Psalm is published in the UK (Jan 1 in the rest of the world).

That means I’m trying to tempt you into ordering a copy. All the big retailers have it, and if you’re in Leeds there’s going to be a very special launch event. Meanwhile, it’s now available on NetGalley for authorised bloggers and reviewers.

And it’s the Severn House Editor’s Pick of the Month. Read about that here.

Meanwhile…take a step back to 1820. The Regency. But it’s not Assembly Rooms and genteel manners at the Pump Rooms in Bath.

This is Leeds. It’s Regency Noir.

Enjoy.

HS ad_1

The night was quieter than the day. Shops were shuttered. Lamps flickered in the houses. People safe behind locked doors.

But another Leeds arose in the darkness. A different population that came to life with the shadows. Simon had known them for years, people like Colonel Warburton, the former soldier who always wore the tattered French officer’s coat he claimed to have stripped from a corpse on the battlefield at Waterloo. He held court in a back room of the Boot and Shoe, a bottle of good brandy on the table, quietly buying and selling stolen bonds.

Or Hetty Marcombe. She looked like a harmless, vacant old woman wandering forlornly around the yards of the coaching inns. But she had quiet cunning behind the empty eyes, ready to make off with any case that passengers didn’t keep close. Josh Hartley, Silver Dexter, all the flash men and burglars, and the whores who strutted up and down Briggate. Once the daylight faded, Leeds belonged to them.

Simon was at ease in their company. He talked a little and listened as they spoke. With a word or a nod, one person often led him to another. He learned who’d stolen what, if it had been sold and for how much. Information he’d be able to use in the coming weeks. But tonight his eyes were open for a particular man.

At the Cross Keys, just across the river in Holbeck, he stood inside the door and watched the crowd. Almost every face was young, drinking with the grim determination that dashed headlong towards oblivion. A few more years and most of them would be gone. Violence, disease, the gallows, a ship to the other side of the world. Something would carry them away. And deep inside, they knew it. So they forced out their pleasures like duty.

Strange, Simon thought, Harry Smith didn’t seem to be anywhere tonight. People called him the Vulture. He’d earned the name; he relished it like an honour. Smith fed himself on the weak, the gang of young boys who worked for him, picking pockets and robbing shops.

But Harry heard things that didn’t reach other ears. He was sly, he understood that knowledge brought a good price. And he always knew who’d be willing to pay.

Simon moved on. By the time the clock struck ten he’d gone all round the town. No word of anyone anticipating a fortune soon. Finally, close to midnight, he turned his key in the lock and climbed up to bed.

 

‘You’re a pretty thing. How much do you charge?’

Jane turned away and the man laughed.

‘Don’t play coy, luv. Tuppence and you’ll get the bargain. You might even like it for once.’

She began to walk down Kirkgate, but he staggered along behind, drunk, cursing her. She’d survived the nights out here for too long. She knew the men who populated them. This one was harmless, all drink and bluster and noise. Still, she reached into the pocket of her dress and curled her fingers around the handle of her knife.

The voice faded and she forgot he’d ever been there. No one behind her now. With the shawl over her head, she slipped in and out of the shadows. People passed without a glance. The only light came from gaps in the shutters, but she knew her way around in the darkness.

Lizzie Henry lived out on Black Flags Lane, the far side of Quarry Hill. The building stood alone, looking as if it had once been a large farmhouse. Now, as she entered, she saw a series of rooms off a long hallway. The lamps had been lit and trimmed, the floorboards swept, paintings on the walls; everything was clean and tidy. The faint sound of talk leaked from behind closed doors. But she had no sense of joy from the place.

Jane had heard tales. This was a house that catered to the worst things men desired, anything at all if the fee was right. From somewhere upstairs there was a stifled scream, then silence. She paused for a second, feeling the beat of her heart and the breath in her lungs, then walked on to the open door ahead. Beyond it, a neat, ordered parlour and Lizzie herself sitting in an armchair, close to the blazing fire.

Jane had always pictured the woman as a hag. Instead, the woman was slim, darkly attractive, dressed in an elegant, fashionable gown whose material shimmered and sparkled in the light. She had power and wealth, and wore them easily, a woman who held her secrets close – the names of the men who came here, what they did, those who went too far.

She’d never have difficulty finding girls to serve in the house. Too many were desperate. All it took was the promise of a meal and a bed. And then enough gin and laudanum to dull the pain of living and the agony men inflicted. If a few died, there was ample land for the burials. Girls without names, without pasts; no one would ever ask questions.

Lizzie Henry looked up and her mouth curled into a frown.

‘Who are you? How did you get in?’ Her voice had a harsh rasp. But there was no trace of worry or fear on her face. Beside her, a decanter, a glass and a bell sat on a small wooden table.

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A Different Kind of Book Launch

Let me start by apologising to those of you not in Leeds, and I know most of you live elsewhere. I would love it if you could be involved in this, but the nature of the beast means it’s simply not possible.

As you may know, my book The Hanging Psalm comes out at the end of September. To coincide with that, I’ve teamed up with the lovely people at #foundfiction for something that’s a mix of treasure hunt, geocaching and Pokemon Go.

Probably the easiest thing is to use their words:

HP Press Release

Sounds like fun? I really hope so. And it seems like a good way to introduce a new series about a thief-taker. But for those who can’t take part, there will be a launch event on Thursday, October 4, 6.30 pm at Waterstones on Albion Street in Leeds. No need to book; simply show up. Sadly, no free books, but you’ll be able to hear all about The Hanging Psalm and (please) purchase a copy.

Of course, you can pre-order a copy from your favourite independent bookshop, chain store, or online retailer…and I hope you will. This series definitely feels like it has something (I’ve just finished writing the second book).

Hanging Psalm revised

In Leeds In 1820…A Story Begins

1820, and with the final defeat and exile of Napoleon, Britain was at peace for the first time in a generation. In Leeds, the Industrial Revolution had taken firm hold of the town. Manufactories (as they were known) had sprung up, with businessmen eager to take advantage of the new machinery and steam power to increase their profits. For the first time, a haze of smoke hung over the city, one that would only grow worse and worse and these factories and mills grew and grew until the Leeds skyline became a forest of chimneys.

leeds 1826

For men with capital and vision, there was plenty of money to be made. The world’s first steam locomotive was already operating, hauling coal from the fields in Middleton down to the staithe near the bottom of Salem Place. Another two years and Joshua Tetley, from an Armley family of maltsters, and with a family shop on Mill Hill selling malt, as well as wine and brandy, would gamble and buy Sykes’s Brewery. Yes, there were fortunes for men who took chances. Benjamin Gott and John Marshall had already proved that at Bean Ing and Holbeck, with wool and flax on an industrial scale that no one had seen before.

leeds 1830

Factories created jobs. The population of Leeds at the start of the 1800s was around 30,000. Two decades later it was 48,000, with plenty more in the out-townships (where the home weavers still made a living of sorts, although that would rapidly die away).

Conditions in the countryside were poor. With enclosure, many agricultural workers and the families were turned off the land they’d known for centuries. People pressed and piled into Leeds, hoping that the streets would be paved with gold. Of course, they weren’t. With so many seeking work, labour was cheap; the bosses could pay what they wanted, and the workers had no union to represent them. You took what was offered, or you got nothing at all.

All these people needed somewhere to live. The first back-to-backs had been built in the early 1790s (ironically where the upscale Victoria Gate shopping centre and John Lewis now stand); now speculative builders began to develop streets of them in the Leylands and the area beyond Millgarth. There was money to be made in housing.

For most people in Leeds, though. Life was grinding poverty. The chance of getting ahead was non-existent. Simply treading water was daily effort. Many went under or left, dispirited. For some who stayed, political radicalism offered a ray of hope.

It was a time when only the wealthy and the landowners had the vote. Leeds didn’t even have an MP. Most people had no say in the way their country was run. The government was still scared that revolution might be possible and cracked down hard on sedition. On all crime. Small offences could mean transportation to Australia or Tasmania, a brutal life in the young colonies. Shipping the criminals to the other side of the world became government policy, although many would serve at least part of their terms on the old ships known as prison hulks. The magistrates imposed harsh sentences. After all, it was for the good of the community.

prison hulk

For all that, though, they couldn’t stop people thinking, and radicalism was already firmly established in West Yorkshire. Around the turn of the century, right the way through to 1812-13 the Luddites had tried to wreck the new factories, as machines took away job from skilled craftsmen.

With the war, food prices had risen, to the point where keeping a family alive was almost impossible. Leeds had seen food riots over the price of grain, notably one led by ‘Lady Ludd’ – probably a man in a dress; the population was swift to stir and slow to cool.

lady ludd

That’s Leeds in 1820.

And into that landscape walks Simon Westow. Orphaned at four and put in the workhouse, set on to work in a mill at six. An angry man. And now, grown, a thief-taker. With no police beyond the Constable and the night watch, thief-takers are the only resort for those who’ve had property stolen. At this time the definition of property included wives and daughters and anything they possessed or brought to a marriage. Most prosecutions for theft had to be undertaken privately. The result was that people generally only cared about the return of their property.

Simon is resourceful, successful. Married with a pair of young twin sons. Until their birth, his wife Rosie had worked with him. Now his assistant is Jane, somewhere around 14 years old. When she was eight, her mother arrived home to find the girl being raped by her husband. Preferring the security of a wage to the temptation of a girl in the house, she threw Jane out to survive on the streets. She did, and discovered she had the gift of being able to follow without being noticed, a useful trait for a thief-taker.

A girl who chooses to reveal nothing, who hides her emotions behind a wall, a feral life has made her into a deadly young woman.

Simon’s business takes him from the wealthy to the underclasses. He knows how the town works in every way. He knows its secrets. The one thing he doesn’t expect is the past.

The Hanging Psalm will be published on September 29 in the UK.

Hanging Psalm revised

Coming In September, The Hanging Psalm

I’m really pleased to reveal this….it’s coming out in the UK on September 29, and there’s already something unique planned – just in Leeds, I’m afraid – prior to the launch.

But here it is, ladies and gentlemen, The Hanging Psalm, and isn’t this cover absolutely wonderful?

And if you click right here, you can read the opening.

Leeds, 1820. Simon Westow makes a good living as a thief-taker. The boy who grew up in the workhouse has become a success, finding and returning the stolen possessions of the rich – for a fee. But when mill owner John Milner hires Simon to find his kidnapped daughter, Hannah, he faces a challenge like no other.
With his enigmatic and deadly young assistant, Jane, by his side, Simon’s search takes him through the dark underbelly of Leeds, where poverty, industry and death live cheek by jowl. But he soon comes to understand that the real answers lie in his own past, and an old enemy seeking revenge . . .

Hanging Psalm revised

The Hanging Psalm, Part 2

When I put the opening to The Hanging Psalm on here (the previous blog entry – scroll down to read), it brought some interesting reactions.

It’s still moving ahead, and looking a bit more like a book – although that always remains to be seen. I start many more things than I complete.

But I thought I’d give you one more taste of it, as the plot and characters open out a little. So, please, tell me what you think.

 

As he left the Moot Hall, Simon curled his hands into fists and pushed them into the pockets of his trousers. Briggate was thick with carts and people. He moved between them without noticing. His head was filled with the faces from the past. The children who fainted after working for twelve hours without food or water, because the overseer wanted the most from them. The boy who lost three fingers in a machine, just standing and staring at the stumps, not able to say a word.

And finally, the day he carried a girl back to the workhouse, the bloody patch steadily growing on her skirt after two men had their pleasure with her during their dinner break. Catherine, just turned eleven the week before; that was the all he ever knew about her. She moaned in his arms, in too much pain to cry.

He was thirteen, grown big and strong and defiant. He pushed the door of the matron’s office wide, and gently lay Catherine on her desk. The woman was protesting, shouting, but he didn’t want to hear anything she had to say. Simply turned on his heel. He was never going back.

 

There was still an April chill in the air as he stood and gazed down on the river. The water moved slowly, stinking and dirty. Swirls of red and ochre and blue eddied on the surface, waste from the dyeworks. The body of a dead dog bobbed lazily up and down in the current.

Simon took off his hat and ran a hand through his hair. He needed to let his thoughts ebb away. He needed to forget. To let the fire burn down to embers again.

From the corner of his eye he noticed a movement, a shadow.

‘It’s only me.’ The girl kept a wary distance, eyes on him. She was thirteen, older perhaps, maybe even younger. As invisible as any of the children who roamed the streets in Leeds. An old, patched dress that was too small for her. Stockings that were more holes than wool, battered clogs on her feet. Dirty face and hands and a grubby cap covering blonde hair. ‘The missus sent me after you. I saw you leave the Moot Hall and followed you down. You’re all dressed up today.’

Simon had worn his good suit, the short, double-breasted jacket in fine worsted with long swallowtails and tight, narrow trousers. A ruffle at the front of his shirt and a tall-crowned hat with its curled brim on his head. He’d wanted to make an impression, to show that a boy from the workhouse could be a success. But by now he probably didn’t even exist for them.

‘What does she want?’ He took a breath, tasting the soot that spewed from the factory chimneys. Slowly, he felt the anger recede.

‘Someone’s waiting to see you. Looks like a servant, I caught a glimpse before she sent me out.’ She waited a moment. ‘Are you coming?’

‘Tell her I’ll be there soon.’

He watched her move, melting into the press of people. Who noticed a child? Who noticed a girl? That was what made Jane so useful. She could follow without being seen, she could overhear a conversation without anyone realising she was close.

Simon gazed around. Grim faces everywhere. People who looked as if they were just clinging on to life. He began to walk.

 

The house stood on Swinegate, right on the curve of the street. He could hear Rosie in the kitchen, talking to the twins as she worked. She raised her head as he entered, pushing a lock of hair away from her cheek. An apron covered her muslin dress. She brought the knife down sharply on a piece of meat.

‘Jane found you?’

‘She did. Where is he?’

‘I gave him a cup of ale and left him in the front room. Arrived about half an hour ago.’

Simon nodded.

‘How was it?’ she asked.

‘Give them three lifetimes and they’d never understand. All it did was drag up the past.’

She gave him a tender smile.

‘It’ll fade again. It always does, Simon.’

‘I suppose it will.’ She was right; it always had before. His sons peered at him around the corner of the table, two identical heads. He stuck out his tongue and they began to laugh. They were the best medicine he knew.

 

The smile vanished as he opened the door and walked into the front room. The man in the chair jerked his head up at the sound as if he’d been sleeping.

‘I’m Simon Westow. You wanted to see me?’

‘My master does.’

Jane was right. He was a servant. But a trusted one, if they were sending him here. Older, with sparse grey hair and a grave, formal manner to match his dark clothes.

People didn’t seek Simon out. They placed a notice in the Mercury or Intelligencer for their stolen property. He found it, returned it, and gave them the name of the thief. In exchange, he received the reward. If they chose to prosecute, they could take their chances in court.

That was how a thief taker worked. No one came here for his services.

‘Who’s your master?’

‘He’d rather not be identified yet.’ The man gave a forbidding smile. ‘But he’d like to meet you today.’

‘Why?’

‘It’s a delicate matter. He’d prefer to tell you himself.’ The man reached into his waistcoat pocket with two long fingers and drew out a sovereign. ‘He believed this might convince you.’

The gold felt heavy in his palm. Solid. Real.

‘Where and when?’

‘Three o’clock. Do you know Drony Laith?’

‘Yes.’ Out beyond Gott’s big mill at Bean Ing. Just woods and fields, where the town ended and the countryside began.

The man stood and gave a small bow.

‘What would you have done if I’d refused?’ Simon asked.

‘My master gave me a second sovereign. He’ll see you at three.’

 

He tossed the coin. It skittered across the kitchen table. Rosie’s had moved swiftly and it vanished, disappearing into the pocket of her skirt.

‘Handsome money,’ she said. ‘What’s it for?’

‘I’ll find out this afternoon.’ He poured a mug of ale and drained half of it in a gulp. She kneaded the bread dough, fingers spread as she pushed it down. She’d given the boys a small scrap; they sat, stretching it between them until it snapped, then starting over again.

This was where he felt complete. This was home.

Rosie began to shape the loaves, concentrating on her work. She’d blossomed, he thought, so different from the girl he’d seen sitting at the side of the road twelve years before, staring helplessly at a mile marker.

‘Can you help me, mister?’ she’d asked. ‘Does it say which way to London? I can’t read it.’

He’d told her, but she didn’t start walking. Instead, he sat next to her and they began to talk. She was still here. Now, though, she knew her letters and her numbers. He’d taught her, the same way he’d taught himself after he left the workhouse. And she learned quickly. His pupil, after a while his lover, and finally his wife.

‘Do you have any idea who sent him?’ Deftly, she slid the loaves into the oven.

‘Not yet. Has Jane come back?’

‘I heard her go upstairs.’

 

He knocked quietly, waiting for her reply. The attic was almost bare, just a bed, a basin and jug on a small table, and a haze of ragged curtain covering the window.

She’d been here for two years, yet there was nothing of her in the room. As soon as she walked out, it was empty. But he understood. Own nothing you couldn’t carry. A portable life, always ready to move, to run. Until he met Rosie, he’d been exactly the same.

‘I saw him leave.’

‘Go out to Drony Laith,’ Simon said. ‘I’m meeting his master there at three.’

He didn’t need to tell her to keep out of sight. It was habit for her; she’d learned it on the streets. Don’t let anyone see you steal. Keep clear of authority. Get caught and you’d be in chains, waiting for Botany Bay or the noose.

‘I know his face. He works for John Milner.’

Interesting. Milner had property all over Leeds, and investments in two of the manufactories that had gone up since Napoleon’s defeat. They’d never spoken, but Simon seen him in town, a sour prig of a man with a miserly face.

But what property had he lost that needed to remain such a secret?

‘Let me know if anyone goes along with him or if anyone’s following.’

The girl nodded.

‘Dinner will be ready soon.’

The Hanging Psalm

Leafing through a book a few days ago, I landed on the phrase ‘the hanging psalm’; it’s Psalm 51, intoned as a convict stood at the foot of the gallows, waiting to have the noose placed around his neck.

More than that, it was a wonderful title for a book.

And suddenly I had a story. How far it will go remains to be seen (of course). But for the moment, it’s roaring like a train. This is the beginning. I didn’t make up these facts. They’re from testimony to a commission, and they’re far more brutal than anything from my imagination.

What do you think?

Leeds, 1820

 

They were grave men. Sober men, neat in their black coats, white stocks snowy at the neck. Important people, businessmen, landowners who believed that wealth and position meant they knew about life. Three of them together at the polished table, papers arranged in piles before them. The one in the middle spoke.

‘Your name is Simon Westow. Is that correct?’

He waited for a moment before he answered. Let them look at me. Let them see me.

‘That’s right.’

‘How old are you?’

‘Thirty in July. If I was told the truth.’ He wasn’t about to call them sir. If they wanted his respect, let them bloody earn it.

‘You were in the workhouse, I believe?’ The man kept his voice even, reading from the sheet in front of him.

‘Went when I was four, after my mam and dad died.’ He could hear the scratch of a pen as the clerk in the corner took down his answers.

‘How did they treat you? When did they put you out to work?’

‘Are you really sure you want to know that?’

It made them stop. Just for a second. But he had their attention. The man behind the desk smiled.

‘That’s why we’re here. Our aim is to find out about child labour.’ A slight pause. ‘But you must know that. It was made perfectly clear to you.’

Oh yes, he thought. Perfectly.

‘They set us on at the mill when we were six, and let the manufactories do their worst.’

‘And what might their worst be? How often were you beaten?’

‘Regularly,’ Simon said. ‘Boys and girls alike.’

The man looked down and shuffled a few of his papers.

‘More than once the overseer made us take off our shirt, climb into one of the bins on the floor, and he’d hit us with his stick until we were bloody.’ He let his words remain calm as the images raced through his mind. The facts could speak loudly enough.

‘What else?’

‘They’d tie a two-stone weight to our backs and make us work. Two of them for the bigger lads.’

‘I see.’ They looked a little uncomfortable now, all three of them shifting on their seats. Good.

‘There was one boy who could never work fast enough. He tried hard, but he couldn’t manage it. Every week the overseer hung him from a beam by his wrists and beaten with a strap on his back to try and teach him a lesson.’

‘Did he improve?’

‘He died. He was seven years old.’

‘I see.’ The men were staring now. The clerk had stopped his writing. The only sound in the room was the soft tick of the clock. But he hadn’t finished yet.

‘Once they took a vise, a pair of them, and screwed one to each of my ears. Then they had me work half the day with them in place.’

‘Why would they do that?’

‘For their own amusement. I still have the scars.’

But they wouldn’t want to see, he knew that. He’d leave this room and they’d try to forget everything he told them. Maybe it would come back in their dreams tonight. Every night. Exactly the way it had for him.

‘Don’t you want to know where it happened?’ Westow asked.

‘That’s not part of this inquiry. We’re here to discover, not blame people for things that happened in the past.’ His voice changed, becoming gentler, trying to appease. ‘How long did you work there?’

‘Until I was thirteen. Seven years.’

‘Thank you, Mr. Westow.’

He stood, back straight, and walked to the door. A final question stopped him.

‘What is your occupation now?’

He turned to stare at them. ‘I’m a thief taker.’

Hanging Psalm revised