A Privilege

I’m very lucky. So far at least, publishers have wanted to put out the novels I’ve written, and many of the people who read those books seem to enjoy them. I truly enjoy receiving emails from readers, it’s a chance for a one-on-one exchange.

I’m amazed when people want to interview me, and always flattered that they consider my work worth that time and effort. When you’re sitting at a computer and typing away you always hope your words and characters will resonate with people. But you never really know.

I was thrilled when Society Nineteen approached me for an interview. It’s a site that goes beyond the writer, into the idea of the 19th century itself. And the piece gave me the real freedom to talk at length about how I view Leeds in that time and my personal connection to it. It’s certainly the most in-depth interview I’ve ever done, and I thank them for indulging me.

Even better, it’s all presented in a very beautiful way that only adds to everything.

Intrigued? Read it right here.


To 2015

Here were are, nestled at the end of a year and peeking over the parapets at what lies ahead. And, if you’re interested, I’ll tell you what’s coming up over the next few months.

Gods of Gold, the first in my new Victorian series, came out in the UK in August and in December in the US as well as in ebook form. It’s been attracting some lovely reviews, which is gratifying.

If you don’t already know, there’s a new Richard Nottingham story on this site. Click on novels, then Richard Nottingham and go to By The Law.

Next week (January 5), Dark Briggate Blues appears in the UK, and it’s a paperback (sorry, but it’ll be several months before the US version). Still in Leeds, it’s set in 1954 and features enquiry agent Dan Markham. It’s darker than many of my other books, a real noir (I think). The official launch is in early February at Waterstones Books in Leeds – if you look at my events page, you’ll see the details.

There’s one more thing to say about the book. A TV production company has asked to read it. Chances are that nothing will come of it, but the request was still very heartening.

April sees the UK publication of the second Tom Harper book, Two Bronze Pennies. At a guess, in the US it will be four months later. I think it builds on the first book and goes deeper into the characters, while exploring some of the anti-Jewish feeling that existed in the 1890s.

Then, finally, in July comes Leeds, The Biography. Regular readers of my blog will have already seen some of these stories. Essentially, it’s a history of Leeds in short stories, and the local Armley Press will be issuing it in paperback and ebook – my first non-crime book!

Of course, the serials on this site will continue, both Jimmy Morgan’s World War 1, and the tale of Annabelle Atkinson in Empress on the Corner.

I wish all of you a healthy, happy, and even prosperous New Year, and thanks to you all.

Thank You

2014 has been a very good year. My first full 12 months back in Leeds, so that it truly feels like home now. A book and the start of a new series with Gods of Gold, which has been receiving some lovely reviews and reader comments. I’m grateful.

Above all, my thanks go to you, the people who read what I write, whether in books or on the blog or in the serials I’ve begun on this site. If you write, you want people to read it, and you have. It means a lot, and when people email to tell me how much they like a book, or even with an historical quibble, I love it. Yes, of course I’d like to sell more books (what author wouldn’t?), but times are tight, and public libraries are free. Please, remember to support them.

So thanks to all of you. And to those you don’t see. I’m grateful to all my publishers, the wonderful staff at Severn House, Mystery Press, and Creative Content, all of whom believe in what I do enough to put it out there. Beyond them, friends and family who put up with me constantly at the computer, and whose support (and sometimes criticism) is vital.

What does 2015 hold? More books. January see the publication of Dark Briggate Blues, a 1950s noir set set in Leeds in 1954 and featuring enquiry agent and jazz lover Dan Markham. In April there’s Twp Bronze Pennies, the second Tom Harper Victorian novel (and yes, Annabelle has a larger role – she assures me that’s how it really was). July brings something different. I’m working with local publishers Armley Press on Leeds, The Biography, which is a history of Leeds in short stories (several of which have already been on my blog) running from 363 CE up to 1963. All of them based in things that really happened, or folk tales, and sometimes real people. I’m trying to put a human face on the history of my hometown.

Of course, I hope you’ll read them. And don’t forget the new serial, The Empress on the Corner. I hope you’ll enjoy them. But above all, thank you for being with me this far. Have a wonderful Christmas and a peaceful, prosperous and healthy 2015.

Behind the Gods of Gold

I’d always said I’d never write a Victorian crime novel. I was certain of it. With so many already out there, what was left to add?
But somehow, I reckoned without Leeds tapping me on the shoulder.
Walk through the city and the Victorian era doesn’t just echo. It roars. It’s a time you can literally reach out and touch. The city’s architectural jewels are its grand Victorian buildings – the Town Hall, the Corn Exchange, and the solid, powerful edifices put up by the banks and insurance companies. They were the bricks and mortar promises of solidity, propriety and prosperity. A reminder of when this was one of the industrial powerhouses of the British Empire. And at the other end of the scale, the back-to-back houses in places like Harehills and Kirkstall stand as brusque accusations of the poverty so rife back then.
A world away, yet still close enough to be a very real part of today. But I wasn’t interested.
Then Leeds gave me the tale of its Gas Strike.
By 1890, the workers had begun to organise. The unions had were gaining strength. And that year, with the Leeds Gas Strike, they showed their power. Their terms of work changed by the council, wages cut, jobs slashed, the gas workers had no choice but to walk out. ‘Replacement workers’ were drafted in from Manchester and London to stoke the furnaces and keep the gas flowing. But they didn’t know they’d have to face a mob thousands strong. In fact, they’d been recruited under false pretences, believing they’d be employed at a new works. As soon as they discovered the truth, most abandoned their posts. The lights were flickering. Factories were closing. Within three days the strikers had their victory. For austere times it was an glorious story: the workers won.
I was intrigued. This might be a tale worth telling.

Reading more about the strike led to Tom Maguire. He was a young labour activist in Leeds, still in his middle twenties in 1890, a believer who helped build the labour movement, and became one of the founders of the Independent Labour Party. More than that, he was a poet (it’s a line from one of his works that gives Gods of Gold its title) who died in poverty in 1895 – yet thousands reportedly lined the roads as his coffin was taken to the cemetery.
There was definitely something here. But it needed something more personal to tip the scales and make me renege on my no-Victorian promise.
A couple of years ago I wrote a short story that took its inspiration from Atkinson Grimshaw’s dark, evocative painting Reflections On The Aire: On Strike, Leeds 1879. It shows the river, almost empty of ships, and a woman standing alone on the bank, clutching a bundle. Annabelle Atkinson. That was what I called her. And even then I knew we had unfinished business. She was too powerful, too vibrant a character to ever be satisfied with a single, brief appearance.
But she bided her time. It was only when I was researching the Gas Strike that she came and sat beside me in a swish of velvet.
‘I know all about this, luv,’ she said with a smile. ‘I was there, remember? Do you want me to tell you about it?’
So Annabelle introduced me to her fiancé, Detective Inspector Tom Harper, and the other characters in her life. We strolled along the streets of Hunslet and the Leylands together, drank in the Victoria in Sheepscar, were jostled by the crowds on Briggate and window-shopped in the Grand Pygmalion on Boar Lane. We sang along with the music hall tunes they loved – “My Old Man,” “Sidney The One-Week Wonder,” “’Enerey The Eighth”.
After that, how could I walk away?
Especially when with them came the ghosts of my own family, of Isaac Nickson who brought his wife and children to Leeds from Malton in the 1820s, of his descendants – William, John William, Harold Ewart – and the stories they had to tell me.
I couldn’t refuse. I didn’t even have a choice any more.
‘Tom Harper pounded down Briggate, the hobnails from his boots scattering sparks behind him…’

Annabelle Atkinson and Mr. Grimshaw

Annabelle Atkinson is deep at the heart of Gods of Gold. The whole idea began with her, really. But she made her first appearance in this story I gave to Leeds Book Club a couple of years ago. And after that, she would leave me alone; she still hasn’t.

But, as the book launch for Gods of Gold is tomorrow night, here’s the first time Annabelle showed herself. A little different, a little younger, but still recognisable…

Inspired by the painting Reflections on the Aire: On Strike, Leeds 1879, by Atkinson Grimshaw


On both sides of the river rows of factory chimneys stood straight and tall and silent, bricks blackened to the colour of night. Smoke was only rising from a few today, but the smell of soot was everywhere, on the breath and on the clothes. It was the shank of an October afternoon and the gas lamps were already lit, dusk gathering in the shadows.
He stood and looked at the water. Where barges should be crowded against the warehouses like puppies around a teat there was nothing. Just a single boat moored in the middle of the Aire, no sails set, its masts spindly and bare as a prison hulk.
He coughed a little, took the handkerchief from his pocket and spat delicately into it. This was the time of year when it always began, when men and women found their lungs tender, when the foul air caught and clemmed in the chest and the odour from the gasworks cut through everything so that even the bitter winter snow tasted of it.
What sun there was hung low in the west, half-hidden by clouds. A few more minutes and he’d be finished then walk home to Knostrop, leave the stink and stench of Leeds for trees and grass and the sweet smell of fresher air. First, though, he needed to complete the sketch, to capture these moments.
Tomorrow he’d start in the studio, to try and find the mood that overwhelmed him now, Leeds in the still of the warehousemen’s strike, no lading, no voices shouting, no press of people and trade along the river.
“What tha’ doing?”
He turned. He hadn’t heard her come along the towpath. But there she was, peering over his shoulder at the lines on the pad, the shadings and simple strokes that were his shorthand.
“Tha’ drawing?”
“Sketching,” he answered with a smile and slipping the charcoal into his jacket pocket.
“Aye, it’s not bad,” she told him with approval, reaching out a finger with the nail bitten short and rimmed with dirt. “I like that,” she said, pointing at the way he’d highlight the buildings as they vanished towards the bridge, hinting at the cuts and alleys and what lay beyond.
“Thank you.”
He studied her properly, a girl who was almost a woman, in an old dress whose pattern had faded, the hem damp and discoloured where she’d walked across the wet grass. She wore her small, tattered hat pinned into her hair.
At most she was twenty, he judged. As she opened her mouth to speak he could see that one of her teeth was missing, the others yellowed, and her face held the start of lines that belonged to a woman twice her age. Her cheeks were sunk from hunger, the bones of her wrists like twigs. But her eyes were clear and full of mischief. She carried a bundle in her left hand. At first he thought she was a ragpicker, done for the day; then he noticed how she cradled it close and understood it was what little she owned in the world.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Anabelle Atkinson, sir,” she replied with the faintest of smiles. “Me mam said she wanted summat nice around her.”
He nodded, watching the water and the sky again. In a minute the sky would part, leaving the sun pale as lemon reflecting on the river. Perhaps the last sun of the year, except for a few days when the sun would sparkle on the snow around his home. He held his breath for a moment, ready to work quickly.
“My name’s Atkinson, too,” he said distracted by the light, committing it to memory.
“Happen as we’re related, then.” He could feel her eyes on him. “But mebbe not.”
“It’s my middle name,” he explained quietly, “but I prefer it to my Christian name.”
“Why’s that, then?”
Very quickly he fumbled in his pocket, drawing out coloured pencils and adding to the sketch, the reflections on the river, the gold of a fading sun mingling with the browns and greens of the dirty water, smudging with the edge of his hand, thinking, putting it all away in his memory for tomorrow when he’d sit in the studio with his paints.
“It suits me better,” he answered her finally, squinting at his work, then at the scene before adding some more touches.
“That’s right,” she said slowly, as he was about to add more umber to the water. “That’s it.” There was awe in her voice, as if she couldn’t believe nature could be captured that way. “It looks alive.”
“It’s just preparation,” he explained. “I’ll paint it soon.”
“That what you are, then? An artist?”
“I am.”
He was a successful one, too. Whatever he put on canvas sold, almost before it had dried. For the last nineteen years it had been his living, since he broke away from the tedium of being a railway clerk, the job he thought might crush his heart. With no training and only the support of his wife, he’d known that painting could make his soul sing. These days he was a wealthy man, one who’d made art pay him well. Now they knew him all around the country; in London any man would deign to receive him.
“You must make a bob or two.”
Grimshaw smiled.
“I get by.”
“You’ve got good clothes and you talk posh.”
He chuckled.
“Don’t be fooled. I’m not as posh as you’d think. I grew up in Wortley and my father worked on the railways. What about you, Annabelle Atkinson? Where do you live?”
“Me mam’s in one of them houses up on the Bank.”
He knew them, squalid back-to-backs with no grass or green, some of the worst housing in Leeds. No good air and the children ragged as tinkers’ brats. It was where the Irish lived, crammed together in dwellings that everyone said should be pulled down.
“How many of you?”
“Only four now. I’m not there no more, though. Had a job as a maid in one of them big houses out past Headingley.”
“Had?” He eyed her sharply.
“They didn’t like me having gentleman callers. Said it wasn’t proper for someone in my station.” She put on a voice as she spoke and her eyes flashed with anger. “Me mam won’t have me back. No room, not if I’m not bringing in a wage.”
“What are you going to do?”
She shrugged.
“I’ll find summat. There’s always work for them as is willing to graft.”
He thought of the life in her and his own children, six alive and the ten who’d died. Of his wife, twenty-two years married, with her stern face and the eternal look of weariness.
“Where are you going to sleep?”
“There’s rooms. At least when they turned me out they paid what they owed. I’ll not go short for a while.”
He looked down at the sketch. It caught everything well, and it would be a good painting, another one to bring in a good ten pounds or more. But it was a landscape unpeopled.
“Annabelle Atkinson, can you do something for me?”
“What?” she asked warily, too familiar with the ways of men.
“Just stand about ten yards down the path, that’s all.”
He tapped the drawing with a fingernail.
“I want to put you in this, that’s all?”
“Me?” She laughed. “Go on, you don’t want me in that.”
“I do. Please.”
She shook her head, smiling all the while.
“You’re daft, you are.” But she still moved along the path, looking back over her shoulder. “Here?”
“Yes. Look out over the river. That’s it. Stay there.”
He was deft, seeing how she held the bundle, her bare arms, the hem of the dress high enough to show bare ankles, and a sense of longing in the way she held herself.
“I’m done,” he told her after a minute and she came back to him.
“That’s me?” she asked.
“It is.”
“Do I really look like that?”
“That’s how I see you,” he said with a smile. She kept staring at the paper.
“You’ll put that in your painting?”
“With more detail, yes.”
“The pattern of the dress, things like that.”
Self-consciously she smoothed down the old material, her face suddenly proud, looking younger and less careworn. He dug into his trouser pocket, pulling out two guineas.
“This is for you.”
“What? All this?”
“I’m an artist. I pay my models.”
“But I didn’t do owt. I just stood over there,” she protested.
“I sketched you, and you’ll be in the painting. That makes you my model. Here, take it.”
Almost guiltily she plucked the money from his hand, tucking it away in the pocket of her dress.
“Thank you, sir,” she said quietly. “You’ve made my day, you have.”
“As you’ve made mine, Annabelle Atkinson.” He closed the sketch pad and put away the pencils and charcoal, then tipped his hat to her before walking away.
“So what is your name, then?” she asked.
“Atkinson Grimshaw.” He handed her his card. “I wish you and your baby well.”
“Me in a painting. There’s no one as’ll believe that.” She began to laugh, letting it rise into a full-throated roar, and he laughed with her.

Tomorrow: Gods of Gold

It’s been a long time coming, but tomorrow is the publication day for Gods of Gold (buy it, please!). Today, as the final teaser, how Tom Harper met Annabelle Atkinson:

She’d been collecting glasses in the Victoria down in Sheepscar, an old apron covering her dress and her sleeves rolled up, talking and laughing with the customers. He thought she must be a serving girl with a brass mouth. Then, as he sat and watched her over another pint, he noticed the rest of the staff defer to the woman. He was still there when she poured herself a glass of gin and sat down next to him.
‘I’m surprised those eyes of yours haven’t popped out on stalks yet,’ she told him. ‘You’ve been looking that hard you must have seen through to me garters.’ She leaned close enough for him to smell her perfume and whispered, ‘They’re blue, by the way.’
For the first time in years, Tom Harper blushed. She laughed.
‘Aye, I thought that’d shut you up. I’m Annabelle. Mrs Atkinson.’ She extended a hand and he shook it, feeling the calluses of hard work on her palms. But there was no ring on her finger. ‘He’s dead, love,’ she explained as she caught his glance. ‘Three year back. Left me this place.’
She’d started as a servant in the pub when she was fifteen, she said, after a spell in the mills. The landlord had taken a shine to her, and she’d liked him. One thing had led to another and they’d married. She was eighteen, he was fifty, already a widower once. After eight years together, he died.
‘Woke up and he were cold,’ she said, toying with the empty glass. ‘Heart gave out in the night, they said. And before you ask, I were happy with him. Everyone thought I’d sell up once he was gone but I couldn’t see the sense. We were making money. So I took it over. Not bad for a lass who grew up on the Bank, is it?’ She gave him a quick smile.
‘I’m impressed,’ he said.
‘So what brings a bobby in here?’ Annabelle asked bluntly. ‘Something I should worry about?’
‘How did you know?’
She gave him a withering look. ‘If I can’t spot a copper by now I might as well give up the keys to this place. You’re not in uniform. Off duty, are you?’
‘I’m a detective. Inspector.’
She pushed her lips together. ‘Right posh, eh? Got a name, Inspector?’
‘Tom. Tom Harper.’
He’d returned the next night, and the next, and soon they started walking out together. Shows at Thornton’s Music Hall and the Grand, walks up to Roundhay Park on a Sunday for the band concerts. Slowly, as the romance began to bloom, he learned more about her. She didn’t just own the pub, she also had a pair of bakeries, one just up Meanwood Road close to the chemical works and the foundry, the other on Skinner Lane for the trade from the building yards. She employed people to do the baking but in the early days she’d been up at four each morning to take care of everything herself.
Annabelle constantly surprised him. She loved an evening out at the halls, laughing at the comedians and singing along with the popular songs. But just a month before she’d dragged him out to the annual exhibition at Leeds Art Gallery.
By the time they’d arrived, catching the omnibus and walking along the Headrow, it was almost dusk.
‘Are you sure they’ll still be open?’ he asked.
‘Positive,’ she said and squeezed his hand. ‘Come on.’
It seemed a strange thing to him. How would they light the pictures? Candles? Lanterns? At the entrance she turned to him.
‘Just close your eyes,’ she said, a smile flickering across her lips. ‘That’s better.’ She guided him into the room at the top of the building. ‘You can open them again now.’
It was bright as day inside, although deep evening showed through the skylights.
‘What?’ he asked, startled and unsure what he was seeing.
‘Electric light,’ she explained. She gazed around, eyes wide. ‘Wonderful, eh?’ She’d taken her time, examining every painting, every piece of sculpture, stopping to glance up at the glowing bulbs. Like everything else there, she was transfixed by the light as much as the art. To him it seemed to beggar belief that anyone can do this. When they finally came out it was full night, the gas lamps soft along the street. ‘You see that, Tom? That’s the future, that is.’

You Don’t Know Tom Harper, Do you?

But you will. Well, I hope you will, once Gods of Gold is published (end of August in the UK). Anyone coming in after Richard Nottingham has big shoes to fill. But almost 160 years after Richard, perhaps Inspector Tom Harper is the man to do it.

Although he’s the central character in the new series, he wasn’t the first one to leap out at me fully-formed. That was his fiancée, Annabelle Atkinson, a widow of about 30 who runs the Victoria pub at the bottom of Roundhay Road in Leeds. She’d been in a short story I wrote, Annabelle Atkinson and Mr Grimshaw and she began to haunt me. But she wasn’t yet the Annabelle of the book. There was still a way to go.

And she had more to tell me.

It clicked into place when I realised she ran the Victoria. It’s a pub that really existed until a few years ago, and the building is still standing. The woman who really ran it was a distant relative – at least around 1920. My father, who lived in Hunslet, would spend his summers there, as it had a big garden, and a piano where he could practice to his heart’s content. She also owned a few bakeries in the area and did a little moneylending; a consummate businesswoman, and a strong, independent woman who’d started out as a servant in the pub, married the owner for love, then run the business herself after she died.

I had her. That was a beginning.

After that, I happened to read about the Leeds Gas Strike of 1890. It was a blatant attempt by the Gas Committee of Leeds Council to save money by basically firing workers then hiring fewer of them back at a lower wage and under terms that largely deprived them of their rights, a move that resonates so much with what’s happening everywhere today.

The difference is that the strikers won. The Gas Committee had to capitulate. Hard to imagine that happening these days. Who wouldn’t want to write about a situation like that?

And that was where Tom Harper walked in. He had to be somewhat political, and on the left end of the spectrum. So he’d be a working class lad. And he needed a detective. From there, he simply came together. He’d grown up in the Leylands, just north of the town centre, before it became a Jewish area. He’d lived in a back-to-back house, left school when he was nine to work rolling barrels at Brunswick Brewery. But he wanted to be a policeman. He’d educated himself by borrowing books from the public library and finally, when he was 19, he’d joined Leeds Police. He’d spent six years on the beat, covering the courts and yards between Briggate and Lands Lane. His parents had died, his sisters were happily married, and he lived in lodgings just off Chapeltown Road.

And there was Tom. Of course, he couldn’t do everything alone, but there’s more to come in the book, of course. And he still had to meet Annabelle and the two of them had to become close…you’ll have to read Gods of Gold to discover all that, though.

Dickens, Chandler and Me

Heading swiftly towards the end of the year and I find myself reflecting on some of the things from the past twelve months. In writing, at least, two stand out – doing things I’d never imagined. In one case something I swore I’d never do.

A Victorian mystery? Why would I want to do that? After all, everyone and his brother (and sister) has written one. I’ve never been a fan of the Victorians. And yet…I have one coming out in April called Gods of Gold.

I blame Leeds history. I started reading about the Leeds Gas Strike of 1980, when the workers took on the council and won, and realised that people should know about this. And then I thought about a family story, one my father told me, about the landlady of the Victoria in Sheepscar (now no longer there). I’d featured her in a story before, after a fashion (and she’s in this Christmas story I wrote for Leeds Book Club this year). From there I started to dig deeper into 1980 Leeds and realised how fascinating it was. The start of organised working-class politics in this country. I wanted to write about that, too.

So all the old vows were washed away. I wanted to take people to that time, to feel the excitement, the poverty, the power and grandeur of a city hitting the peak of its power – and also into the underclass.

And then there’s the 1950s. I was born in that decade, close to the middle of it. But the more I read about it, the more I understood that I didn’t know. I’d assumed a great deal that was wrong. It began to intrigue me more and more.

I’ve always been a fan of good private detective stores – Chandler, Hammett, Ross MacDonald, etc. – and I’d enjoyed a TV show back in the ‘60s called Public Eye, about a rather down-at-heel British private detective. But there’d been little set in the 1950s about an enquiry agent, as they were known. Not in an English provincial town. That was a thought. One that blossomed.

I’m now revising that book, and I’ve discovered that I’ve ended up with ‘50s English provincial noir. Where will it go? That’s yet to be seen. But I guess I’ll find out. No title yet…

So it’s been a year of Dickens (okay, not really, he was long gone by 1890), Chandler and me. Funny how those things happen, isn’t it?