A New Chesterfield Book

I regularly receive emails from people who ask if there will be another John the Carpenter book. My response has been probably not after The Holywell Dead a couple of years ago.

But never say never…

Today I signed a contract for The Anchoress of Chesterfield. It’s set in 1370, and even though John had sworn he wouldn’t work for a coroner again, the circumstances lead to him investigating the death of an anchoress just outside Calow.

No more details for now. I don’t know when it’ll be published, other than to say it’ll be someone in 2020 or (gulp) early 2021.

So now you know.

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2017, And My Year Ahead

So here we are, tiptoeing into 2017, casting a cautious eye at its possibilities, a little hopeful, a little wary that it might be more brutal than 2016. But the only thing my prognostications and the tea leaves are telling me is about the books I have coming up this year. Sorry I can’t help on lottery numbers or Grand National winners. I’m just not that good.

I write every day. I do it because it’s what I love and I have things to say. I’ve been lucky, so far at least, that publishers have wanted to put them in print and some people enjoy them. You have no idea how grateful I am for that.

I still have things to say, tales to tell. But there’s a strange alchemy that turns life into fiction, an odd transmutation. Late in February the fifth of my Tom Harper novels, On Copper Street,  comes out in the UK. Except that underneath everything, it’s not a Tom Harper book at all; that’s just the cloak it wears. Early last year, in the space of two weeks, I received news that three different friends had all been diagnosed with cancer. By then, 2016 was already whittling away at some of the icons of my generation. My friends, I’m pleased to say, are still here and seem to be doing well. But this book became my way to cope with it all, my way of understanding. Maybe even of accepting, I don’t know. It’s a way to reach down to the truth of it as it hits me, of that balance between life and death.

That, I know, probably doesn’t explain much. But for now, it’ll have to do. Oh, and if you’re especially eager, the best price for it seems to be here.

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This summer there’s the third, and last, Chesterfield book with John the Carpenter, The Holywell Dead. For a man who came to me in an instant on the A61, driving through Chesterfield, he feels to have been around a while. We still had a little unfinished business, I was aware of that. Not just him, but Walter, Katherine, Martha, even Coroner de Harville. Their stories had further to run. Not that much…maybe just enough. The limits of a small town and a man who’d rather work with wood than find murderers were closing in. And it ends, I hope, in a fairly apocalyptic fashion, bowing out on a high note. I’ve enjoyed my time in the 14th century with him, but we’ve walked as far as the fork in the road and he’s taken one path and I’ve trodden along the other.

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Then there’s my second – and again, last – visit with Lottie Armstrong in The Year of the Gun. I didn’t have a choice about it. She insisted. Her presence haunted me after I’d completed Modern Crimes, so that she had to come back. But the woman I visited again was older, in her forties, and experiencing World War II in Leeds. There was a vibrancy about her, so extraordinary by being ordinary. She had this other adventure to tell me about; all I had to do was listen and note it all down. But she wasn’t going to let me be until she’d finished the tale. As I said, the choice was taken out of my hands.

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And finally, in late November there will be Free from All Danger, the seventh Richard Nottingham book. It’s still unfolding, not quite all written yet. But I’ve known for a long time that Richard had more to say, and I’m glad he has the chance. By the time it appears, it will be four years since the last volume in the series.

I’m not a fan of endless series with the same character. It’s rare to be able to pull that off, although one or two writers do manage it with some depth. But as characters age, some edges get rounded, while others splinter a little and grow jagged and sharp. Some surfaces harden and other become softer. Those are the hallmarks, far more than the lines on the face or the lack of hair.

Richard has been away, but as he comes back it’s a chance to see how Leeds and the world has changed, and what his place in this might be. The old rubbing up against the new and how they can work together.

In many ways, Richard struck me early on as being like the straight-arrow sheriff in a Western, with his strong sense of good and evil. That changed somewhat over the course of the books, and the grey areas lapped so strongly into the black and the white. But coming out of retirement, how will he find everything now? Is he still sharp enough? More than that, where does he fit? And part of that is me, and my own sense of mortality, heavily tempered by the last 12 months, and the knowledge that new generations are shaping the world, while those of us who are older become more and more like bystanders, slightly out of time.

If the series had continued without a break, this wouldn’t have been the book I’d have written. So I hope that gap, that distance, has served us well.

Tom (and Annabelle, naturally), John, Lottie, Richard – they’re all as alive to me as anyone I talk to in a shop or over coffee. They’re friends, confidantes. And sometimes their books refract bits of the present into the past. Sometimes reflections of history, sometimes my own present, my thoughts and emotions. That transmutation that fiction can give.

And that offers a little background to the work of mine that’s appearing in the next 12 months. Of course, I hope they entertain, which is what they should do, and if they don’t manage that, then I’ve failed as a fiction writer. But there’s a backstory to each one, too, and maybe knowing it will offer a little more richness to the books.

The Real Crooked Spire

It’s that time of year again. The leaves tumbling down off the tress to form piles you just have to kick and jump in. The first frost. The silent thanks for a working boiler in the morning. And a time to go from my old – and also very new – stamping grounds for a visit to a place I explored a few years ago.

This Saturday (that’s November 23rd, 2013 for those who discover this blog in a time capsule) and on December 9 I’ll be in Chesterfield. It’s all to do with the launch of my new book, The Crooked Spire – which also happens to be the name everyone uses for the Church of St. Mary and All Saints in the town.

 

It’s a beautiful building, which dates from 1360, and part of one of the loveliest market towns I know. Climb up the tower to the base of the spire and Chesterfield is spread out beneath you. But watch because, because the spire, more than 100 feet of it, is only held on to the tower by its own weight. And yes, it’s definitely crooked. There are several theories about that…

The first is that the builders used unseasoned wood for the spire. Given that the Black Death had wiped out many craftsmen, it’s possible that the builders didn’t know that the oak needed to be left for three years before use. After it was covered, the word dried and began to warp, which resulted in the twist so visible today.

That’s one fairly reasonable explanation. The others are much better. One tale goes that the spire, hearing a wedding in the church, was so amazed that there was a virgin in Chesterfield, craned around to look at the woman and couldn’t fully straighten itself. Should another virgin ever marry in the church, the spire will straighten itself. And in the third story, a blacksmith in Bolsover, a few miles away, was putting a new iron shoe on the Devil. He mishit a nail, which drove deep in the Devil’s hoof, causing him to leap in pain. Hanging on to the spire, he twisted it.

These days, though, there’s belief is that the twisting is related to the lead on the spire, which came a few centuries after it was built; the original covering was oak tiles over the beams. The heating and contraction of the lead caused the warping. There are, however, many who discount that.

Whatever the reason, there’s an odd phenomenon. The first reports of the spire being crooked didn’t come until the 17th century, long, long after it was built. But since then it’s become Chesterfield’s main feature and symbol. And the church, both inside and out, is a place of real wonder.

The Crooked Spire

A few weeks ago, some of you might have noticed me announce on Facebook and Twitter that I’ve signed a contract for a new book, The Crooked Spire. Technically, I’m awaiting the contract from the publisher, but my agent has ironed out the details and it’s a done deal.

People outside North Derbyshire or South Yorkshire might not be aware of exactly what the Crooked Spire is. It’s St. Mary’s Church in Chesterfield and yes, the spire is crooked. Built right around 1360, with the spire added just after – around 1361 – it’s reputed to be the largest church in Derbyshire, and quite beautiful. Yes, the spire is crooked (Google it), and the supposed reason is that unseasoned, green timber was used in its construction. However, there’s no mention of it twisting for a few centuries after so, in many ways, it’s anyone’s guess, and these days it’s all covered in lead so it’s impossible to see. You can go up to the base of the spire and look out over the town – a great view – and see just how the spire leans. What’s possibly worrying is that the only thing holding the spire in place on the tower is its own weight.

There are other folk tales as to how the spire ended up so twisted, one involving the devil landing on it, although my favourite is that a virgin was marrying in the church and the spire was so astonished that a virgin could be found in Chesterfield that it twisted to look and couldn’t twist back.

For four-and-a-half years after moving back to England I lived in Dronfield, a small town just six miles from Chesterfield. It’s the place where I did my shopping, where I’d wander the market – the market square is the same one laid out in 1265 – and through the cramped streets that make up the Shambles, where the butchers had their shops. It’s a place that’s held on to much of its history.

The Black Death tore Europe apart from 1348-50. Estimates are that around one-third of the population died, although it’s impossible to be certain. What we do know is that it upset the social order and sparked the end of feudal society, creating more freedom. It makes for an interesting back from John the Carpenter – this is an era just before established surnames – a young worker in wood, originally from Leeds, orphaned when young, his only heirlooms a bag of tools and a rare ability to sense the wood, to be able to make things from it. He arrives in Chesterfield, having fled York and work on the Minster there. It’s a time when a skilled man can find a job anywhere, with nothing to tie him down and reasonable wages.

It’s a murder mystery. The master carpenter is found dead at the top of the church tower and, as a stranger, John is immediately suspect. He has to prove his innocence and find out exactly who’s responsible. At the same time, against his plans, he begins to find he’s growing attached to some people in the town and wanting to stay…

And that’s pretty much all I’m going to say. There’s no set date for publication, although autumn looks likely for The Crooked Spire. When I know more I’ll pass it on…