The Pop Star – A Dan Markham Story

As I’ve said before, spring 2020 marks 10 years of me publishing books set in Leeds.

10 years

To me, that’s worth celebrating. I’d never expected it, or to have created so many characters. To celebrate the anniversary, and the people, between now and next April I’ll be publishing a short story each month featuring one of my Leeds characters.

I’m beginning with Dan Markham of Dark Briggate Blues and The New Eastgate Swing, the most recent creation, and bringing him (just) into the 1960s. From there I’ll go back in time, finishing with a new Richard Nottingham story next April.

Dan, in case you don’t know, loves his jazz. you can get an idea of his tastes in this playlist. This story puts him in a very different world.

It’s relatively long, but I hope you like meeting up with Dan again. If you don’t already know him, try Dark Briggate Blues as a starting point. It’s available in paperback, ebook, and also audiobook. Go here.

And now, welcome to Leeds as the world tips into the 1960s…

Dan Markham listened closely to the voice on the other end of the phone. His name was Harry Lewis, he’d said, a man with brisk London accent, a wheeler and dealer, skirting around the subject as if whatever he wanted might not be legal. The type who saw life as a deal to be won.

‘In your line, you know what things are like up there, don’t you?’ he said.

‘Depends what you mean by things.’ He cradled the receiver between his ear and shoulder, took a Craven A from the packet and lit it. From his desk across the office, Stephen Baker gave him an enquiring look. Markham shook his head and raised an eyebrow.

‘Bad people an’ that.’

‘I suppose I know some of them,’ he answered. Christ, the last thing he wanted on a Monday morning was a Cockney idiot. ‘Why don’t you tell me the problem. That might be easier.’

‘We manage singers. You know Adam Faith, Billy Fury, people like that? Stars.’

‘I’ve seen the names,’ Markham replied. He’d heard them, too, fragments of music on the radio that left him cold. ‘What about them?’

‘We have an artist on a tour. A young lad, first record just out, going to be big. He’s playing the Odeon up there this Friday. We’ve had a threat that something might happen to him.’

‘Talk to the police,’ Markham told him. ‘That’s their job.’ He started to replace the phone, but a thin voice stopped him.

‘I’ve tried them. Your rozzers up there weren’t interested.’

That seemed odd, unless they knew something he didn’t.

‘Why don’t you tell me about it?’ It might be a chance to make some money and do something a little different.

 

‘He must have cash to burn,’ Baker said when the call ended. ‘You were on the phone for fifteen minutes. That’ll cost him a fortune.’

‘It’ll probably all come off his taxes,’ Markham said. ‘But we’ve got two days work out of it. Usual rates.’

‘Doing what?’

‘Bodyguarding?’

‘Who? If it’s Diana Dors or Jayne Mansfield, I’m interested.’

Stephen Baker was a big man, a retired detective sergeant who’d long since run to fat. But appearances deceived. Go past the cheap mackintosh and bland face and the man was clever. He listened and put things together. Daring, too; he’d shown that. But he’d been a commando back in the war. And now he was the junior partner in an enquiry agency working out of the third floor of an office building on Albion Place.

‘His name’s Johnny Archer.’

‘Never heard of him.’

‘Neither have I. Evidently his first single’s just come out and he’s bottom of the bill on this package tour that’s playing here on Friday night.’

‘Doesn’t sound like much of a job,’ Baker said. ‘Not likely to be mobbed, is he?’

‘According to this man Lewis, there have been a couple of threats.’

‘What kind?’

‘Nothing too specific. He couldn’t give me any examples. More rumours than anything. That’s why the police won’t do anything.’

Baker shrugged. ‘Can’t blame them. They need something to go on.’

‘It’s money for us. The tour people arrive Thursday afternoon and leave Saturday morning. We need to make sure Archer stays safe.’

He snorted. ‘Is that his real name – Johnny Archer?’

‘I didn’t ask.’ Markham lit another cigarette. The man could be called Joe Bloggs for all it mattered.

 

The photograph and press packet arrived on Tuesday morning. Archer was a bland young man, faintly good-looking. There was a hint of something wicked in his smile, but he was too young to be any kind of threat; he barely looked eighteen. A cheap Italian-cut suit with the thin lapels, a narrow tie and Brylcreemed hair in a big, shiny quiff.

Believe the mimeographed words, and he was the biggest thing since Elvis Presley. Sex on legs. Lewis had included the single in its paper sleeve. At home, Markham put it on the hi-fi.

‘What the hell is that?’ Carla asked from the kitchen. ‘It’s awful.’

She was right. A confection of nothing, string and guitars and a hiccoughing voice that could barely stay in tune.

‘The next big thing,’ he said. She laughed.

Johnny Archer was useless as a singer. Maybe he was a nice kid.

He put on some Coltrane to wash away the taste. Giant Steps, only out for a few months, with that lovely rush of tenor sax coming through the speakers. Real music.

He didn’t know Archer, but Markham felt sorry for the boy. Another hopeful, one of dozens – maybe hundreds – with a single out and a heart full of dreams. So few made it, though. Cliff Richard, Marty Wilde, one or two others. The rest would have a piece of plastic and the memory of a few shows onstage, careers over before anyone realized they’d begun.

Well, all he had to do was keep him safe in Leeds. From what, though?

 

It was a crisp autumn Thursday. As he left home, Markham noticed the way the leaves were turning and falling, covering the pavement. His breath clouded the air, and he needed to use the choke for his car to start. He’d bought one of the new Ford Anglias, seduced by the backwards-sloping rear windows and the low fins at the back. The best part of six hundred pounds, but he’d had a good year and it was worth every penny. It had style. The car was distinctive; it looked American.

In town, he parked outside the office, taking the stairs past the clatter of typewriters in the secretarial office below. Nothing more than a couple of bills in the post. He tossed them on to the desk. Later would be soon enough.

He was pacing around, on his third cigarette by the time Barker arrived, huffing and puffing his way up the steps.

‘You might as well turn yourself around. We’re going out again.’

The man sighed. ‘Couldn’t you have waited downstairs so I didn’t waste all that effort?’

Markham clapped him on the shoulders. ‘The exercise will do you good.’

The Golden Lion hotel sat on Swinegate, right on the corner with Briggate, no more than a short, brisk stroll from Albion Place. It must have been a glorious building once, but now it was run down, feeling like a small step up from a boarding house. The carpet was threadbare, the wood on the desk chipped and gouged. Still, it had rooms for all the groups on this tour. The clerk was an older, weary man with heavy jowls and a shadow of stubble heavy enough to look as though he hadn’t shaved. A cheap bri-nylon shirt with a grubby collar and a shiny C&A tie.

Markham introduced himself and handed over the letter Lewis had sent. The clerk read it and stared. Archer wasn’t expected until early evening, he said, along with a four-piece group. They had two rooms booked in the attic, staying until Saturday morning.

‘Mind if we go and take a look?’

Without looking, the man reached behind his body and took a pair of keys from their hooks.

‘Help yourself. Nowt to see, mind. The lasses will make up the beds later.’

Four storeys. Baker took a rest after the first two. Markham glanced at the surroundings. The wallpaper was decades old, peeling and torn. He took the final flight and unlocked one of the wooden doors. Light came in through a dormer window. Up here had probably once been home to the staff. Now it was crammed with three single beds, a chest of drawers and an old wooden wardrobe. No sink, no toilet, no bathroom.

He opened the neighbouring room. Exactly the same.

‘All the glamour, eh?’ Baker shook his head. ‘I thought pop stars had money.’

‘The people who manage them do.’

‘Always the bloody way.’

They began to search. It took no more than five minutes for both rooms. The beds were stripped, thin mattresses folded over, and there was nowhere to hide anything.

‘Waste of time,’ Baker complained as they left the building. As they turned the corner on to Briggate, he added quietly: ‘Maybe not completely. Did you see chummy standing around? Over by Walker’s old furniture factory.’

Markham nodded. ‘No idea who he is, though.’

‘I do. Billy Carter. He used to do some work for the Jenkins mob. Spotting, a bit of driving, things like that. Can’t imagine why he’d be watching the hotel.’

 

‘I wasn’t,’ Carter insisted. They found him just after noon in the Adelphi, on the far side of Leeds Bridge. Baker leaned over the man, hands on the table, while Markham stood back and watched. ‘Why would I watch the Golden Lion?’

‘I saw you with my own eyes,’ Baker said. He paused, then added with a hint of menace: ‘Or are you calling me a liar?’

‘No, course not. I was just waiting for someone, that’s all.’

He might as well have held up a sign with Lie written on it.

‘Who?’

‘She. It’s a woman. She’s married. You know.’

‘That’s the thing, Billy,’ Baker said. ‘I don’t. Why don’t you give me her name and I can ask her myself. Discreet, that’s me. My lips will be sealed.’

But no matter how Baker browbeat him, Carter wouldn’t give up a single thing more.

‘Something has him scared,’ Markham said was they walked back to the office.

‘Someone, more like. And him keeping schtum like that, it worries me.’

 

Markham was sitting in a chair at the hotel when a group of young men walked in a little after six. Four of them were quiet, serious, stretching as they moved. The fifth looked around eagerly, eyes alive, smiling to show a good young set of teeth. He looked like someone who believed he was about to inherit the world. A close-fitting Italian suit, knitted tie and pale blue shirt with a tab collar, hands pushed into the pocket of his overcoat.

One of the young men was talking to the desk clerk, handing out room keys and giving instructions.

‘I’m Dan Markham.’

The man looked at him uncomprehendingly. ‘Who?’

‘Bodyguard for Johnny Archer?’

‘Bodyguard?’ He gave a short laugh. ‘Someone’s been pulling your leg, mate. We’re the group, he’s the singer, and he’s been going down like a lead balloon, although he can’t see it. The only person he needs guarding from his himself. Now, we have to get our gear in. Not leaving it out there to be nicked.’ He disappeared, the other musicians behind him.

‘Archer?’

The young man turned and gave a camera-ready grin.

‘Johnny Archer.’ A firm voice, no shade of hesitation. ‘Are you a fan?’

‘I’m your bodyguard. Harry Lewis hired me.’

The first shade of doubt across the young man’s face, and then it cleared.

‘He said he’d have someone to look after things up here. But he didn’t say nothing about no bodyguard, though.’

‘You’ll be all right with me.’ He was beginning to feel he’d been had, that there was something going on that he didn’t understand. ‘I’ll take care of things.’

‘You can tell me where there’s a Wimpy in town. I just want something to eat and an early night. I been packed in that car all day. Come up from Bristol.’

‘There’s a Wimpy just round the corner, but they’ll be closing soon.’

‘Right,’ Archer said. ‘You can come with me. Got any money? I ain’t been paid yet.’

‘Got two personals tomorrow morning, some record shop and Woolie’s,’ Archer explained as he ate. ‘Matinee show in the afternoon and another in the evening. The birds are lapping it up.’

He looked around, as if a group of girls might be watching him. He was bland, Markham decided, a nothing. Someone had told him a few times that he was handsome and had talent, and he believed it.

‘How did Harry discover you?’

‘Walking down Oxford Street.’ He hesitated for a second. ‘You know where Oxford Street is? In London?’

‘I do. My wife’s an artist. She exhibits in galleries down there. We go to London regularly.’

The words flew over Archer’s head. He simply nodded.

‘I was there looking at the clothes and he came up and said I had some quality. Gave me a business card and said if I wanted to ring him, I might end up on the box.’

‘Have you? Been on television, I mean,’ Markham said.

‘Not yet,’ Archer replied, full of confidence. ‘But I will. The record’s doing good and Harry’s lining up a spot on another package tour. And he says I’ll be in the papers very soon.’

They walked back to the Golden Lion. Outside the door someone called out ‘Smile!’

Archer did what he was told as Markham tried to shield him. The photographer gave a thumbs-up and walked away.

‘That’ll be happening all the time soon,’ Archer said. ‘You going to be here in the morning?’

‘Half-past nine at the desk,’ Markham told him.

 

‘What do you reckon?’ Baker asked. He’d watched the whole scene.

Markham lit a cigarette. ‘Thank Christ we’re getting paid.’

 

Friday morning and Markham was working his way through the post before he had to go down to the Golden Lion. He’d started with a cup of frothy coffee from the Flamenco on Cross Belgrave Street, the machine hissing as spluttering as Fowzee worked it with his wide grin. Something to set him up for a long day and a longer night ahead.

Stephen Baker glanced through the Daily Sketch when he swore.

‘Take a look at that.’

It was the picture the photographer had taken the evening before. Archer, smiling, Markham, half in shadow, a protective arm in from of the young man’s chest. Threats Against Pop Star’s Life, the headline screamed. Bodyguard hired for appearance in Leeds.

He picked up the telephone and dialled Lewis’s office in London.

‘He’s out for the day,’ a secretary said. ‘Do you want him to ring you later?’

‘Yes,’ Markham said. ‘I’d like that a lot.’

‘We’re being used,’ Baker said. ‘There’s no threat. It’s all for publicity. Sell a few records and put some bums on seats at the show.’

‘Now it’s out there, someone might think it’s a good idea to take a pot shot at him. I’ll keep my eye on him, I’ve got nothing else today.’

Baker shook his head. ‘Waste of time.’

‘Money, remember?’

Baker snorted and turned to the football pages.

 

Archer looked sleek, dressed in his Italian suit with the tight trousers again, fresh shirt and bright tie. He was full of talk as they walked up to Vallance’s on Albion Street. Markham kept glancing around, assessing faces for any threat. Everyone dressed in dun and grey and olive, no splash of colour to be seen. They might as well be living in black-and-white.

‘After I’ve had a few hits and people know who I am, I was thinking a film, you know, like Cliff or Tommy. And move into showbusiness. That’s where the money is and you can keep going. Have a career.’ He spoke with confidence, as if he’d already plotted out every move for the next ten years.

Poor kid. In three months he’d probably be scuffling round for a job and wondering if all this had been a dream.

The record department downstairs at Vallance’s was Saturday morning busy with plenty of teenagers wanting the latest pop hits. They were crammed together in the booths to listen. Two girls approached Archer for an autograph and he seemed to come to life, eager, friendly, and with some kind of presence.

But for his hour there, no more than a trickle came to see him. Mostly girls, plus a pair of boys who seemed astonished that someone like them could have made a record.

His single played every ten minutes. A few seconds after it ended, Markham couldn’t even recall the tune. Disposable music for the consumer society.

No threats, though. Not even a sign of danger. Across the Headrow and down Briggate to Woolworth’s. Archer was talking nineteen to the dozen as he stepped out into the road.

Markham glanced to the right and saw a white Commer van barrelling towards them. He grabbed Archer by the collar and dragged him back on to the pavement as the car roared by.

For once, the boy had nothing to say.

Markham had tried to read the number plate. All he’d caught were two of the letters. No bloody help at all. Was it deliberate? Or a driver not paying attention. He wouldn’t put money on it either way.

Archer was shaken. His face was pale and his lips were bloodless.

‘Come on,’ Markham told him, ‘we’ll get a cup of tea in you. Hot, plenty of sugar.’

Like an infant, Archer followed him into a café.

‘That…’

‘Might have been an accident,’ Markham said. Better to let him think that. And accidents did happen.

‘Do you believe that?’

‘Who’d want to hurt you?’

Archer shook his head. ‘I don’t know.’

‘Nor do I.’ Markham smiled. ‘My professional opinion-’ he said the words slowly to give them weight ‘-is that you were almost the victim of an accident, Nothing more than that. OK?’

The young man pushed his lips together then gave a small nod. Like a little boy, he’d accept whatever he was told on this. Markham just wished he could be certain he’d given him the truth.

‘Drink up and we’ll go to this other signing.’

A few more fans than Vallance’s, but Archer wasn’t mobbed. Not even close. Even the story in the paper hadn’t helped much. As soon as the time was done, Markham escorted him up Briggate to the Odeon. No dangerous vehicles. No menacing men. Soon Archer was in the dressing room with his backing group. The musicians all looked bored. This was just the way they earned their crust, nothing more. They didn’t care about the music they played; it didn’t belong to them.

‘Make sure he doesn’t wander off,’ Markham said to the leader.

The man glanced at Archer. ‘He doesn’t look happy. Did somebody tell him he has a pimple?’

‘Someone nearly ran him over.’

That found the young man’s attention. ‘What? Deliberately?’

‘I don’t think so, but…look after him.’

‘Yeah, OK.’

 

The phone rang and rang before Baker answered and Markham pushed the button to let the coins drop. In a few short sentences he explained what had happened.

‘You didn’t get the number plate?’

‘No.’ He was still furious with himself for that.

‘A white van doesn’t narrow it down,’ Baker said.

‘I know that. I was thinking. Your friend Billy Carter who was watching the Golden Lion last night. Might be worth having another word with him.’

‘I will. But I’m not coming up to tell you about it. No reason for me to go near that noise they call music.’

‘You’re just old.’

 

It wasn’t just Baker, Markham thought. He was old, too. Thirty-one, and the kids in the crowd were only ten or fifteen years younger than him, but God Almighty, they made him feel ancient. He’d come of age during the war and its aftermath. During National Service in Germany he’d seen all the destruction of the bombs.

But this lot has only known peace. Conscription had just ended, so they’d never even need to put on a uniform. There were plenty of good jobs; they had money in their pockets. Rationing was a memory. They life was completely different to the one he’d known. Different music, too. He’d been introduced to jazz and fallen in love with it. Not this pop that had no substance. Yeah, he was old.

He stood at the back of the dress circle and watched as Archer performed his two songs. The audience was still arriving, no more than a handful paying attention to the music.

The lad tried, at least. He reached out from the edge of the stage. One girl dashed forward to touch his hand, then hurried back to her friends, giggling.

No sense of danger in the auditorium. Not much of anything, beyond anticipation for the acts still to come. The musicians were competent, pushing everything along, then carrying off their gear as soon as they’d finished. Professionals.

Standing outside, he smoked a cigarette as the thump of bass and drums leaked out from the building. Studio 20 was only a few yards further along New Briggate. There would be better music there tonight, but he doubted he’d have the chance to go. Someone needed to keep an eye on Archer until he left in the morning.

He’d taken the job, he was going to do it properly. Just in case the speeding van hadn’t been an accident…

‘You’re miles away. An army could have marched by and you’d never have noticed.’

Baker was dressed in his usual mackintosh and trilby, a pipe in the corner of his mouth and a satisfied smile on his face.

‘Go on, then, you look pleased with yourself. What have you found?’

‘Carter was in the General Elliot having a pint or four. I bought him another and it made him quite expansive. It seems your Harry Lewis was in touch with Jenkins, his boss. A few quid to watch Archer, enough to make having a bodyguard seem worthwhile.’

‘Not to hurt?’

‘Not in a million years. Not even a frightener. Strictly for publicity. Your incident with the van was an accident, nothing more.’

Markham felt a sense of relief. Deep down he’d probably known it was true. But having it confirmed made it feel real.

‘Why didn’t he say something when you questioned him last night?’

‘That was the deal they had.’ He grimaced as he cocked an ear toward the sound in the Odeon. ‘You staying for more of this racket?’

‘It’s what we agreed.’

Baker shook his head. ‘Sooner you than me. Still, you like that jazz muck; this can’t be any worse.’

 

The second house seemed to draw a larger audience that the first. A few years older, too, mostly fifteen and up, all the way to twenty by the look of them. He saw the disgusted glances by the girls as they passed him, as if he was a dirty old man in a grubby mac.

The music wasn’t any better or any worse. Whatever quality meant stardom, Archer didn’t possess it. Most of the crowd talked through his two numbers.

No incidents, of course. Once he’d finished and the group had dragged their equipment off the stage, Markham made him way back to the dressing room. None of them looked especially pleased.

‘It went well,’ Markham said.

‘It was bloody rubbish,’ the leader said. He finished wiping the strings and fretboard of his guitar with a rag and placed it with loving care the instrument in its case. ‘We couldn’t even hear ourselves.’

‘Maybe tomorrow will be better. Where are you then?’

‘Maybe,’ the man answered in a voice full of doubt. ‘We’re in Newcastle. Always tough there.’

 

 

A cramped night, parked near the hotel on Kirkgate, sitting in the Anglia. Too chilly to fall asleep. Too dark to read. Nothing to do but drink instant coffee from a flask and smoke. By morning his back felt as if someone had been chipping at it with an icepick.

He watched as Archer and the group packed their van and drove off. His job was done. The only thing left was to send the invoice and wait for the cheque.

 

The middle of the afternoon and he was jarred awake by the telephone. For a short moment, Markham wondered where he was, what day it was. He sat up straight in the office chair, yawning and blinking.

‘Have you listened to the wireless?’ Baker asked.

‘No. Why?’

‘There’s a transistor in my desk drawer.’ He hung up.

Markham searched, dragging it out from under a pile of papers and turning it on. Finally he found a voice reading out the headlines.

‘Police are investigating an accident on the Great North road this morning.’ He felt a prickle up his spine. ‘A young man was killed when the vehicle in which he was a passenger veered off the road going south in Lincolnshire. The name of the deceased is being withheld until next-of-kin can be informed, but it’s understood that he’s an entertainer, a singer of popular music. All the others in the van were released after being treated for minor injuries.’

Christ. Accident?

 

Three days later, Markham picked up the post. Strange. The invoice he’d sent for the Archer job, returned. Not known at this address. He checked from his notes. No, it was correct. When he dialled the London number, all he heard was a voice: ‘I’m sorry, that is no longer obtainable.’

Where Do The Characters Come From?

Just to start, I have to tell you the Kirkus Reviews, one of the major trade journals in the US, has given The Hocus Girl a starred revew (they also gave one to my last book, The Leaden Heart). you can read the full review here, but this is the final line: “This historical tour de force reminds readers who come for the mystery that life hasn’t changed for the disenfranchised.

I’ll take that.

Meanwhile..

10 years

 

They say that an author draws on people he knows for his characters.

I beg to differ.

I feel that in many cases I simply channel the people who populate my books. But if they have any traits, they’re not from people I know; they’re all small facets of me.

Richard Nottingham, for instance, is a very straight arrow, an utterly honest and upright man. Someone to be admired. He’s who I’d like to be, in an ideal world. The Leeds equivalent of the sheriff from a Western (albeit an old one). Amos Worthy is that creeping darkness in my soul. It’s there, I just need to let it out.

Dan Markham is cooler than I’ll ever be, a man at home in a jazz club or standing up to a criminal. He has style, something I’ve always aspired to but never achieved. Carla, his girlfriend, is the creative spirit I always wished I could be. But I never have quite managed to throw off the shackles of society.

Lottie Armstrong. She’s strength in adversity, someone who doesn’t give up. I suppose in some ways I have that, since I kept on fight to be published and eventually got there. But she’s a woman and that automatically makes her stronger than any man. And revisiting her 20 years later, she’s still got the resilience under all the sorrow. Urban Raven, from The Dead on Leave, has some of the same qualities. But with a crude plastic surgery face, his obstacles are more visible and obvious.

Simon Westow is resourceful, brave, intelligent, a man who’s overcome his past. That’s not me, of course; I’ve been far luckier than that. But I’d like to believe I had to spirit to be able to work my way up. Maybe I would, too. But probably not. Jane…Jane is my real darkness, the side we keep in because that’s what society teaches us. There are times I feel as isolated from the world as her. As an only child I’m good at keeping things inside, at being able to compartmentalise everything in my head. She’s the extreme, with everything coloured by a very deadly nature.

Tom Harper? He’s perhaps as close as I’ve come to a younger me, and his hearing problem certainly mirrors my own

Annabelle? No, Annabelle is channelled. She truly did come out of the ether. But thank God she’s here.

The Ten Year Project

 

It’s hard to believe, but next Spring it’ll be 10 years since my first book set in Leeds was published – The Broken Token, in case you’re curious. There will be a new Tom Harper novel appearing then, the eighth in the series, which will mean I’ve published a total of  22 novels and a collection of short stories set in Leeds in the last decade.

That’s not counting a couple of plays and involvement in the exhibition The Vote Before The Vote, where Annabelle Harper stepped into Leeds history.

annabellecard 200_2

Phew.

I’m going to celebrate it. 10 years is worth celebrating. It took a while to figure out how, though…

It has to be stories. After all, I’m a writer. So from November to next March I will have a short story with one of my Leeds characters each month. I’ll be starting with Dan Markham, taking him into the very beginning of the 1960s, then working my way back through time – Urban Raven, Lottie Armstrong, Tom Harper, Simon Westow, and finishing, quite rightly, with Richard Nottingham.

It’s going to be a challenge. I need to try and capture the essence of each of them, and in some cases it’s been a few years since we met. But I never like to make it easy for myself. I’ve even come up with a logo for everything 10th, just to warn you.

10 years

The Dan Markham story will appear in early November. I hope you’ll like in. In the meantime, you could read the new Simon Westow book, The Hocus Girl. It’s out in the UK in hardback now, and it’ll be available everywhere as an ebook from November 1.

Hocus Girl final

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

A Play With Live Jazz

I’ve been sitting on this news for a while, but as the official announcement was made today, I’m very pleased to tell you that my play, New Briggate Blues, commissioned by Jazz Leeds, will be performed next July as part of JazzLeedsFest 2018.

It features Dan Markham, the Leeds enquiry agent from Dark Briggate Blues and The New Eastgate Swing, along with his wife, Carla, as well as a live jazz quintet, who will perform during the play.

It’s very much a celebration of Studio 20, the Leeds jazz club that features heavily in both books, and will be directed by Ray Brown.DBB cover crop

Audiobook Competition

 

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A copy of the audio version of Dark Briggate Blues, wonderfully read by Paul Tyreman. This is the mp3 version, so all eight hours fit on a single disc.

Well, you wonder, how can I get this wondrous thing?

It’s simple. Just write a comment under this blog saying in which decade Dark Briggate Blues is set. I’ll select a winner from the correct answers on April 16.

Go on, you know you want to.

The Morning After…

…the night before.

Yesterday was the launch for The New Eastgate Swing, my second novel featuring enquiry agent Dan Markham and set in the Leeds of the 1950s.

I had absolutely no idea how many people might show up, other than the publisher, editor and publicist from Mystery Press would be arriving. No pressure at all.

So when there were 25 of you there, I was overjoyed. You made the effort on a chilly Thursday evening in February, and I’m immensely grateful.

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You listened, you laughed in the right places (i.e., with me not at me), you seemed to enjoy yourselves – although that could have been the free wine – and you mingled after for a chat. The icing on the cake? You bought some books. Some of them might even have been mine.

Thank you all, those who came, those who couldn’t but were there in spirit. I’m grateful and touched by your kindness and support (and my gratitude to Waterstone’s Leeds for hosting the event). It honestly means a lot.

This morning, thinking back over it all, there was only one thing missing. I wish my parents were still here to have gone to these launches. Times involving these books are when I tend to miss them the most. But life goes on, and its ending is part of it, too. Maybe, somewhere, they know.

But to all of you, in the here and now – thank you again.

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