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.’

A Bit More Markham 2

The notes and scenes for a possible sequel to Dark Briggate Blues continue. Please, be vocal in what you think of this…

It had been an empty Friday evening. Markham was restless, unable to settle. Too early to go to Studio 20. Normally he avoided parties, but tonight it seemed a better alternative to sitting at home. Once he arrived, though, it felt like a bad idea. The house was full of people who were too bright, a fraction too loud, as if they could will themselves into having a good time.
He sat in the front room, letting the conversations and flirtations ebb and flow around him. There were money here, a baby grand sitting by the window. But the only music was skiffle and pop from a record player, muffled by the wall. Guy Mitchell, Pat Boone, Nat King Cole. Emasculated music. Only Little Richard sounded like his wildness hadn’t been tamed.
When someone called out, ‘Charlie. Come on, give us a song,’ he groaned inside and stood by the door to leave without a fuss. The woman who settled on the piano stool and lifted the lid looked uneasy, reluctant. She took a sip of gin and put the glass down before running her hands over the keys. She had thick dark hair that finished in a curl around her shoulders and a black sheath dress. She closed her eyes for a moment then started to play.
At first he couldn’t pick out a tune, listening through the haze of voices. But the room quietened as she continued and he understood she was lulling them, drawing in their attention. The melody began to take shape in the chords of the left hand as the right improvised, hinting here and there before finally settling so that faces began to smile as they recognised it. A Foggy Day In London Town. The woman opened her mouth, her singing low and languorous, as if it was emerging from a distant dream.
She had something. Not an Ella or a Sarah. But there was a velvet sensuality in her tone, hinting at something more intimate than the words themselves, something adrift on soft memories. Then she let her hands take over again, pushing down on the sustain pedal to let chords hang and fade until it all drifted off into the distance.
The applause was polite. People returned to their talk. She took another drink, looking around and blinking, emerging from somewhere else. As she stood he walked over.
‘You’re very good,’ he told her. She didn’t blush, just looked him in the eye.
‘It’s what I do. At night, anyway.’
‘You play well, too. A lot of George Shearing in there.’
That made her smile.
‘I’m Charlotte Taylor.’ She extended a thin, pale arm.
‘Dan Markham,’ he said as they shook.
‘And I only sound like Shearing because I’m not good enough to be Monk or Tatum.’ She spoke the words like a challenge: did he know what he was talking about or was it all bluff?
‘No one else can ever sound like Thelonious,’ he answered. ‘I think he hears things no one else can. And Tatum…’ He shook his head. ‘You’d need two more hands. Are you a professional?’
She looked embarrassed.
‘Trying,’ she admitted. ‘I do nightclubs sometimes. It’s hard to get a gig. Working behind the counter at Boots pays the bills. For now, anyway,’ she added with determination.
He tried to imagine her in the nylon overall, selling medicines and make-up, but he couldn’t reconcile it with the woman he’d just heard singing.
‘How about you?’ she asked. ‘What do you do?’
‘I’m an enquiry agent,’ he said and her eyes widened.

The next night they met for a meal and wandered through town to Studio 20. As they walked she told him a little about herself, short sentences with long pauses. She’d grown up in Malton, married young, a couple of years after the war. But wedded bliss had been a fragile peace, and the decree nisi had come through in July. Leeds had been a fresh start, a chance for her to do more with her music.
‘I’ve never been here before,’ she admitted as they went down the stairs to the club. ‘I don’t know anyone who really likes jazz.’
‘You do now,’ he told her with a smile.
The place was packed, hardly room to stand among the young men and women. In the corner a quintet was playing. Three guitars, bass, and a ragged washboard offering rhythm. Skiffle. Markham glanced at Bob Barclay, the club’s owner, sitting in his booth. He gave an eloquent shrug.
‘The Vipers,’ he said. ‘They’re from London, had a big hit. Brings in the money, Dan. You can see for yourself. That lets me put on other things. There’s not the market for jazz there was a few years back.’
Disappointed, they left. She tucked her arm through his.
‘I’m sorry.’
‘Hardly your fault.’ She tried to smile, but it was a weak effort. ‘It’s the same all over. Everyone wants pop music.’
He saw her again on Wednesday and the following weekend. Over a month a quick goodnight kiss graduated to passion. Soon she was spending some nights at his flat, or he’d stay over in her bedsit in Hyde Park.
On the occasions she performed Markham would be there, sitting in the corner of a club with endless cups of coffee, applauding every song. She had talent, but Leeds wasn’t a place where it could flower.

Markham 2

Since the journalists seem to believe Dark Briggate Blues is the start of a series, and a couple of people told me things that sparked my imagination, I’ve been making some notes for what might be a sequel. This is one of the scenes. The year is 1957 – please, I’d love to know what you think. But it is still very rough.

It had been an empty Friday evening. Markham was restless, unable to settle. Too early to go to Studio 20. Normally he avoided parties, but it seemed a better alternative to sitting at home. Once he arrived, though, it seemed like a bad idea. The house was full of people who were too bright, a fraction too loud, as if they could will themselves into having a good time.
He sat in the front room, letting the conversations and flirtations ebb and flow around him. There were money here, a baby grand sitting by the window. But the only music was skiffle and pop from a record player, muffled by the wall. Guy Mitchell, Pat Boone, Nat King Cole. Emasculated music. Only Little Richard sounded like his wildness hadn’t been tamed.
When someone called out, ‘Charlie. Come on, give us a song,’ he groaned inside and stood by the door to leave without a fuss. The woman who settled on the piano stool and lifted the lid looked uneasy, reluctant. She took a sip of gin and put the glass down before running her hands over the keys. She had thick dark hair that finished in a curl around her shoulders and a black sheath dress. She closed her eyes for a moment then started to play.
At first he couldn’t pick out a tune, listening through the haze of voices. But the room quietened as she continued and he understood she was lulling them, drawing in their attention. The melody began to take shape in the chords of the left hand as the right improvised, hinting here and there before finally settling so that faces began to smile as they recognised it. A Foggy Day In London Town. The woman opened her mouth, her singing low and languorous, as if it was emerging from a distant dream.
She had something. Not an Ella or a Sarah. But there was a velvet sensuality in her tone, hinting at something more intimate than the words themselves, something adrift on soft memories. Then she let her hands take over again, pushing down on the sustain pedal to let chords hang and fade until it all drifted off into the distance.
The applause was polite. People returned to their talk. She took another drink, looking around and blinking, emerging from somewhere else. As she stood he walked over.
‘You’re very good,’ he told her. She didn’t blush, just looked him in the eye.
‘It’s what I do. At night, anyway.’
‘You play well, too. A lot of George Shearing in there.’
That made her smile.
‘I’m Charlotte Taylor.’ She extended a thin, pale arm.
‘Dan Markham,’ he said as they shook.
‘And I only sound like Shearing because I’m not good enough to be Monk or Tatum.’ She spoke the words like a challenge: did he know what he was talking about or was it all bluff?
‘No one else can ever sound like Thelonious,’ he answered. ‘I think he hears things no one else can. And Tatum…’ He shook his head. ‘You’d need two more hands. Are you a professional?’
She looked embarrassed.
‘Trying,’ she admitted. ‘I do nightclubs sometimes. It’s hard to get a gig. Working behind the counter at Boots pays the bills. For now, anyway,’ she added with determination.
He tried to imagine her in the nylon overall, selling medicines and make-up, but he couldn’t reconcile it with the woman he’d just heard singing.
‘How about you?’ she asked. ‘What do you do?’
‘I’m an enquiry agent,’ he said and her eyes widened.

The next night they met for a meal and wandered through town to Studio 20. As they walked she told him a little about herself, short sentences with long pauses. She’d grown up in Malton, married young, a couple of years after the war. But wedded bliss had been a fragile peace, and the decree nisi had come through in July. Leeds had been a fresh start, a chance for her to do more with her music.
‘I’ve never been here before,’ she admitted as they went down the stairs to the club. ‘I don’t know anyone who really likes jazz.’
‘You do now,’ he told her with a smile.
The place was packed, hardly room to stand among the young men and women. In the corner a quintet was playing. Three guitars, bass, and a ragged washboard offering rhythm. Skiffle. Markham glanced at Bob Barclay, the club’s owner, sitting in his booth. He gave an eloquent shrug.
‘The Vipers,’ he said. ‘They’re from London, had a big hit. Brings in the money, Dan. You can see for yourself. That lets me put on other things. There’s not the market for jazz there was a few years back.’
Disappointed, they left. She tucked her arm through his.
‘I’m sorry.’
‘Hardly your fault.’ She tried to smile, but it was a weak effort. ‘It’s the same all over. Everyone wants pop music.’
He saw her again on Wednesday and the following weekend. Over a month a quick goodnight kiss graduated to passion. Soon she was spending some nights at his flat, or he’d stay over in her bedsit in Hyde Park.
On the occasions she performed Markham would be there, sitting in the corner of a club with endless cups of coffee, applauding every song. She had talent, but Leeds wasn’t a place where it could flower.

So Why Do I Write Historical Crime?

A number of times people have asked me why I choose to write historical crime novels. The crime part is easy to answer: it offers a good moral frame work on which to rest a novel. All fiction is about conflict in one form or another, and crime – good vs. evil – reduces it to the basics. But it also gives a chance to explore that nebulous grey area between the two, which can be the most interesting.
But historical…well, for me there are a number of reasons. I’m a history buff, most particularly a Leeds history buff. So it’s an excuse to delve into that world. But there’s far more.
I lived abroad for 30 years, and I’ve been back almost 10. That means I haven’t been there for the development of speech patterns in England. And to write convincing dialogue you need to be sure of that. I have no problem with American speech – I have novels set in the ‘80s and ‘90s there – but less in England. By going back in time, to an era that’s closed and over, it’s much easier to capture the speech of the period.
Many of my books are set in Leeds, and that gives me the chance to show how the city has changed over the years, from the 1730s to the 1950s. I try to make Leeds a character in the book, but the Leeds of 1890, industrialised and full of dark, Satanic mills, is a far cry from 1731, when the population was around 7,000 – hardly more than a village. And by 1954 and Dark Briggate Blues it’s changed completely again as we enter a post-industrial age.
And yet there’s continuity, is the layout and names of the streets in the city centre. Richard Nottingham could find his way around 160 years later, and Tom Harper from Gods of Gold would find Dan Markham Leeds relatively familiar. That sense of a thread running through it all is very attractive to a writer.
Going back in time offers the opportunity to view current events through the prism of history. The contracts handed to the gas workers that sparks the Gas Strike which is the backdrop of Gods of Gold has strong echoes in today zero-hours contracts. The anti-Semitism and xenophobia that lies at the heart of the upcoming Two Bronze Pennies can be seen in the rise of the right, Islamophobia and the very recent rise of a fresh wave of anti-Semitism.
Sometimes it’s none of that at all. Dark Briggate Blues was me asking ‘what would a 1950s English provincial noir be like?’ and offering one possible answer.
Technology and life moves so quickly that a contemporary novel can quickly seem dated. No mobile phones on computers in the ‘80s or ‘90s. We’ve only really relied on the Internet since the beginning of this century. Social media is just a few years old, and smartphones only became widespread after 2010. If you write today’s world, it’s changed by tomorrow. Setting a novel in the past, people know going in where they stand. It can’t seem dated because, in a way, it’s timeless, a scene set in amber.
And there’s one final reason. Today we rely on DNA, forensics, all manner of this and that to solve crimes. That’s fine – the tools are there, use them. But for a writer (and hopefully a reader), forcing the main character to use his wits and his brain is far more satisfying.

Dark Briggate Blues – Out Into The Wild

It’s Twelfth Night,traditionally the end of the Christmas season, Epiphany in the Christian calendar. But for me, January 6, 2015, means the UK publication date of Dark Briggate Blues. It’s a 1950s noir novel, set in Leeds in ’54, and featuring a young enquiry agent, Dan Markham.
DBB cover crop
I remember very well how it came about. I’d been re-reading some of my favourite American detective writers – Chandler, Hammett, MacDonald – and wondered why there was so little English noir, particularly 1950s noir. That led me to recall an excellent 1960s show, Public Eye, about a British private detective. No glamour, plenty of seediness. I’d also been listening to a lot of ’50s jazz, music that seems to meld so well with the genre.
What would a case be like for an enquiry agent (the British term then for private detective) in a provincial English city. And Dark Briggate Blues was born.
I was lucky, as Leeds really did have a jazz club then, Studio 20 on New Briggate. And I’m old enough to have memories of Leeds in the 1950s, albeit faint ones. So Dan could have his jazz passion, too. He was old enough to have done National Service, like his whole generation, but too young to have served in World War II. And being posted to military intelligence, he’d learned a few spying techniques that he’d need to survive.
It had to be set in Leeds, of course, my favourite location, and one I could conjure up in part from memories, the sounds and the smells. At times it seems as if many of my novels are simply telling a peculiarly refracted history of the city, but I make no apologies for that. It’s a character in my work, as alive as any flesh and blood person.
So yes, it’s out today. In paperback. There’s going to be a big launch next month, wine, nibbles, everything, at Waterstones in Leeds (see Events), so please come along if you can. And if you want to buy a copy of the book? Well, I’d be very grateful indeed.

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.