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.

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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.

One Month to Markham

It’s four weeks until the publication of Dark Briggate Blues, set in Leeds in 1954 and featuring enquiry agent Dan Markham. It’s 50s English provincial noir, Northern noir if you like, and very full of Leeds at the time, including the jazz club Studio 20, which was downstairs at 20, New Briggate (where Sela Bar now stands).

It is, I hope, a very dark book. That was my intention. And to whet your appetite, here’s another little extract. You can pre-order it here. And it’s in paperback, people, paperback!

Although it’s not out until the New Year, I would like to point out that I have several other Leeds books out there – the Richard Nottingham series and the first in my new Tom Harper Victorian series, God of Gold. They (ahem) make wonderful Christmas presents, whether in hard copy or ebook. Thank you, and back to your regularly scheduled broadcast.

The ‘phone rang before he had a chance to sit down, the bell ringing loud and urgent.
He answered with the number and heard the clunk of coins dropping in a telephone box.
‘Mr Markham?’ a man’s voice said.
‘That’s right.’
‘I understand that you’re missing something.’ The hairs on the back of his neck prickled and he drew in a breath without thinking. The Webley stolen from his desk. ‘Well, Mr Markham? Do you know what I mean?’
‘I do,’ he answered quietly. ‘Who are you?’
‘Tell me,’ said the caller, ignoring the question, ‘would you like the return of the … item? Or perhaps I should see it ends up in official hands?’
He didn’t know the voice. Not local. From the South. Long vowels.
‘What do you want?’
‘Many things, Mr Markham.’ The man sounded amused, in control and taking his time. ‘But for the moment I’ll settle for your attention.’
‘You have it,’ he said.
‘Do you know the Adelphi?’
‘Yes.’ It was a grubby old Victorian pub at the top of Hunslet Lane, just over the river.
‘Be in there at, oh, let’s say one o’clock. I’ll tell you more then.’
‘How will I know you?’
The voice turned to a chuckle.
‘You won’t need to, Mr Markham. After all, I know you.’
The line went dead. Markham replaced the receiver and looked at the clock. A little after noon. Soon enough he’d know exactly who was so keen to set him up. Someone had known he was back in the office. Why, he wondered? What the hell was going on?
In the service, as part of his military intelligence training, they’d taught him how to shadow someone and how to throw off a tail. Everything hammered into him in drill after drill. He’d never been as good as some of the others. His friend, Ged Jones, seemed able to disappear in a crowd. But Markham could get by. He walked out purposefully, taking a quick note of the faces on the street as he crossed Briggate, slipped through County Arcade and Cross Arcade, then along Fish Street, ending up staring at the reflections in a window on Kirkgate to see who was behind him.
The man was an amateur. By the time he came out into Kirkgate he was almost running, staring around nervously until he spotted Markham. Older, NHS specs, his overcoat buttoned up and belted with a scarf at the neck and a hat was pulled down on a ruddy, jowly face. It was no one he recognised, no one he could remember ever seeing. But the face was imprinted on his memory now.
He set off again, ambling back to Briggate and stopping often, then down to the bridge over the river Aire. The buildings were old, decayed and black from a hundred or more years of dirt that had built up layer on layer.
The Adelphi probably hadn’t changed since the turn of the century. An old gas lamp still hung over the front door. Inside, the pub was dark wood, dull brass and bevelled etched glass, all neglected and in need of a thorough cleaning. At the bar he ordered an orange squash.
A table and two chairs sat in the middle of the snug. This room was different; freshly scrubbed, the hearth black-leaded, tiles gleaming and windows shining.
‘Have a seat, Mr Markham,’ the man by the window said. The voice on the telephone. He checked his wristwatch. ‘You’re right on time.’ He smiled. ‘Punctuality is a good sign.’
‘Of what?’
‘An organised man.’ He was probably in his late forties but well-kept, broadly built, neat dark hair shot through with grey. His nose had been broken in the past and there were small scars across his knuckles. But he didn’t have the look of a bruiser. His eyes shone with intelligence. The dark suit was costly, a subdued pinstripe, cut smartly enough to hide the start of a belly. The tie was real silk. He sat and gestured at the chair opposite. ‘We have things to talk about.’