The Dead On Leave (Again)

Last month The Dead On Leave, my novel set in Leeds in 1936, was published. It’s out there, £7.99 in paperback, cheaper on ebook, and yes, I do think you should read it. It is – I hope – an honest picture of a city gripped by the Depression and trying to find its way in a country that’s changed and threatens to leave it behind.

It’s also about the rise of fascism, which didn’t make much headway in the country, thanks to the efforts of many good people, and a population that rejected it. Between those two things, it’s something of a mirror to the present – although the book doesn’t try to offer any lessons.

But it’s still a good read, if I say so myself. So tempt yourselves with a bit more of it…

1930s boar lane 2

‘You know people in the Communists, don’t you, Raven?’ Kennedy asked quietly as he put another match to his pipe.

‘Only one man, sir.’

‘Have a word with him, will you? See what he can tell you.’

‘Yes sir.’

*

He knew where he’d find Johnny Harris. Six o’clock on the dot and he’d walk under the Magnet Ales sign into the Pointer in Sheepscar. Harris worked at the boot factory near the bottom of Meanwood Road, operating the machine that attached the upper to the sole. He’d done it for so many years that his skin on his palms was as tough and callused as the boots he made and he’d never be able to scrub away the smell of leather.

Harris had fought in the war, Gallipoli first, then the trenches, from the Somme all the way to Armistice Day. He’d seen the very worst and come back to a promise of a home fit for heroes, words that were nothing more than lies. As soon as they evaporated into thin air he’d joined the Communists and stayed loyal all through the purges in Russia, never wavering in his belief, working his way up to local party secretary.

Raven had grown up with Harris’s younger brother, Paul, the pair of them at school together. The families lived a street apart; he’d known them all his life. But it was only in the last few years he’d had much to do with Johnny.

Harris was a tough man, loud, always ready to argue his point. He read a great deal, his back-to-back house on Manor Road crammed with books. All communist, all biased, but Harris believed with the true fervour and devotion of a convert.

He’d been one of the organisers of the demonstration against the Blackshirts on Holbeck Moor. Harris probably counted the violence as a victory. But Raven hadn’t come to argue the finer points of politics as he parked the Riley by the library at the bottom of Roundhay Road. He needed information.

Harris was leaning on the bar, his broad back to the room, savouring his first pint after work. Another half hour and he’d go home to his wife and two daughters and be a loving husband and father when he wasn’t doing party work. But this was his time.

‘Give him another,’ Raven told the barman. ‘I’ll have a lemonade.’

With a wary look at the policeman’s scarred face, the man nodded.

‘You must be on duty.’ Harris didn’t even raise his head. ‘You’d be on the pints otherwise.’

‘They’re slave-drivers.’ The drinks arrived. Raven raised his glass. ‘Good health.’

‘I’ll drink to that.’ Harris pushed himself upright. He had large hands and heavily muscled arms. At first glance he looked to be a big, dangerous man. But there was a twinkle at the back of his eye and usually a smile playing around his mouth. He sipped the head from the drink with a wink. ‘I’ll accept the beer because it’s depriving the capitalist state of money it might use to exploit the people.’

‘Yesterday…’ Raven began.

‘A success.’ Harris interrupted. ‘We sent them packing.’

‘I was there. I saw it.’

Harris grinned. ‘You didn’t go on your own time, I bet.’

‘Don’t be daft. I wouldn’t waste a Sunday. But someone else was there of his own volition.’

‘That body in the paper today?’ Harris asked.

‘Yes.’

‘Was he one of ours?’

‘Not at all. A fan of Mosley. He was a means test inspector.’

The man stayed quiet, tearing a soggy beermat into tiny pieces.

‘What are you suggesting, Urban?’ Harris asked quietly. ‘That we were responsible?’

‘No,’ Raven answered slowly. ‘I’m asking, that’s all. Have you heard anything?’

‘Not a dicky bird.’ He took a long sip, draining half the beer. ‘How was he killed?’

‘Strangled with an electrical cord.’ Raven saw the man flinch and his fingers tighten around the glass.

‘None of my lot would do that.’

‘You don’t know for sure, Johnny. We have to find the killer and we’re going to need help.’

Harris pursed his lips. It would be hard for him to help the authorities. It went against everything he believed. But if the killer turned out to be a party supporter and he did nothing to help…

‘I don’t see it,’ he said finally. ‘Not a communist.’

‘Someone murdered him. And it’s a cold-blooded way to die. Brutal.’ Raven finished the lemonade. ‘I’d appreciate the assistance, Johnny, but I’ll leave it to your conscience.’

‘You’re a bastard, Urban, putting me on the spot.’ He shrugged. ‘Let me ask a few questions, all right? But I’m certain it wasn’t any of my people.’

‘Thank you.’

1930s gipton estate

No car for the journey home today; the police would never be that generous. Probably for the best, anyway. He’d only end up with a curious crowd outside the house, staring at the only car on the estate. Jim Green, all the way down on Coldcotes Drive, had a motorbike, but he’d bought it as a wreck and rebuilt it himself.

Raven had to wait for one of the Lance-Corporal trams, half-dozing as it clanked along York Road.

No lights on at home, but there was the smell of cooking in the kitchen. A note on the living room table read: Gone to the pictures with Gladys. Your tea’s in the oven. At least there was food, he thought. And some peace and quiet.

He ate, then left the plate in the sink. Kettle on the hob to make a cup of tea, staring out over the garden as he drank. There was too much to think about on this case. All they had was a jumble of pieces. He couldn’t even see all of them yet.

Maybe Johnny would come up with something. If there was even anything to find. Perhaps a bobby going through the list of Benson’s claimants would find a man so torn by guilt that he confessed. Right, he thought as he looked into the growing darkness, and they’d see pigs flying over the Town Hall in the morning. This was going to be slow and difficult and it was going to be painful.

1930s albion street

The Dead on Leave (1)

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Book Bargain

I don’t often put up on here that one of my books is on sale very cheaply (mostly because they aren’t, I suppose). But for once…The Dead On Leave, set in 1936 during the Depression in Leeds, when Oswald Mosley brought his Fascist Blackshirts to town and was forced to leave with his tail between his legs, with a body in his wake, is on sale as an ebook for next to nothing – 99p in the UK, $1.32 in the US.

I was surprised – the publisher hadn’t told me, and it’s evidently just for a limited time – because the paperback isn’t out until June 18.

Your regular outlets will have it, if you fancy a dip into historical crime, but the Amazon UK link is here. Make up your own mind about the cover, but don’t judge the book by it, please.

The Dead on Leave (1)

The 1930s Return, Leeds Style – The Dead On Leave

I was shocked and very pleasantly surprised by how many of you read an extract from my upcoming book last week. Right, I thought, maybe they fancy a bit more…

It’s’ 1936, and the Depression has hit Leeds hard. Oswald Mosley has brought his Blackshirts to town, and they’ve been chased off from Holbeck Moor with their tails between their legs by 30,000 Lioners. But there’s a body left behind, and Detective Sergeant Urban Raven has to find his way through the fog of politics and sorrow to discover who the killer might be.

The Dead On Leave is out in paperback on June 18, £7.99

The first man stood on his step and listened as Raven told him about the murder. He was in his sixties, with a shock of pure white hair and a thick moustache the colour of nicotine stains, with deep lines etched into his face. He spat out onto the cobbles, said, ‘About bloody time,’ and closed the door.

The next name was three houses further along Kepler Grove. A young fellow this time, with bulging frog eyes and a bouncing Adam’s apple. He looked downcast at the news, but nothing more. The same at the next few addresses. No grief. No one here was going to miss Frank Benson.

Round the corner on Gledhow Place, a man named Galloway cradled his infant daughter, heard what the sergeant had to say, then snorted.

‘You know what he was like?’ the man asked and Raven shook his head. ‘A real sod, that’s what. He’d dock you for owt. Reckoned he was God an’ all.’

‘What do you mean?’

Galloway tucked the girl’s head against his shoulder, tenderly stroking her hair.

‘About a month back, I were expecting him round. He didn’t even knock, just opened the front door and barged right in like he owned the place, looking around, checking in the cupboards and asking if there was any change in my circumstances. No how do you do, no by your leave, no respect. I told him to get hisself right out again. “My wife could have been washing at the sink, you bugger,” I said. I picked up the poker and waved it at him. That got him back outside right quick and tapping politely. “Any change in things?” he asked when I let him in. “Aye,” I said. “For the worse.” He took a glance in the pantry, and when he was leaving, he told me, “I won’t forget this.” He didn’t, neither. Someone told him I’d been making a little repairing boots and they stopped my relief. Five weeks. Still got three to go. Benson relished telling me, too.’

‘You realise you’ve just made yourself a suspect,’ Raven said, and Galloway shrugged.

‘Arrest me, then. At least you’d have to feed me in jail.’

‘Where were you yesterday?’

‘Right here. Where the hell else would I be?’

‘You’re in the clear, then.’ Not that he suspected the man; Galloway was far too open, his heart showing loud and bright on his sleeve.

He heard similar tales at other houses. Family members who’d been forced to move into lodgings because they were working and their income would cut assistance to the others.

‘The truth is that half of them haven’t moved at all, of course.’ He sat in the scullery of a house on Anderson Mount, a wooden rack in front of the range with clothes drying slowly. Ernie Haynes was a member of the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement. Thoughtful, soft spoken, in his fifties, he seemed to have given up on the idea of ever having a job again. There were plenty more in the same boat. The unemployable. ‘They stay out all the hours they can then sneak home to eat and sleep. Benson liked to try and catch them. As if it was a game.’

‘No one seems to have a good word for him.’

‘How can you, for someone like that?’ Haynes wondered.

*

boar lane 30s

‘None of them even said “poor man”,’ Noble told him as they drove back into town, along Mabgate and past the mills and factories that stood empty and forlorn. Rubbish lined the roads; no one cared. ‘Not an ounce of sympathy.’

‘He didn’t seem to have much of that himself.’

‘He’s dead, though.’

‘We all will be some day,’ Raven said. ‘That doesn’t guarantee respect.’

‘It seems wrong, that’s all.’

It was the way of the world. Nothing more. People spoke ill of the living, the dead, of everyone. They enjoyed it. Some revelled in it.

In the office, he passed Mortimer the list, telling him what they’d learned and watching him grimace.

‘We’ll need to get the bobbies onto the rest,’ Raven said. ‘There are far too many for us.’

The inspector nodded and took a piece of paper from the top of a pile.

‘The post-mortem report. Benson was strangled. Whoever it was stood behind him to do it.’

Raven thought of the thin red line on the man’s throat.

‘What did they use?’ he asked. ‘Could the doctor tell?’

‘An electrical flex, he says. He found some of that fabric they put around the wire in the wound. There was some under Benson’s fingernails, too. He must have been trying to pull the cord away from his throat.’ He shuddered. ‘Bloody awful way to go.’

It was. Slow, knowing you were going to die. It didn’t matter how many shades of a bastard Benson had been in his job, that was a terrible death.

*

Leeds 30s_2

The inspector drove as if it made him uncomfortable. He was wary, slow, too cautious by half. Going through Sheepscar, they passed a group of men in old clothes standing around a fire in a metal barrel on a corner, nowhere better to go.

‘The dead on leave,’ Mortimer said, so softly he could have been talking to himself.

‘What, sir?’

‘Something my wife heard on the wireless.’ He gave a quick smile and a shake of his head. ‘Someone was talking about all the unemployed. Said they were like the dead on leave. It struck me, that’s all.’

It was good, Raven had to agree. But it wasn’t just those without jobs. What about the fools and the cuckolds? They lived in that same sad, shifting world, too.

He glanced up the hill to Little London. That was what they called the area, but none of the streets were paved with gold. Instead, plenty of the cobbles were missing and fully half the houses were slums. Dilapidated, in need of knocking down, like so much of Leeds. Happen somebody would drag the whole city into the twentieth century before it was halfway over.