The Muffin Man’s Daughter – A Lottie Armstrong Story

Continuing these 10 years of publishing crime novels set in Leeds, I’m moving back in time a little to revisit WPC Lottie Armstrong, one of the first policewomen in Leeds. She featured in Modern Crimes, set in 1924, then again, 20 years later, in The Year of the Gun.

This little story takes place in 1923, a few months before Modern Crimes, and gives more background into how Lottie (whom I really do love) came to know Auntie Betty and the Royal Hotel.

10 years

 

Leeds, December 1923

 

December. One of those long winter days when the sun came out but hardly seem to rise in the sky. Lottie Armstrong’s breath had plumed in the air as she walked on patrol, and she’d been grateful for the heavy cape and leather gloves.

Now, sitting on the tram and it trundled up Chapeltown Road, she realised how much her feet ached. She wanted to peel off her scratchy woollen stockings and let her toes soak in a warm bath of Epsom salts. Still, it came with the job, and she’d wanted to be one of the first women police constables in Leeds. Today, she and Cathy Taylor, the other WPC, had covered the area around the railway stations, over to Holbeck, back through Hunslet, down to Kirkgate market and up through Quarry Hill. Some of the places where girls and young women might mix with low types, she’d been told.

They hadn’t seen any. Hardly any girls at all. They probably had more sense than to hang around in the cold.

The conductor rang the bell. Her stop.

The pavement felt very hard under her shoes. She had to stop at the butcher and the greengrocer on Reginald Parade to pick up something for tea; Geoff would be hungry when he came home from work. Sausages and mash. Quick, easy, warm and filling on a day like this. She’d just turned up Sholebroke Avenue when she heard someone call her name.

‘Mrs. Armstrong. Do you have a second?’

She turned and saw Tim the muffin man hurrying towards her. One handied stead the tray of muffins balanced on his head, while the other silenced the clapper of the bell he used to let people know he was selling by their house. He was wrapped up warm in the heavy greatcoat he’d worn during the war, a muffler tied around his throat and some knitted fingerless gloves.

muffin man 1

‘Of course you can, Mr Worthy.’ She stood and waited until he’d caught up with her. ‘What can I do for you?’

‘It’s our Nell,’ he began. She knew who he meant and her heart began to sink. His daughter, seventeen going on thirty. She worked in a mill, but the rest of the time she was part of a group of girls who haunted the dance halls in the city centre. Tim was a pleasant man, a hard worker who tried to do his best for his family. But Nell had been trouble since he’d returned from the fighting in France.

His wife had died on the Spanish flu a month after he’d come back, and he was left to bring up Nell and her older brother on his own. The boy was fine, settled in a good job. But Nell had turned wild.

Lottie tried to smile. ‘What’s she been up to now?’ she asked.

‘That’s the problem,’ he said. His face was creased with worry and his eyes filled with sadness. ‘I don’t know. She didn’t come home last night.’

This was serious, more than mischief. ‘Have you reported it? We can have the whole force searching for her.’

He shook his head. ‘I didn’t want to cause any fuss. At first I though she’d come home. She’d been out late and stayed at a pal’s house or something. Now…I’m worried that if I went in and told them, they’d think I’d done something to her.’

‘I can telephone and get things rolling.’

‘Would you?’ His eyes were pleading with her.

‘Of course.’ She gave him a warm smile. ‘Come on, you give me the details. I know what she looks like. And don’t worry, they come home when they get fed up.’

‘Do they?’ He needed hope. He needed something. Lottie knew that Nell had gone missing before, overnight on a few occasions.

‘Of course they do.’

 

The was a blue police box just down Chapeltown Road. She used the key to let herself in, identified herself and gave the dispatcher all she could.

It wasn’t much. Nell Worthy had left for work, the way she always did. But she’d never arrived; her father had checked with the mill owner.

‘She’s seventeen but she looks younger,’ Lottie said. ‘She could probably pass for fourteen. She has a wild side to her, thought. Likes to smoke and drink and she often spends her evenings down in those dance halls on Lower Briggate. Her father gave me the names of her friends and the addresses he knew.’

Another voice cut in, a man. She recognised the gruff tone. Sergeant Wilson.

‘Where are you now, Armstrong?’

‘Chapeltown Road, Sergeant. Mr Worthy just stopped me as I as walking home.’

‘And she’s been missing all night?’

‘Yes, Sergeant.’

‘We’ll send someone to talk to the father-’

‘He’s on his round. He’s a muffin man.’

A hand over the receiver, something that she couldn’t make out, then: ‘We’ll need you here to help look for the girl. There are other females to interview, is that right?’

‘Yes, sir. But I’m off duty.’

‘You’re back on as of now. I want you at Millgarth as soon as possible.’

A quick dash home with the shopping, scribbling a note for Geoff, then the tram back into town. It felt strange to be heading to work in the evening. The shops along Vicar Lane were a blaze of electric lights and there was a curious gaiety to the faces she saw. Work done for the day, an evening of pleasure ahead. Dinner somewhere, drinks, the cinema, dancing. Her police partner, Cathy Taylor, was probably out in it all. She was married, but her husband was in the merchant marine and she didn’t enjoy nights at home on her own. She wanted company and laughter and music.

Millgarth police station seemed to fizz with energy. Plain clothes officers were moving around, determination on their faces. She recognised a few of them, but far more were strangers. Drafted in from other divisions, she supposed; a missing girl would fire up the authorities.

‘There you are,’ Wilson said when she reported. ‘About time.’

‘I’m sorry, Serg-’

He waved her words aside. ‘I want you to talk to the men working on the case. You know the girl, don’t you?’

‘A little. I’ve met her and spoken with her.’

‘You know what she’s like, where she goes.’

It was easier to simply agree. He didn’t want detail right now.

 

Some listened. Others didn’t want to hear a woman. Never mind. She carried on and told them all she knew about Nell Worthy. Lottie finished and looked hopefully around at the faces.

‘Do we have a photograph?’ Sergeant Wilson asked.

‘Not at the moment,’ she answered.

`’Description?’

‘She’s about five feet tall, quite skinny. No shape to her. Mousy brown hair in a short bob,’ Lottie said. ‘I’m not sure about the colour of her eyes. Whenever I’ve seen her she’s always worn a lot of blue.’

Wilson rolled his eyes.

‘Right, that’s enough to get you started,’ he told the men. ‘Get out there and find here.’

‘What about me, Sergeant?’ she asked once they’d gone. ‘I could help. I know her.’

‘Leave it to the proper coppers, luv. We know what we’re doing. If you want to be useful, you can make us a pot of tea.’

Her cheeks burned with anger and humiliation. She stalked off letting the toilet door slam behind her, folding her arms and staring at the mirror.

Policewomen were nowhere near the equals of the men. They could deal with women and girls, and they didn’t have the power to arrest anyone.

Maybe she should just go home. After all, her shift was long since over.

She’d been standing there for more than a minute when she heard the tap on the door. Cautiously, she opened it, knowing her eyes were red and she was still close to tears.

She’d seen the man in the briefing room, standing near the back. In plain clothes, a dark suit with a sensible blue tie and polished black shoes. He was old enough to have fought in the war, a good six inches taller than her, looking down and smiling gently.

‘He was wrong, you know. There’s plenty you can do to help.’

‘What do you want me to do?’ she asked acidly. ‘Fetch the biscuits as well?’

‘Maybe come out with me and we can look for her. You’ve seen her, you can recognise her.’

‘Why?’ Lottie asked. She could hear the harshness in her voice, but she didn’t care. ‘I’m not a proper copper. The sergeant said so.’

‘Well, I’m a detective sergeant and I think you have something to offer. What do you say?’

‘Yes.’ She suddenly felt calmer. And astonished. ‘Thank you. Can you give me a minute?’

She ran the cold water, splashing it over her face. Looked at herself again, patted her hair down. Better.

 

It wasn’t far from Millgarth to Lower Briggate, but warmer in a motor car. McMillan parked by the railway bridge and turned off the engine.

‘Where does this girl Nell like to go? Is there anywhere in particular?’

‘Dancehalls is all I know, Sergeant.’

‘The other officers will be covering those. Nothing else?

‘Most of the public houses won’t serve her. She looks far too young.’

‘That’s not very helpful, Armstrong.’

‘Sorry, Sarge. Maybe the best thing to do is go up and down and look into the little bars, see if we spot here.’

‘If you include all the courts, there must be more than a dozen.’ He looked at her. If you take off your cap and button your coat all the way up, no one will guess you’re wearing a uniform. ‘

‘I have a cloche in my pocket. I could put that on.’

She brought it out and patted it over her hair. It was a sweet, warm raspberry colour, a contrast to the dark blues and blacks.

‘Will that do, sir?’

‘Excellent.’

A chilly wind was blowing up from the river. No luck at the first place, a dismal little room hidden away in a railway arch, or at the second, a bustling club that played a succession of phonograph records, its bar nothing more than a door on sawhorses in them corner.

In both of them, McMillan knew people and stopped for a question or two.

‘She’s been in before, but not recently,’ he said as they came out into the cold night. He stopped and lit a Black Cat cigarette. ‘Why did you want to become a woman police constable, anyway?’

Lottie gave the same answer as always.

‘It was something different. Better than stopping at home, and it was a job that would take you if you were married.’

He nodded. ‘Do you enjoy it?’

‘Most of the time,’ she replied after a moment. ‘What about you, Sergeant?’

His face seemed to come alive. ‘I love the work. I’d been a bobby for a year when the war began, and I joined up in the first flush.’ He shrugged. ‘It seemed like a good idea. Patriotic. Was your husband over there?’

No need to say where he meant; everybody knew.

‘He was wounded. Invalided out.’ That was enough. Everyone knew a few men like that. ‘How did you end up in CID?’

McMillan nodded. ‘When I came back, I didn’t want to wear a uniform again. They took a chance on me wearing plain clothes. I suppose it’s paid off. They promoted me.’

An hour later and they’d covered almost all the bars; so many tiny places the Lottie never knew existed. Nell had been in a couple of them. The last sighting had been the evening before.

That was good, she decided. The girl had still been fine twenty-four hours earlier. She glanced up and down the street. She didn’t know what it was about the nightlife here that attracted Nell Worthy, but something made it seem much better than home. Maybe one of the other detectives had discovered her.

‘Just the Royal left,’ McMillan said with distaste.

Lottie had walked past the Royal Hotel often when she was on patrol. She knew the rumours, that the customers liked people of their own sex. There was one bar for men and another purely for women.

It was hard to imagine the girl in a place like that. Lottie had seen her with boys; she’d seemed interest in them.

‘We’ll check it, anyway,’ he told her. ‘You’ll need to go in by yourself. If I walked into the woman’s bar, they’d scatter like a flock of birds.’

‘All right.’ It didn’t worry her. What was they worst they could do, tell her to get out?

 

The bar was dimly lit. A few women sat that the tables, in couples or alone, caught in the shadows. A big woman stood behind the bar, her hair cut as short as a man’s, neatly parted and pomaded. She wore a pinstripe suit, with trousers, waistcoat, shirt and tie.

Lottie took a deep breath and walked across he room. She could feel people watching her. At the bar she stopped.

The woman facing her spoke very quietly: ‘Now you can turn yourself around and leave again. I don’t want any coppers in here. You’re not welcome.’

‘I-’

‘Don’t try and say you’re not with the police. You don’t look like you’d be a good liar.’

Lottie felt herself starting to bristle. ‘I don’t lie,’ she said. ‘And I’m not about to start now.’

‘That’s settled, then. On your way before I come round there and throw you out.’

‘You don’t understand. I’m looking for someone. A girl who’s gone missing. Her father’s very worried about her.’ Maybe it was the tone of her voice. She knew she sounded earnest. But the woman didn’t move, just watching her. ‘Her name’s Nell Worthy. I know her a little, and I know she likes this area. I’ve been in every bar. Other people are trying the dancehalls.’

‘How old is she?’ the woman asked.

‘Seventeen.’

‘You said you know her. What’s her father’s name?’

It was a strange question. What did that have to do with it?

‘Tim,’ she replied. ‘He’s the muffin man near me. He’s the one who asked me to look for her.’

The woman chewed her lip as she looked at Lottie. ‘Come through to the back.’

Crates lined three of the walls. Full bottles and empties. But along the fourth was a camp bed, a few clothes bunched underneath, and a door.

‘What…’ Lottie began. She didn’t understand.

The woman tapped on the door. ‘It’s all right, you can come out now.’

A moment when nothing happened. The Lottie saw the handle turn and Nelly Worthy emerged into the light.

‘She’s police,’ the girl said. It was an accusation, not an observation.

‘I know who she is,’ the woman told her. ‘She might as well have had it tattooed on her head.’

‘She wants to take me home, Auntie Betty,’ Nell said.

‘Well,’ the woman said, ‘you can’t spend the rest of your life living back here, now can you?’

‘You left home when you were younger than me.’

The woman shook her head. For a second, her eyes flashed. ‘I had to go. I didn’t have a choice. My father threatened to whip me bloody. He didn’t like what I was.’

‘Your father wants you back,’ Lottie said. ‘Maybe it’s not perfect, but he’s tried, you know. He’s doing it on his own. He’s a man, they can’t understand girls.’

‘Listen to her,’ the woman said. ‘He’s a good man. If my sister was still alive, you wouldn’t have run, would you?’

‘I don’t know.’ A young, sullen response.

‘Well, I do. Look, I’ll come up and talk to your Dad. Me and him always got on well enough. How would you feel if he let you come and stay with me sometimes?’

‘Do you think..?’ Nell’s eyes widened. There was hope in her voice.

‘Maybe. But only sometimes. I have a life outside this place, too. Would that satisfy you?’

‘Yes,’ the girl agreed after a second.

‘You pack up your things and come through when you’re done.’

 

‘A woman copper, eh?’ Betty asked as they stood at the bar.

‘Yes. There are two of us.’ She paused for a second. ‘Only two of us. And a matron.’

‘You seem to care, at least. You came in here to look.’

‘I told you, I know Tim.’ She smiled. ‘I like his muffins.’

The woman glanced back towards the room. ‘I can’t guarantee she won’t run off again. But I’ll start to spend a little time with her.’

‘It can’t hurt.’

‘What’s your name?’

‘WPC Armstrong.’

‘Your Christian name.’

‘Lottie. Short for Charlotte.’

‘You can call me Auntie Betty. Sure you don’t feel uncomfortable in here?’

No,’ Lottie said. ‘Why would I? We’re all people, aren’t we?’

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

2017, And My Year Ahead

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

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

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

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

on-copper-street

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

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

the-year-of-the-gun-new-fcp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Year of the Gun

For the last several weeks I’ve been going on about my most recent book, Modern Crimes. In part that’s because I want people to buy it, of course, but also because I love Lottie Armstrong, the main character. She’s extraordinary by being so ordinary, and she’s full of life. She fizzes – at least to me.

I liked her so much that I wasn’t ready to let her go. But the circumstances at the close of the book made that difficult (and yes, you’ll have to read it to find out). So I decided to bring her back 20 years later, not as a police constable, but in her mid-40s, as a member of the Women’s Auxiliary Police Corps in 1944, right in the middle of World War II, in a book titled The Year of the Gun, which will be published Autumn 2017 (and scroll down to the bottom for the spectacular cover).

The first few pages of that book are at the end of Modern Crimes. However, to tempt you to discover Lottie in 1924 and look forward to 1944, here’s another small episode from The Year of the Gun.

 

Right on the dot of ten Helen rang through from the switchboard.

‘There’s an American here to see your boss. A Captain Ellison.’

‘Send him up, will you?’ Lottie said.

‘He’s on his way.’ She lowered her voice to a whisper. ‘He’s very good looking. I could eat him for my tea.’

‘Get away with you,’ Lottie laughed. Never mind; she’d find out for herself in a moment.

Good looking, she wondered as he entered the room, cap under his arm and a diffident grin on his face. Maybe. At least he didn’t have that terrible cropped hair like the other Americans. His had a little style to it, dark, parted at the side, and his smile showed strong white teeth.

‘Hi. I’m Cliff Ellison, US Army CID. Looking for Detective Chief Superintendent McMillan?’ It came out as a question. Helen was right; there was something endearing about him, she decided. Lines around his eyes and mouth that showed he’d lived, but no real brashness to his manner.

‘I’m WAPC Armstrong. I’ll show you through.’

A knock on the door and she entered. ‘It’s Captain Ellison, sir.’ Her mouth twitched into a smile. ‘Here just as you requested.’

‘Could you find three cups of tea, please, then join us?’

‘Yes, sir.’

By the time she returned the men were talking earnestly. Any frostiness in the air had already vanished.

‘It’s not a trickle, Chief Superintendent, it’s a flood,’ Ellison said as he stubbed out a cigarette. ‘We’re never going to officially admit that, but it’s the truth. And before you say anything, it’s the same in your services. I’ve talked to those guys in the Special Investigation Branch and they say it’s pretty much impossible to stop. You arrest one thief and two more take his place.’

‘The only thing that concerns me right now is these hand guns,’ McMillan said. ‘One in particular and what it’s done.’ He pushed a file across the desk. ‘Take a look for yourself.’

He drank his tea and glanced at Lottie as Ellison skimmed the sheets.

‘Two common factors,’ the captain said when he’d finished. ‘Both in the service, both shot.’

‘Three. Both the bodies were at Kirkstall Abbey. It’s a ruin,’ he explained, ‘an old monastery. One was killed there, the other dumped in the grounds.’

‘Is that important, do you think?’ Ellison asked sharply.

‘I have no idea,’ McMillan told him.

‘Look, I was a cop before I joined the army. Back in Seattle. A lieutenant, detective.’ He gave a sad smile. ‘I’ve seen murders before.’

‘Anything like this?’

‘No, sir.’

He was trying, Lottie thought. And there was something about him; he seemed like a inherently decent man.

‘I have someone running round killing girls. Two of them in two days. The murderer could be anyone – British, American. I’ve got nothing to go on. Nothing at all.’ McMillan cocked his head. ‘You say were a copper. What would you do?’

‘Well…’ Ellison stroked his chin. ‘I’d be using my informers. And I guess I’d try and get someone on the American side to follow things from there.’

‘I have people talking to the snouts. Grasses, informers,’ he explained when the other man look confused.

‘I can try to help from our end,’ Ellison said.

‘I’ll take anything I can get at this stage.’

‘What would make sense is a co-ordinated operation, Chief Superintendent.’

‘John. I never liked being called by my rank.’

‘John.’ Ellison nodded and smiled. ‘I’m Cliff.’

Cliff, Lottie thought. Clifford. Why did Americans have such strange names? Bing. Clark. It sounded like they’d made them up on the spot.

‘If you can help me catch my killer, I’ll be grateful.’

‘No promises, but I’ll do what I can.’ He gestured at the file. ‘Is there any chance I can get a copy of that?’

‘I’ll have one sent to you.’

‘I saw something about a house in there. Where is it?’

‘My evidence people have gone over it.’ McMillan hesitated a moment. ‘I thought it had something to do with the murders, but it seems I was wrong.’

‘Hunch?’ He nodded. ‘We all have them. I’d still like to take a look at the place. It says in there that an American was looking at the place and there was one of our Jeeps.’

‘OK. Lottie can drive you. It’s easier than giving directions.’

She was taken by surprise. He’d never offered her services to anyone before; Ellison was honoured and he didn’t even know it.

‘Of course, sir,’ she said.

 

‘Lottie?’ he asked as she weaved through traffic on the Headrow, past the Town Hall steps where she’d heard Mr Churchill speak a couple of years before. ‘Is that short for something?’

‘Charlotte, sir.’

‘And WAPC?’ He read the letters off her shoulder flash. ‘What’s that?’

‘Women’s Auxiliary Police Corps.’ She glanced in the mirror and smiled. ‘Not a proper copper.’

‘So you’re his driver?’

‘And dogsbody. Conscience, too, if he needs one. We’ve actually known each other for years. It’s a bit of a long story.’ One she wasn’t about to spill to a complete stranger. ‘You said you’re from Seattle. Where’s that?’

‘Kind of the top left hand corner of the country.’ Ellison gazed out at the clouds and the green of Woodhouse Moor. ‘The climate’s pretty much like England, really.’

‘Is it really all cowboys out there?’

He began to laugh so hard Lottie thought she’d need to park and thump him on the back. Finally he stopped, pulling out a handkerchief and wiping his eyes.

‘Sorry, but you Brits…’ He took a breath. ‘Really, that’s all history. Seattle’s a big city.’ He looked out of the car window. ‘More modern than this. Newer.’

‘We have history,’ she said defensively. ‘A lot of it.’

By the time she parked at the end of Shire Oak Road she’d learned that he was forty-three, had a degree in history and he’d spent eighteen years in the police. Divorced with a pair of children. Americans were always so open about themselves; she’d noticed that before.

‘Have you been inside the house?’

‘With the superintendent. We did the first search.’

He looked at her more carefully. ‘You’re more than just an auxiliary, aren’t you?’

‘Not really.’ She smiled. ‘I was a real policewoman once. That’s all.’

Ellison gave her a curious look.

‘OK. So show me round.’

There really was nothing to see. Everything had been taken for examination, fingerprint dust over most of the surfaces. She pointed out where things had been as he listened attentively, then left him to poke around the place. Maybe he’d spot something they’d missed.

‘The old guy next door?’ Ellison asked when he’d finished.

‘You’ll need to talk to the Chief Super about him.’ She repeated the man’s claim.

‘Definitely an American star on the Jeep?’

‘That’s what he said.’

‘Hmm.’ He looked at his watch. ‘It’s nearly lunchtime. Is there somewhere we can eat?’

‘I think we can find a place,’ Lottie told him with a grin. ‘Come with me.’

Charlie Brett’s had been on North Lane for years, so long that the grease must have soaked into the walls. Fish and chips, about the only food that wasn’t rationed these days. And they did them well here. She and Geoff would cycle to Headingley to eat. Lean against the wall outside, enjoy the meal with a bottle of Tizer while they watched people go past.

‘You know,’ he said as she led him along the path to the old cottage that housed Brett’s, ‘I’ve been here six months and I’ve never eaten this stuff. We had a place back home selling fish and chips for a while but it closed down. Ivar’s’

‘Then it’s time you found out what the real thing is like.’

 

‘That’s not too bad.’ He sounded surprised. At least he’d been chivalrous enough to pay.

‘Well, if you want to understand the English, you’d better enjoy it,’ she said. ‘This is more or less our national dish. With lots of salt and vinegar.’

‘I can’t see it going over big in our mess, but it’s tasty,’ Ellison said. ‘What’s your take on these killings?’

‘Me?’ Lottie was astonished he wanted her opinion.

‘Yes, you.’ He grinned, showing those white teeth again. ‘Come on, you’re more than a driver, you’ve said that. You must have an opinion.’

She allowed herself a smile for a second, then her face turned serious.

‘Honestly, I don’t know.’ Lottie sighed. ‘And I’ve no idea if the Shire Oak Road house is even involved in anything. The boss thinks it is but there’s no real evidence.’

‘Hunches are important to cops.’

‘But they’re not infallible.’

‘No,’ he agreed. ‘But if he feels it that strongly…’

‘We’ll see.’ This conversation would just take them in a circle. Time to change the subject. ‘What’s Seattle like?’

‘Pretty,’ he told her after a moment. ‘There’s water on one side and mountains on the other.’ He scrambled in his pocket, brought out a wallet and dug through for photographs. ‘That’s my house.’

She’d never known anyone who carried a picture of his house. It seemed such a strange thing. People, event pets. But never a house. Still, he was far from home, divorced. Maybe it gave him a kind of anchor. It looked to be a pleasant enough place, a wooden bungalow, a large car sitting next to it in the drive.

‘I don’t live in Seattle itself,’ he explained. ‘I’m across Elliott Bay in West Seattle. Long drive round, but it’s nice and peaceful.’

But Lottie was looking at the two other photos that had come out.

‘Are those your children?’

He laid them out on the table and his voice softened. ‘Yeah. Jimmy’s in eighth grade. I’m just hoping all this is over before he’s old enough to be drafted.’

‘It will be,’ she said with certainty. ‘What’s your daughter’s name?’

‘Karen. After my mom. She’s in sixth grade. I get letters from them but it’s not the same. How about you, you have kids?’

‘No. My husband was wounded in the last war. We couldn’t.’

‘I’m sorry.’ He narrowed his eyes a little. ‘What does he do?’

‘He died five years ago. Heart attack.’ It didn’t feel so painful to say these days. Not when so many others had lost family to much worse.

‘That’s terrible.’

‘It happens.’ She pushed the empty plate away and drank the rest of her tea. ‘Come on, I’d better get back or he’ll have me before a firing squad.’

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Improper Coppers – The Roots of Lottie Armstrong

Modern Crimes is out, and the first feedback from readers has been incredibly gratifying – people seem to love Lottie. But how did those first policewomen in Leeds come about? Well, let me tell you a (true) story…

When the First World War broke out in 1914 it took a heavy toll on the police in Leeds. As soon as hostilities began, 51 constables who were in the Army Reserve were called up to their regiments and any more answered the call. The force was already understaffed, so Special Constables were recruited for the duration, men who were unable to join the forces, usually for health reasons. At its peak there were over 2,000 of them, some working in plain clothes, others undertaking crowd control, point duty, even on the beat in the suburbs.

With the start of the war there was also a spike in the number of women and girls who were involved in criminal offences. That needed a response that went beyond the Specials. So, by December 1914, Voluntary Women’s Patrols had been started, initiated by the National Council of Women.

They were limited to a few areas? And where were the hotspots? Perhaps surprisingly, Headingley, near the rugby/cricket ground, Chapeltown Road, and Woodhouse Moor. Soon that also included the market area and Briggate.

What could the patrols do?

As the Chief Constable’s report in 1916 read: “The object of the Patrols is to define and assist in promoting a higher moral code among girls, and so to guide and encourage them that they will have every hope of becoming self-respecting citizens.”

What exactly did that mean? Essentially to try and keep them on the straight and narrow in society’s terms, which were very prim and proper. Remember, there was a dearth of men around as so many had joined up (or later conscripted) – one in four of the total male population. Where many girls might normally have been courting, there was no one to step out with now. Very often girls were working in factories instead of as domestic servants. They had more money and more freedom, always a potent combination. A few probably ran wild, as did a few children with no father at home.

The women of the Voluntary Patrols had no powers of arrest or detention. They might give someone a talking-to or even a clout, but they could go no further. For the system to work the job required tact, empathy, and the ability to persuade. Did it work? Apparently so: by 1916 only six per cent of juveniles brought before the court were girls.

As to any problems with women and crime, the report didn’t address that…

Towards the end of the war the National Union of Women Workers tried to have women from the Voluntary Patrol in Leeds enrolled as regular police constables. But the city wasn’t too keen on the idea. Instead, in September 1918, two months before fighting ended in France, the Watch Committee decided on a compromise. It would spend £100 a year (plus uniform) for one policewoman, who would have restricted duties (doing little more than the Voluntary Patrols). They placed an advertisement in the Yorkshire Evening Post. 44 women applied for the post, including Mrs. Florence E. Parrish, who was already Chief Patrol Officer and Secretary of the National Union of Women Workers Committee in Leeds.

She was 45 years old, married, certified as a teacher, with a diploma from Leeds University in social organisation and public service, as well as being an experienced social worker. In other words, uniquely qualified for what must often have proved a frustrating post.

By 1921 she’d resigned.

But there, in the First World War, are the roots of the female police officers and PCSOs (and of my fictional 1920s policewoman, Lottie Armstrong) we see on the streets of Leeds today. Next time you’re on Woodhouse Moor and wandering around the market, have a think about morals and the influence of the Volunteer Patrol.

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