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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Vibrant, Alive, and Out Today

For the last week I’ve been doing a lot of cleaning and digging. The house, the allotment. Writing, too, of course, but things like an overnight clean of the oven and recaulking the shower, because writers get to do all the glamorous jobs, you know. I even sang along to George Formby as I cleaned the inside of the windows. After all, what else would you sing, right?

Mostly, though, I’ve been waiting. Because today is when Modern Crimes is published. It’s a thrill whenever I have a book published, but this one seems a bit special. That’s because of Lottie. As a writer, you want the character to take over a book, and she did that. She’s alive, vibrant, and extraordinary by being quite ordinary.

It feels like it’s been a long waiting building up to publication day, and finally it’s here, and now Lottie gets the chance to be a proper 1920s Leeds copper.

The paperback is out in the UK (North American in December of January) and the ebook – which is available everywhere – is dead cheap.

If you’d like to help me welcome Lottie into the world, the real launch is on September 22 at Waterstones in Leeds. 7pm, and there will be wine. Lottie’s nervous about it, but she really hopes you can come along. All the details are right here.

Getting to this point has brought me into contact with some remarkable people I might never have met otherwise. Wonderful, supportive authors and publishers, books clubs, bloggers, for instance. Councillors and MPs. Or the woman whose father was an enquiry agent in 1950s Leeds. The man who played piano in the house band at Studio 20. The fellow who conducts tours at Beckett St. Cemetery and guide me to a grave belong to some ancestors. I don’t know who was happier when I turned over the fallen stone and saw the Nickson names there – him or me. That’s simply the tip of the iceberg. Writing books takes you into some odd places. It’s simply the most fun you can have, or that I can imagine. And I’ve had the privilege to tell the stories of people like Richard Nottingham, Tom and Annabelle Harper, Dan Markham, John the Carpenter, Laura Benton, and now Lottie Armstrong. They’re all every bit as alive to me as those I talk to regularly (in fact I do talk to them regularly…).

So, to those who read any of these books, thank you. I hope you like Lottie. She’s pretty special.

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Just Over A Week…

Yesterday I did something I’ve never done before: started reading one of my own books. By the time they’ve been written, revised, edited and proofed, I’m usually heartily sick of them. I’ll pick out sections to read at appearances, but usually that’s as far as it goes.

But not yesterday.

I took my copy of Modern Crimes, spine still uncreased, off the shelf and began to read. I liked it. I got caught up in it, in Lottie and how she navigates all the uncertainty.

It’s not even out for just over a week but I believe in this book. I believe in them all, of course I do; each one has a certain quality. But somehow, this one has a certain intangible magic. I can’t describe that, only feel it. Maybe you will, too…here’s a little bit more.

 

The space behind the Royal Hotel stank. The bins overflowed and there was a strong stench of urine from somewhere. Lottie paced around, waiting and trying to be patient. The sound of traffic was muffled and distant. A train went by on the embankment, the second in ten minutes, making the earth under her shoes shake as it passed.

Finally the door at the back of the building squeaked open on rusty hinges and a heavyset woman emerged. She was dressed in a man’s double-breasted suit, correct down to the collar and tie, shoes polished to a high gloss, short hair in a brutal shingle cut and pomaded down. Blinking in the light, she lit one of her Turkish cigarettes.

‘Hello, Auntie Betty,’ Lottie said. ‘I haven’t seen you in a while.’

 

At first McMillan refused to go in. They sat in the car on Lower Briggate and looked across the street at the place.

‘They’ll know I’m a copper as soon as I walk through the door,’ McMillan objected.

‘Well, I can’t. I’m in uniform,’ Lottie reminded him.

He pushed the brim of his hat back. ‘It’s just…’ He shook his head and a look of distaste crossed his face.

‘Because they’re different, you mean?’ She chose her words very carefully.

‘Yes. It’s wrong, inverts and mannish girls. It’s not natural.’

‘Sarge,’ she began patiently. ‘John.’ What was the best way to put it? ‘This is the quickest way to get the information. Betty’s lived up on Blackman Lane for years. She knows the place inside and out. Two minutes and she can tell me where we can find Walker.’

‘How do you know her, anyway?’

‘Her niece had a few problems. WPC Taylor and I helped sort them out. Betty came to see us out on patrol and said how grateful she was.’

He glanced at the entrance to the Royal Hotel. ‘All right,’ he agreed reluctantly. ‘We’ll do it like this: you go to the ginnel at the back and wait. I’ll pop in, have a word with her, say you need to talk to her. Be as quick as you can. We’ll meet back here.’

 

‘You’re looking well, Lottie.’ Betty smiled. Everyone called her Auntie, a strangely sexless figure, more man than woman and ending up neither. She was a fixture behind the bar, serving drinks for the homosexuals and lesbians who spent their money there, always ready to advise them on their problems but never finding answers to her own.

‘So are you.’

‘That poor man you sent in looked terrified.’ She gave a chuckle. ‘Kept looking around like someone might eat him.’

‘He’s harmless, Auntie. Just scared, that’s all. Did he tell you I need your help?’

‘Yes.’ She stared at the cigarette as she turned it in her thick fingers. ‘Something about Blackman Lane.’

‘We’re looking for someone who has a place there,’ Lottie said. ‘I don’t know if it’s a flat or a room.’

‘What’s his name?’

‘Ronnie Walker. He’s in his early twenties.’

‘Doesn’t ring a bell,’ the woman answered slowly. ‘They come and go so fast these days.’

‘He drives a Standard sedan.’

‘Oh, him.’ Her face brightened. ‘Number seventeen. He has the attic. What’s he done? Why are you after him?’

‘I can’t tell you, Auntie. And please don’t say a word.’

‘Lips locked,’ she promised. ‘And I’ll throw away the key.’

‘Thank you. For everything.’ She leaned forward and gave Betty a quick peck on the cheek, seeing the glimmer of loneliness in the woman’s eyes.

‘Number seventeen,’ Lottie announced with a smile as she closed the door of the Peugeot. ‘I told you Betty would know.’

‘God, she’s an odd creature. Gave me the creeps, dressed like that.’

‘She’s lovely.’ Lottie turned on the seat to look at him. ‘Without her we’d be hunting around and trying to find Walker’s address. I hope you won’t forget that.’

‘I know,’ he said quietly as he wove through the traffic on the Headrow and Woodhouse Lane. ‘I know. It’s just… well, it doesn’t matter.’ He gave her a tight smile.

‘Isn’t that a Standard?’ She pointed at a parked car on Blackman Lane. There were no more than a handful of vehicles, along with a Matthias Robinson’s delivery lorry.

‘That’s the one,’ McMillan agreed. ‘Right outside the house, too. The attic, you said?’

‘That’s what Betty told me.’ She wanted to remind him who’d given them the information.

‘Let’s take a gander. If we’re lucky, your Miss Hill will be here and we can finish this right now.’

The front door of the house was unlocked. They climbed the stairs slowly, one flight, then pausing on the landing before taking the second. At the top, the door stood ajar.

Something felt very wrong.

‘Let me go first,’ the sergeant whispered. He trod carefully, barely making a sound. He hesitated for a fraction of a second before grabbing the door handle and easing it up. Lottie had barely started the climb when she heard him shout, ‘Get in here now.’

 

You can get both paperback (in the UK) and ebook (everywhere, and very cheap) from September 6. Or simply order it now. And I hope it has magic for you, too.

Lottie cover