Introducing…A New Genre?

Over here, August Bank Holiday has been and gone, a sign that autumn is coming soon – from the weather it feels like it might have arrived.

That means it’s four weeks until The Hanging Psalm is published. And yes, I am excited by it. The series starts here, and it feels very electric and wonderfully jagged to me.

Last week I made the book trailer, presented for your pleasure – and to get you to place your pre-orders for the book, of course. Or if you’re around Leeds, come to the launch at Waterstones on Albion Street, 6.30 pm on Thursday, October 4. No guarantees, but on past experience they might even have free wine. Not that you need the inducement, of course.

Filming the trailer was definitely an interesting experience. Walking around the wild parts of the park at 7 am, trying to find a low enough branch for the noose that could still look high, and doing it without anyone seeing me and calling the police. Luckily, I managed it, with less than a minute before a dog walker came along. By that time the noose was already tucked away in my backpack.

Later the same day, a return trip to the park with my partner, who filmed me tying the noose. So now I have that as a life skill that might come in useful.

The second in the series has just gone to my agent, so fingers crossed for the future on that. Of course, it will help if you all buy the first one.

But the read-through has made realise something I should probably have seen earlier.

Simon Westow, the main character in The Hanging Psalm, is a thief-taker. He searches out items that have been stolen and returns them for a fee. The book is set in 1820, during the Regency, but this isn’t the world of Georgette Heyer, or even Blackadder 3. No silver-tongued gentlemen highwaymen. No balls at the Assembly Rooms in Bath. It’s all Northern. It’s all Leeds.

And the Leeds of the time is a dangerous, deadly place and its crooks mean business. The Industrial Revolution has firmly arrived, on the brink of having the town by the throat, but the transition isn’t complete yet. It’s just a few years since the Luddites shook the country, and there’s still plenty of unrest. Prices for staples are high and wages are low. People are flocking to the industrial towns, looking for work as there’s little opportunity in the countryside. There’s not enough housing to meet the demand.

The rich are few, at the top of the heap and growing wealthier all the time, and the poor…they have little chance.

But down these mean streets a man must go who is himself not mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. (Chandler talking about the private detective in fiction)

And that man is Simon Westow.

In my imagination, Leeds in 1820 is somewhere between the London Dickens describes and the wide-open Los Angeles of Chinatown and Raymond Chandler. It’s a town where danger is always present. And Simon is the early 19th century equivalent of a private investigator. The law is the constable and the night watch; a proper police force is the best part of twenty years away. He’s the best hope people have. He’s an honest man, with principles and morals, who can make his way from the highest to the lowest in society. And he’s a man full of anger at the way he was brought up, in the workhouse and the factories. He’s done well for himself in spite of that, not because of it.

And Jane, who assists him. Well, you’ll have to read for yourself. She intrigues me and she terrifies me at the same time. I’ve no idea where she came from, but the second book digs into her past more.

So yes, it’s the Regency. But not the way we it’s been looked at in fiction.

If you like, think of The Hanging Psalm as Regency Noir.

It’s the Severn House Editor’s Pick of the Month for September. Read more here.

And now, here’s that trailer. And here is the cheapest place to order the book.

Please, let me know what you think.

Hanging Psalm revised

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The Hidden Truths Of The Hanging Psalm

My new book, The Hanging Psalm, comes out in the UK at the end of September (Jan 1 elsewhere and on ebook – you can order it at the best price here). While it’s decidedly fiction, none of the plot based on fact, there are some truths underneath it all. Some, though, reference a few of my other books…

 

It opens with the main character, Simon Westow the thief-taker, giving testimony to a travelling commission on the abuse of children in factories. I didn’t make up the words he speaks. I just paraphrased things spoken by children to similar commissions in the early 19th century.

Did Leeds have a thief-taker? I don’t know, there’s no record of one, but it’s very likely. At that time, before the police, the only way for people to recover stolen items was to employ someone who’d to it for them in return for a fee. Many thief-takers colluded with thieves and they’d split the fee. Simon, at least, is honest.

Leeds embraced the Industrial Revolution. It transformed the place and drew huge numbers of people, all hoping to make a good living in the factories. They didn’t, of course; wages were low, especially for the unskilled. And those who’d done well before, such as the croppers, who trimmed the nap from cloth, found themselves out of work when their jobs were taken by machines. The Luddites had attempted to stem the tide at the start of the 19th century by breaking the machines that took men’s jobs. But it’s impossible to halt progress.

The book takes place in 1820, pretty much midway between the Richard Nottingham series and the Tom Harper novels. And there are traces of continuity from the past, certainly in Simon’s life. His house is on Swinegate, where the road curves – the one that Amos Worthy owned in the Nottingham series. Simon is the father of twins. Just before their baptism at Leeds Parish Church, he wanders around the graveyard, hunting for inspiration for names and finds it, calling them Richard and Amos. Of course, he never knows the history behind that.

Jane, Simon’s young and very deadly assistant, wears a shawl, as every working-class girl and woman did throughout the 19th century. With it pulled over her hair she becomes, she feels ‘the invisible girl.’ The shawls were a fact of life, but I chose to focus on it because of the way some whites have criticised the Muslim headscarf.  I wanted to show that it’s not too long since something similar was prevalent in a way they might not have expected. Not for religious reasons, but for social and economic reasons; hopefully, it might make a few people think.

By 1820, transportation as the sentence for a crime was commonplace, for seven years, 14, or for life. Few came back, and many never survived the long journey to Australia. It had become a fairly ubiquitous punishment after the statutes were changed and many capital crimes (over 200 of them at one point) became non-hanging offences.

The Hanging Psalm itself did exist. It was spoken by the parson before a person received the drop from the gallows, a couple of extra minutes to commend a soul to God and hope for a last-minute pardon. It’s Psalm 51:

Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.

Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.

For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.

Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest.

Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.

Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom.

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

 Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.

 Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities.

 Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.

 Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me.

Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit.

Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee.

Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness.

O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.

 For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.

 Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion: build thou the walls of Jerusalem.

Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, with burnt offering and whole burnt offering: then shall they offer bullocks upon thine altar.

 

I’ve already written about some of the historical background to the book (read it here). But now you have a few of the less obvious truths.

Hanging Psalm revised

New Tom Harper

It’s definitely spring out there. The kids are enjoying their holidays, the weather is growing balmier. I’ve been able to get things planted at my allotment, and it’s beginning to take shape for the season.

But life wouldn’t be right if I wasn’t writing, and I have my head deep into what I hope will become the sixth Tom Harper novel, although Annabelle proves to be a very big part of this one. Now I just have to hope that my publisher wants it.

This extract is fairly lengthy and is still in a fairly raw state, so I hope you’ll bear with me on that. More importantly, I hope you like it. Please, seriously, tell me what you think, okay?

 

Late September, 1897

 

Tom Harper stared in the mirror.

‘What do you think?’ he asked doubtfully.

He felt ridiculous in a swallowtail coat and stiff, starched shirt. But the invitation had made it clear: this was an official dinner, formal dress required. The fourth time this year and the suit wasn’t any more comfortable than the first time he’d worn it. He’d never expected that rank would include parading round like a butler.

‘Let’s have a gander at you.’ Annabelle said and he turned for inspection. ‘Like a real police superintendent,’ she told him with a nod. ‘Just one thing.’ A few deft movements and she adjusted the bow tie. ‘Never met a man who could do a dicky bow properly. Now you’re the real dog’s dinner.’

She brought her face close to his. For a moment he expected a kiss. But her eyes narrowed and she whispered, ‘I’ve had another letter. Came in the second post. May Bolland’s had one, too.’

His face hardened. He’d expected some outrage when Annabelle announced she was running to be elected to the Board of Poor Law Guardians. A few comments. Plenty of objections. He was even willing to dismiss one anonymous, rambling letter as the work of a crank. But two of them? He couldn’t ignore that.

‘What did it say?’

She turned her head away. ‘What you’d expect.’

‘The same person?’ he asked and she nodded. ‘What did you do with it?’

‘I burned it.’ Her voice was tight.

‘What?’ He pulled back in disbelief. ‘It’s evidence.’

‘Little eyes,’ she hissed. ‘You know Mary’s reading has come on leaps and bounds since she started school. Safer out of the way.’

He breathed slowly, pushing down his anger. For a long time he said nothing. What could he do? It was dust now. Maybe Mrs. Bolland had kept hers; he’d send Ash round to see her in the morning.

‘Button me up and we’d better get a move on.’ Deftly, she changed the subject. ‘That hackney’s already been waiting for five minutes.’

Annabelle was wearing a new gown, dark blue silk, no bustle, high at the neck with lace trim and full leg-of-mutton sleeves, the pale silk shawl he’d bought her over her shoulders. Her hair was elaborately swept up and pinned. She was every bit as lovely as the first day he’d seen her.

There were calls and whistles as they walked through the Victoria pub downstairs. Her pub. She laughed and twirled around the room. He was happy to keep in the background, to try and slink out without being noticed. People didn’t dress like this in Sheepscar. They owned work clothes and a good suit for funerals; that was it.

‘What is this do, anyway?’ she asked as the cab jounced along North Street.

‘The Lord Mayor’s Fund,’ he replied. ‘Charity.’

The Mayor’s office had finally become the Lord Mayor’s office that summer, Leeds honoured by Queen Victoria to mark her Diamond Jubilee. Sixty years on the throne, Harper thought, going back long before he was a twinkle in anyone’s eye, before his parents had even met. There had been parties and civic events around the city all summer, and hardly any problems, as if everyone just wanted to celebrate the occasion with plenty of joy.

The Chief Constable had been pleased, and even happier when the crime figures came out: down everywhere. The biggest drop was in Harper’s division. God only knew why; he didn’t have an explanation. He’d praised his men then held his tongue, not wanting to tempt fate.

Annabelle’s elbow poked him in the ribs.

‘You’re miles away.’

‘Sorry.’

‘Is it a sit-down affair tonight?

‘Three courses, then the speeches.’

She groaned and he turned to smile at her.

‘We’re in for plenty more of these once you’re elected.’

‘If I’m elected,’ she warned. ‘Don’t be cocky.’

Seven women were standing to become Poor Law Guardians, their election costs paid by the Suffrage Society and the Women’s Co-op Guild. The campaign was no more than three days old, but already the Tories and the Liberals were deriding the women for trying to rise above their natural station. The Independent Labour Party had its eye on the posts, too, as stepping stones for their ambitious young men. And the newspapers had their knives out, pointedly advising people to vote for the gentlemen. He’d arrived home two days to find her pacing furiously around the living room, ready to spit fire, with the editorial in her hand.

‘Listen to this,’ Annabelle told him. ‘Apparently they think men “don’t possess the domestic embarrassments of women.” What does that mean? I could swing for the lot of them.’

She threw the paper on to a chair. But he could hear the hurt behind her words. It wasn’t going to be a fair fight.

The first letter arrived the same day. Second post, franked at the main post office in town, no signature or return address. It was a screed about how women should be guided by their husbands, live modestly and look to the welfare of their own families. Religious and condescending, everything written in a neat, practised hand. Senseless, Harper judged when he read it, but no real threat. All the women running for the Board had received one. He’d placed it in his desk drawer at Millgarth and forgotten about it. But another…that demanded attention.

 

‘Take a look at that,’ Harper said and tossed the letter across the desk. Inspector Ash raised an eyebrow as he read, then passed it on to Detective Sergeant Fowler.

‘Looks like he’s halfway round the bend, if you ask me, sir,’ Ash said. ‘I see he didn’t bother to sign it. Anything on the envelope?’

‘Nothing helpful.’ He sat back in the chair. For more than two years this had been his office, but Kendall’s ghost still seemed to linger; sometimes he even believed he could smell the shag tobacco the man used to stuff in his pipe. ‘All the women candidates running to be on the Board of Guardians received one.’

‘I see. That was Mrs. Harper’s, I take it?’

‘There was another yesterday. She burned it.’

‘Whoever wrote this was educated,’ Fowler said. ‘All the lines are even, everything spelled properly.’ He grinned. ‘Of course, that’s doesn’t mean he’s not barmy.’

He pushed the spectacles back up his nose. The sergeant had been recommended by a copper from Wakefield. He was moving back to Leeds to be closer to his ill mother. Harper had taken a chance on the man. Over the last twelve months it had paid off handsomely.

Fowler didn’t look like a policeman, more like a distracted clerk or a young professor. Twenty-five, hair already receding, he barely made the height requirement and couldn’t have weighed more than eleven stone. But he had one of the quickest minds Harper had ever met. He and Ash had clicked immediately, turning into a very fruitful partnership. One big, one smaller, they seemed to work intuitively together, knowing what each one would do without needing to speak.

‘This woman’s had another letter, too.’ He gave them the address. ‘Go and see her. I doubt we’ll track down the sender, but at least we can put out the word that we’re looking into it. That might scare him off.’

‘Yes, sir.’ Ash stood. ‘How’s Mrs. Harper’s campaign going?’

‘Early days yet.’

She’d only held small one meeting so far, in a church hall just up Roundhay Road from the Victoria. Their bedroom was filled with piles of leaflets read to be delivered and posters to plastered on the walls all over Sheepscar Ward.

‘I’m sure she’ll win, sir.’

He smiled. ‘From your lips to God’s ears.’

Once they’d gone he turned back to the rota for October, trying to recall when he’d once believed that coppering meant solving crimes.

 

Billy Reed drew back the curtains, pushed up the window sash, and breathed in the sharp salt air. After so many years of soot and dirt in Leeds, every day of this seemed like a tonic. He heard Elizabeth moving around downstairs, cooking his breakfast.

They’d been in Whitby since July, all settled now into the terraced house on Silver Street. The pair of them, and her two youngest children, Edward and Victoria. The older ones had stayed in Leeds, both in lodgings, with work, friends, and lives of their own.

Moving had been a big decision, an upheaval. He’d come to love Whitby on his first visit. He’d left the army, just home from the wars in Afghanistan and troubled in his mind. The water, the beach, the quiet of the place had brought him some peace, and he’d always wanted to live there. But when he’d seen the job for inspector of police and fire in the town, he’d hesitated.

‘Why not write?’ Elizabeth urged him. ‘The worst they can say is no.’

‘We’re settled. I’m doing well the with fire brigade. And you have the bakeries.’

She stared at him. ‘Do you think we’d be happy there?’

‘Yes,’ Reed answered after a moment. ‘I do.’

‘Then sit down and write to them.’

It had taken time. First the application, then an interview, Elizabeth travelling with him on the train and inspecting the town while he was questioned by the watch committee. Another wait until the answer arrived, offering him the position. After that, it was a scramble of arrangements. In the end he’d gone on ahead while she finished up the up sale of the bakeries, packed the rest of their possessions, and said goodbye to all the friends they’d made.

He had no regrets. He liked his job, but it was time for a move, for something new. And this was certainly different. He could make out the shouts of the fishermen at mooring points as they unloaded their boats, and hear the gulls calling.

‘You’d better come and get it while it’s hot,’ Elizabeth shouted up the stairs.

The children were already eating, ready to scramble off to their jobs. Soon enough, Elizabeth would march down Flowergate, across the bridge, and along Church Street to the shop she’d leased, ready to open her tea room and confectioner’s in the spring. She’d made the bakeries in Leeds turn a fair profit, and she wasn’t one to be content as a lady of leisure. She relished work.

‘It’s right by the market,’ she pointed out to him. ‘And all those folk going to the abbey in holiday season will pass by the door.’

She’d developed a good eye, he knew that, and she’d already managed to cultivate a few friends in town, like Mrs. Botham, who ran her bakery and the Inglenook Tea Room on Skinner Street. A formidable woman, Reed thought, but she and Elizabeth could natter on for hours.

He’d quickly settled into the rhythm of his job. During the summer it was mostly dealing with complaints from holidaymakers and breaking up fights once the pub closed. There had only been one fire, and that was easily doused.

He strolled over to the police station on Spring Hill and went through the log with the uniformed sergeant before setting off in the pony and trap. Sandsend and Staithes today. Both of them poor fishing villages, and little trouble to the law, but he still needed to put in a monthly appearance. Show the flag. He covered a large area, going all the way down to Robin Hood’s Bay, but on a day like this, with the sun shining and a gentle breeze blowing off the water, nothing could be a better job.

No, Reed thought with a smile as the horse clopped along the road, no regrets at all.

 

 

 

 

 

Two

 

‘I saw Mrs. Bolland, sir.’ Ash settled on to the chair in the superintendent’s office. ‘She’d kept the letter.’ He ran his tongue round the inside of his mouth. ‘It left her scared.’

‘What does it say?’ Harper put down the pen and sat back.

‘Read it for yourself, sir.’ The inspector pulled a folded sheet of notepaper from his inside pocket.

A woman’s place is in the home, tending to her family and being a graceful loving presence. It’s not to shriek in the hustings like a harridan or to display herself in front of the public like a painted whore.

The Good Lord created His order for a purpose. Man has the reason, the wisdom, and the judgement. He’s intended to use it, to exercise his will over women, not to be challenged by them, the weaker element. Eve was persuaded to eat the apple and tempted Adam, and since that time it has been her duty to pay for the sin.

It is time for you to withdraw your candidacy. Should you fail to do so, if you continue to talk and challenge men for what rightly belongs to them, we shall feel justified in taking whatever means necessary to silence you for breaking God’s profound will.

‘A death threat. No wonder it frightened her.’

‘Yes, sir. Funny what these types come up with in the name of religion, isn’t it? It was all love thy neighbour when I was at Sunday school.’ Ash gave a wry smile.

Harper took out the first letter from his drawer and compared them.

‘The same handwriting. Twice means he’s more than a crank. We’re going to follow up on this and make sure nothing happens to her.’ He thought about Annabelle. ‘To any of the women. Where’s Fowler?’

‘I sent him off to talk to the others, to see if they’d had anything like this.’

‘Odds are that they have. That “we” in there makes me wonder, too.’

‘I noticed that, sir.’ Ash pursed his lips. ‘If I had to guess, thought, I’d say it’s a man on his own.’

‘I agree. Still…’

‘Better safe than sorry, sir.’

‘Exactly.’ He wondered why his wife had destroyed the letter. Not to keep it away from Mary; she could manage that by hiding it in a drawer or on the mantelpiece. Had it terrified her? She was so strong that it seemed hard to believe. But this election campaign was already putting a strain on her and it had hardly begun. ‘No signature again. Handy, isn’t it? He can just pop it in the post, then sit back and stay anonymous behind the paper.’

‘Any ideas for catching him, sir?’

‘No,’ Harper said with a sigh. ‘We’ll just stay on our guard.’

‘How was your dinner last night, by the way, sir?’ The inspector smiled slyly. ‘Big do, from all I hear.’

‘Big?’ Harper asked. ‘Pointless, more like. Tasteless food that was barely warm by the time it reached the table, followed by an hour of mumbled speeches.’

‘The perks of rank, eh, sir?’ Ash’s eyes twinkled with amusement.

‘You’d better be careful, or I’ll start sending you in my place.’

‘My Nancy would probably enjoy that.’ He grinned, slapped his hands down on his knees and stood. ‘I’ll go out and ask a few questions. Who knows, maybe we’ll be lucky and our gentleman writer isn’t as discreet as he should be.’

‘If you really believe that, I’ll look out of the window for a herd of pigs flying over the market,’ Harper told him.

‘Stranger things have probably happened, sir.’

‘Not in Leeds, they haven’t.’

 

‘Was your letter like this?’ he asked. Mary was tucked up in bed, exhausted by a day of school and an evening of telling them every scrap of learning that had gone into her head since morning. Harper was weary from concentrating, trying to make out all the words with his poor hearing.

Annabelle read it. ‘Word for word,’ she said, quickly folded it and handed it back to him.

‘Ash and Fowler are after him.’

‘Doesn’t help if you don’t know who you’re chasing,’ she said. They were in the bedroom. He sat by the dressing table while she counted election leaflets into rough bundles, ready to be delivered tomorrow. She raised her head. ‘I’m not a fool, Tom. There’s not enough in that for you to find him.’

‘We can ask around. And I’ll make sure there’s a copper at the meetings.’

Annabelle stopped her work and stared at him. ‘Would you do that for the men?’

‘Yes,’ he told her. ‘If I believed things could get rowdy,’

‘Don’t you think it’s wrong that women should need special protection? We’re in England, for God’s sake.’

‘Of course it’s wrong. But when there are men like this poison pen writer, it’s better than something bad happening.’ He let the idea hang in the air. ‘To any of you.’

Her stare gradually softened to a curling, twinkling smile.

‘Well, if you really want to look after me, Superintendent, perhaps you could offer me some very close guarding of my body.’

He grinned and bowed. ‘My pleasure, madam.’

 

‘They all received identical letters,’ Fowler said. He pushed the glasses back up his nose and produced the papers from his pocket. ‘Three had burned them. But it’s the same wording and the same handwriting as Mrs. Bolland’s.’

‘And the one my wife received,’ Harper confirmed. ‘What do you two have on your plates are the moment?’ he asked Ash.

‘Next to nothing, sir. We’ve been too successful, that’s the problem.’ He smiled. ‘They’re all too scared to commit crimes these days.’

‘Better not get over-confident,’ the superintendent warned. ‘We might be up to our ears tomorrow. While you have the chance, spend some time with this. Do you have a list of where and when these women are holding meetings?’

‘I do,’ Fowler said. ‘There are four tonight.’

‘Make sure there’s a uniform at every one of them. And I want him very visible.’

That should deter any trouble, he thought. If it didn’t, the weeks until the election were going to be difficult.

‘Mr. Ash and I have been talking, sir,’ the sergeant began. ‘We thought perhaps we could each go to a meeting. You know, stay quiet and keep an eye out for anything suspicious.’

‘A very good idea. Not my wife’s, though,’ he added. ‘I’ll take care of that.’

 

He’d grown used to the routine of running a division, of being responsible for everything from men on the beat to the number of pencils in the store cupboard. But it still chafed. So much of the work was empty details and routine; a competent clerk could have managed it in a couple of hours.

Meetings were the worst times; every month, all the division heads with the chief constable. So far they’d never managed to resolve a single thing. Then there was the annual questioning by the Watch Committee, the council members who oversaw the force. Several of them had no love for him, but he’d managed to fox them. The crime figures kept falling, and he stayed well within his budget. He hadn’t walked away with their praise, but he’d been pleased to see that his success galled them.

Small, worthless victories. Had he really been reduced to that? Sometimes two or three days passed with him barely leaving Millgarth. It felt as if an age had gone by since he’d been a real detective. It was one reason he was looking forward to tonight. Standing at the back of the hall, watching the faces and the bodies, thinking, alert for any danger. At least he could feel like he was doing some real work. That made him smile.

 

One the stroke of five, Harper pulled on his mackintosh and hat and glanced out of the window. Blue skies, a few high clouds, and a lemon sun; a perfect autumn afternoon. Saturday, and a little time away from this place. Not free, though: he’d spend it walking round Sheepscar, delivering leaflets for Annabelle’s campaign.

Ash was at his desk in the detectives’ office, writing up a report.

‘Did you find anything?’

‘Not a dicky bird, sir.’ He sighed and scratched his chin. ‘You weren’t banking on it, were you?’

‘No.’ He shook his head. ‘If there’s anything tonight, make sure you let me know.’

‘I will, sir. Let’s hope it’s peaceful, eh?’

It was warm enough to walk back out to the Victoria. Even if the air was filled with all the soot and smoke of industry, so strong he could taste it on his tongue, it still felt good to breathe deep after a day in a stuffy office.

 

‘Do you think I look all right, Tom?’ Annabelle stood in front of the mirror. She was wearing a plain dress of dark blue wool. It was cut high, at the base of her throat, modest and serious. Her hair was up in some style he couldn’t name but had probably taken an hour to engineer so it looked nonchalant.

‘I think you look grand,’ he told her. ‘Like a member of the Poor Law Board.’ He nudged Mary, who was sitting on his lap, staring in awe at her mother.

‘Da’s right. You’re a bobby dazzler, mam,’ she said. ‘I’d vote for you if I could vote.’

‘That’ll do for me.’ Annabelle picked up her daughter and twirled in the air. ‘You’re absolutely sure?’

‘Positive,’ Harper replied. He pulled the watch from his waistcoat. ‘We’d better get going. That meeting starts in three-quarters of an hour.’ It wasn’t that far – the hall at the St. Clement’s just up Chapeltown Road– but he knew she’d want to arrive early, prepare herself, and put leaflets on all the chairs. Ellen would bring Mary shortly before the meeting started.

It was a fine evening for a stroll, still some sun and a note of warmth in the air. The factories had shut down until Monday morning, the constant hums and drones and bangs of the machinery all silenced. The chimneystacks stood like a forest, stretching off to the horizon, their dirt making its mark on every surface around Leeds.

Annabelle took his arm as they walked. He’d put on his best suit, the dove-grey one she’d had Moses Cohen tailor for him seven years before. It was still smart, but growing uncomfortably tight around the waist.

‘It’s going to be fine, isn’t it?’ she asked.

‘Of course it is.’ He glanced over at her. ‘It’s not like you to be so nervous. You usually dive right in.’

‘This is something new, that’s all. And if I fail, well, it’ll be obvious, won’t it? I’d be letting everyone down who’s helping.’ She nodded at the hall, just visible beyond the church, its low outline stark against the gasometers. ‘All of them who turn up tonight. If anyone does.’

‘You’ll be fine.’ He kissed her cheek. ‘That meeting two nights ago was packed.’ He grinned. ‘Trust me, I’m a policeman.’

‘I thought you lot were only good for telling the time.’

The words had hardly left her mouth when he heard the low roar. It grew louder, then a deep violent explosion ripped out of the ground. A column of smoke plumed up from the hall, throwing wood and roof and bricks high into the air.

‘Christ.’ They stared for a second, not knowing what to say. It was beyond words. ‘Stay here,’ he told her, then changed his mind. ‘No. Go home.’

Tom Harper was running towards the blast.

Skin Like Silver – It’s Coming

It’s actually a little over a month until the UK publication, and time to remind you about the release of Skin Like Silver, the third Tom Harper novel.

I believe it’s the best, most complete novel I’ve ever written. It’s the kind of book I’ve been trying to write all along. Whether I’ve succeeded or not is a different matter, but I’m proud of what I’ve achieved in that, and I hope some of you will be eager to read it after having a taste of it.

All the parts are in place. The launch has been set for Thursday, December 3, 6.30 pm at the Leeds Library, Commercial St., Leeds. There’s also going to be something very special at the event, a piece of true Victorian time travel. Seats are free but going very quickly.  Reserve yours by calling the library on (0113)245 3071 or emailing them at enquiries@theleedslibrary.org.uk – and there will be wine.

To whet your appetite properly, here’s the first chapter. Keep going after to see the cover and the precis. And please, tell me what you think…

Tom Harper sat on the tram, willing it on to his stop and feeling foolish. As soon as it reached the bottom of Roundhay Road, he leapt off, scurried across the street hoping no one would spot him, then quickly disappeared through the door of the Victoria public house.

‘You’re looking dapper, Tom,’ Dan called from behind the bar. He grinned. ‘Better watch out, they’ll have you for impersonating a toff.’ As Harper opened his mouth to reply, Dan continued, ‘Annabelle’s out in the yard. Said could you go through as soon as you were home.’

He turned away to serve a customer. Why did his wife need him so urgently, Harper wondered testily. With a sigh, he slipped along the hallway and through the back door. Barrels and crates were stacked against the wall, by a brick shed that was secured with a rusty padlock. On the ground, flagstones jutted unevenly, a few ragged weeds showing between them.

She was waiting, hands on hips, smiling as she saw him.

‘You took your time,’ she said. Annabelle Harper was wearing a gown of burgundy crepe, trimmed with cream lace, that fell over a pair of black button boots. Her hair was swept up and the sun glinted on her wedding ring. ‘I expected you half an hour back.’

‘It ran late,’ he explained. ‘What’s so important, anyway? I want to change out of this get-up.’

‘In a minute.’ Her eyes twinkled with mischief. ‘Just one thing first.’

She stood aside and he saw the photographer waiting patiently, his large camera resting on a tripod, the small developing cart behind him.

‘No,’ Harper said firmly.

‘Come on, Tom,’ Annabelle pleaded. ‘You look so smart like that. It won’t take any time at all.’

He was beaten, and he knew it. She’d have her way in the end; she always did. Instead, he popped the top hat on his head and stood up straight. At least it would be over quickly, more than he could say for the rest of the day.

It was the annual inspection of detectives, the time of year when they all had to turn up dressed like dogs’ dinners to be reviewed by the chief constable. A frock coat, striped trousers, the sharp points of a wing collar pushing tight into his neck, boots shined and glowing to within an inch of their lives. And the top hat.

He couldn’t avoid it. It was part of the calendar for Leeds Police, the one day that the uniforms could laugh at them. Standing at attention in the yard behind Millgarth station, the ranks of them all waiting, everyone looking uncomfortable. Detective Inspector Tom Harper hated it. The only consolation was that he was at the end of the line. His right ear, where the hearing kept deteriorating, was towards the wall.

He’d glanced over at Detective Constable Ash, turning out for his first parade, clothes new and stiff, the pride of promotion showing across his face.

‘That’s fine, sir,’ the photographer said after the flash had gone off with a puff of smoke, pulling him back to the warm evening. ‘You can move now. I’ll have the print in a little while, missus.’

Harper removed the top hat again, the black silk brushing against his fingers. Annabelle kissed him.

‘You get can rid of your glad rags now, if you want, Tom.’

In the bedroom, he tossed them all over a chair and stretched, grateful for the freedom. He put on a comfortable shirt and old trousers, finally feeling like himself again, not some mannequin in a tailor’s shop window. Every October it was the same, come rain or today’s sunshine. A day wasted.

He filled the kettle, putting it to heat on the range, and settled into a chair, glad that it was all done for another year. Tomorrow it was back to real work. He had a woman to find.

It had begun the morning before, when Superintendent Kendall waved him into his office.

‘Go to the Central Post Office,’ he ordered. ‘See the chief clerk.’ His face was grave. ‘I’ll warn you, Tom, this one’s bad.’

The building stood at the bottom of Park Row, two grand stone storeys looking across to the railway stations. All day long, people crowded around the counters, waiting to send their letters and parcels. Upstairs, in the offices, things were more hushed.

The chief clerk was a fussy man, standing erect, too conscious of his position. But his gaze kept sliding away to the small cardboard box on a side table, brown paper and string folded back around it.

‘I made the decision to open it,’ he said. ‘It was beginning to smell.’

‘I see, sir,’ Harper said.

‘I’ve never seen anything like it,’ the man continued. His hands began to fidget.

‘What was inside, sir?’

‘A baby,’ he replied emptily. ‘A tiny, dead baby.’

Harper peered into the box. There was just a scrap of threadbare blanket left. Nothing else. The box was tiny. Small, he thought. God, the baby must have been so small.

‘You’d better tell me what happened.’

The parcel had been posted, but the delivery address didn’t exist, so it had been returned and placed on a shelf until the stink of decomposition became obvious.

‘How long had it been there, sir?’

‘Two days. I ordered that it be opened yesterday afternoon, and we discovered the body.’ He moved to the window and stared out, trying to hide the expression on his face.

The details came slowly. It had been posted three days earlier from this building. The clerk had asked all the assistants: no one remembered the parcel, but why would they? They handled thousands every day.

The body had been taken to the police pathologist. There was nothing more Harper could do here. He needed to go over to Hunslet.

They all called it King’s Kingdom, the home of Dr King, the police surgeon whose mortuary lay in the cellar of Hunslet Lane police station. The smell of carbolic filled the air and rasped against his throat as he walked in. His footsteps echoed off the tiled walls.

‘Here about the baby?’ King asked. He had to be close to eighty, his hair pure white, a stained apron over a formal suit covered with the debris of this or that. But he was still deft in his work, his conclusions sharp and insightful.

‘I am.’

The surgeon peeled back the sheet from a small object. A naked baby, a boy, a cowl of dark hair on his scalp.

‘There you are, Inspector. That’s him, the poor little devil. As sad a thing as I’ve seen in all my years here. God only knows what the mother was thinking.’

‘Was he dead when she put him in the parcel?’

‘Definitely,’ King said with certainty. ‘If he wasn’t stillborn, he died minutes after.’ He held up a finger to stop the next question. ‘And no, she didn’t kill him. It was natural.’

‘Is there anything else you can tell me?’

The doctor sighed. ‘The baby weighs two pounds ten ounces. I put him on a scale. Do you know anything about children?’ He glanced as Harper shook his head. ‘That’s nothing at all. If I had to guess, the mother was malnourished, probably young. From what she did, she probably didn’t want anyone to know about the child.’

He’d thought that, too. But she’d taken a devious route to hide it all. A servant, maybe, or someone who’d hidden the pregnancy in case she lost her position. He’d find out.

‘Would she have showed much, do you think?’

‘Hard to say,’ King replied thoughtfully. ‘Most women do. But with a very small foetus… if she was young and dressed carefully, perhaps not. Otherwise…’ He shook his head. ‘I wouldn’t like to give an opinion, Inspector.’

It was a slow, sorrowful walk back across Crown Point Bridge into Leeds. All around, smoke rose from chimneys and the streets were noisy with the boom of manufacturing. He tried both the infirmary, but they’d had no women brought in with complications after childbirth. By the end of the day he had no idea how to find her.

Now the annual inspection was over. Tomorrow he could begin the search again.

Just as the tea finished mashing, she came up the stairs, the bright click of her heels on the wood.

‘Take a look,’ she said, holding up the picture. ‘He really caught you, Tom.’

It was true. The image captured him perfectly, the jut of his chin, the stance, one leg forward, his deep-set eyes and sly smile. But those clothes… it wasn’t how he wanted anyone to remember him.

‘It’s good,’ he agreed mildly.

‘But?’ Annabelle asked. ‘You don’t look too happy.’

‘I don’t know. I’m not used to seeing pictures of myself, I suppose.’

‘Cheer up.’ She gave him a peck on the cheek. ‘You look handsome. You do to me, anyway.’

He set out cups, sugar and milk, moving a book from the trivet to make room for the pot. The Condition of the Working Class in England, he saw on the spine. Not a novelette, he thought wryly. But none of the volumes that filled the place these days were.

The change had begun in March. The new bakery in Burmantofts was doing so well that Annabelle had put Elizabeth, the manager, in charge of all three bakeries. They were thick as thieves, together two and three times a week for business that was also pleasure.

The pub more or less ran itself, and without the other businesses to look after, Annabelle had an empty space in her life. Idleness wasn’t something that suited her. She’d started out as a servant in the pub before marrying the landlord, inheriting the place when he died, then opening her first bakery. She was wealthy now, but still never content unless she was busy at something, filling every waking hour to overflowing.

He’d come home from a long day in the early spring rain to see her reading a pamphlet. Votes for Women, it said on the cover.

‘What?’ she asked sharply when she saw him staring.

‘I’m just surprised, that’s all,’ Harper told her. She’d never shown much interest in politics.

The tale poured out, her eyes blazing. The old coalman had retired, and the new one had come that morning. When she complained about the quality of the coal, he rounded on her, telling her that maybe he’d do better dealing with her husband, then saying she needed someone who’d give her a good clout to keep her in line.

She’d seen him off with a spade from the yard. Still seething, she’d taken a walk, barely noticing where she was going. Down by the market a woman had stopped her with a gentle touch on her arm.

‘Are you all right?’

‘No, I’m not,’ Annabelle said through clenched teeth. ‘I’m bloody fuming.’

‘Trouble with a man, luv?’

Annabelle laughed. ‘Something like that.’

‘They’re useless, the lot of them.’ The woman shook her head. ‘Here, you look like you need this,’ she said with a warm smile, handing Annabelle the pamphlet before vanishing back into the crowd.

‘I don’t know, Tom. It was just so odd. Almost like I’d imagined it. I came home and started reading it.’ She held it up. ‘You know, there’s a lot of common sense in here.’

Within a fortnight she had books on all the tables, devouring each and every one. She began going to the suffragist meetings held in halls around Leeds, talking with other women, coming home glowing with excitement and possibilities for the future. But that was Annabelle, Harper thought. She never simply dipped her toe into something; she always had to immerse herself.

She didn’t ignore the businesses. She still kept a close eye on them, totting up the accounts every week and making sure the money rolled in.

‘Are you sure you don’t mind?’ she asked one evening after she returned from another meeting.

‘Mind what?’ he asked, surprised.

‘Me getting involved in all this.’

Harper was astonished. ‘Don’t be daft. Why would I?’

‘I don’t know,’ she answered. ‘Plenty of men would.’

‘I’m proud of you,’ he told her. He loved the way she could just fearlessly dive into something. And they still had their time together; she made sure of that.

The evening slid by, warm enough to leave the window open. 1891 had been a strange year for weather. So much snow and bitter cold to start, then a blazing summer that still hadn’t withered as October began.

It had been an odd year all round. He’d missed Billy Reed at the parade, and regret flowed through the inspector’s heart. They’d never resolved the resentment that seemed to hang between them at the start of 1891; they’d barely spoken in the last few months. Back from his injuries, the sergeant had quietly transferred to the fire brigade; it was part of the police force. The man had made his decision. He’d done what he believed he had to do. But it was a blow Harper had never expected. Billy had a sharp mind, and a clear, concise way of looking at things. More than that, Reed had been a friend, someone he’d always trusted completely. He knew it was his own fault. His insistence on a lie. But he couldn’t turn back time.

At least Ash had come on quickly. He’d become an excellent detective, not afraid of hard work, observant, with a brain that was quick to find connections. In his own way he was just as good as Reed. But it could never be the same.

The image of the dead baby slipped back into his mind again. Tomorrow, he thought. There was time for it then.

The grandfather clock gave its chime for half past nine and he stood. She was gazing at the photograph, propped against the mantelpiece.

‘What are you thinking?’ he asked, placing a hand on her shoulder.

She turned. ‘That I’m lucky to have you.’ There was love and tenderness in her eyes. ‘And how I’m hoping you’ll suggest it’s time for bed.’

He put his fingers over hers. ‘That sounds like a wonderful idea,’ he said.

He’d been slowly stirring, still half-dozing, not wanting to move. Somewhere outside, beyond the open window, he could hear the first trills of the dawn chorus as the birds began to sing and chatter.

Then the explosion. Louder than thunder, deeper, a dull sound that rippled and boomed. And then it was gone, leaving a sudden, dead silence that seemed to hang in the air.

Harper sat up abruptly, looking at the clock. A little after half past four, still full darkness outside.

‘What was that?’ Annabelle’s voice was a sleepy mumble.

‘I don’t know,’ he said. He parted the curtains. Off in the distance, down towards the river, he saw the raw glow of a fire. For a moment a tongue of flame rose into the sky. ‘I need to go.’

Whetted your appetite? Want a little bit more? Then look here.

Leeds. October, 1891. An unclaimed parcel at the Central Post Office is discovered to contain the decomposing body of a baby boy. It’s a gruesome case for Detective Inspector Tom Harper. Then a fire during the night destroys half the railway station. The next day a woman’s body is found in the rubble. But Catherine Carr didn’t die in the blaze – she’d been stabbed to death, and Harper has to find her killer.

The estranged wife of a wealthy industrialist, Catherine had been involved with the Leeds Suffragist Society, demanding votes for women, the same organization for which Harper’s wife, Annabelle, has just become a speaker. Were Catherine’s politics the cause of her death? Or is the husband she abandoned behind it? But when her brother escapes from the asylum and steals a shotgun, Harper has to race to find the answers.

Order your copy here – this is by far the cheapest price around.

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Two Bronze Pennies – The Global Launch Event

As (I hope) you’re all aware, Two Bronze Pennies comes out in the UK next week. I’m incredibly proud of the book (go here to read a bit about it and here to read about Tom Harper’s world in 1890s Leeds), and it’s received some great reviews.

My book launches for the Richard Nottingham and Tom Harper books have so far all been in Leeds; after all, they’re set here. I can’t afford do do book tours, sadly. And so…I want to invite you all to my place for the launch. Virtually, anyway.

As far as I’m aware, no one’s done a live, streamed book launch. If I’m right, then this will be a first. On Sunday, May 24, direct from the <cough> grandeur of my living room comes the global Two Bronze Pennies book launch. It’s at 6pm UK time, which should allow as many people as possible from around the world to tune in. You don’t have to sign up for anything – although I may offer links for buying the book – nothing to join, no money to pay. Just enjoy.

Thankfully, it won’t all be me. I’ll talk a bit about the book, read a little. But there will be a couple of special guests. I’m very proud and happy that my friend Shonaleigh, the last drut’syla (a storyteller in the Jewish tradition, has offered to tell a story. That’s very apt, since the story takes place in the Leylands, what was then the Jewish area of Leeds. And there (fingers crossed) will be someone who’s written about the Jews in Leeds to talk briefly about what life was like there.

There’ll be a chat room where you can ask questions – smartarse answers guaranteed – and interact. And it’s only 45 minutes out of your life. A new way to launch a book and thank all of you for buying, borrowing, and reading them.

The URL for the event? I’m glad you asked.  Simply click here, or it’s

https://www.concertwindow.com/89118-chris-nickson

See you there – and don’t worry, there will be reminders. Many, many, many of them! Let’s do something new, shall we?

Yes, It’s Victorian (Part 2)

Last time I put up the beginning of a Victorian novel I’m working on. Here – hopefully for your pleasure – is a bit more. The last I’ll be putting online, because a) I’m still writing the book, and b) because I want some to publish it, which won’t happen if I give it all away here. So, please, let me know what you think:

CHAPTER THREE

 

In the end he was five minutes late, dashing along Boar Lane, past Holy Trinity Church to meet her in front of the Grand Pygmalion. Sergeant Tollman had wanted a quick word that stretched out to ten minutes, then a detective constable needed a piece of advice until he’d been forced to run the whole way.

            “I’m sorry,” he said, gasping for breath. She stood with her back to one of the grand glass windows, the shade od a wide hat hiding her expression.

            “I don’t know, it could mean the engagement’s off. I can’t have a man who’s never on time.” He looked up quickly. But Annabelle Atkinson was smiling, her eyes playful. “You’re going to have to do better than this, Tom Harper.”

            “I…” he began, and she laughed.

            “Oh give over, you daft ha’porth. It took me six months to get you to propose. I’m used to you being late, I’m not doing to drop you now.” She leaned forward and kissed his cheek. “If you want to make yourself useful you can carry these.”

            “Six packages?” Harper asked. “What have you been doing, buying half of Leeds?”

            “Just things a girl needs when she’s going to be wed. I could have waited for you before I started shopping, if you’d rather.”

            “No,” he replied hastily. “It’s fine.” He’d been in the Pygmalion when it opened. Four floors of draperies, parasols and sailor suits, and more assistants than he could shake a stick at. Nothing to interest him at all.

            “Come on, then, we’d better get a move on. It’s Saturday and I said I’d help out tonight. We’ll be packed and I want a bite of something first.” She waited until he had all the packages and set off along the street, her arm through his.

            He saw men glancing at her. She had that kind of face. Not beautiful, no Jenny Lind or Lily Langtry, but she possessed a quality that drew the eyes. The first time he’d seen her he’d been like that himself, staring for a second before turning away, then looking again and again until she’d stopped in front of him and boldly asked if he liked what he saw.

            She’d been collecting glasses in the Victoria down in Sheepscar, an old apron covering her dress and her sleeves rolled up. At first he thought she must be a serving girl with a brass mouth. Then, as he sat and watched her over another pint, he noticed the rest of the staff defer to the woman. He’d still been there when she poured herself a glass of gin and sat down next to him.

            “I’m surprised those eyes of yours haven’t popped out on stalks yet,” she told him. “You’ve been looking that hard you must have seen through to me garters.” She leaned close enough for him to smell her perfume and whispered. “They’re blue, by the way.”

            For the first time in years, Tom Harper blushed. She laughed.

            “Aye, I thought that’d shut you up. I’m Annabelle. Mrs. Atkinson.” She extended a hand and he shook it, feeling the calluses of hard work on her palms. But no ring. “He’s dead, love,” she explained. “Three year back. Left me this place.”

            She’d started as a servant when she was fifteen, after a spell in the mills. The landlord had taken a shine to her, and she’d liked him. One thing had led to another and they’d married. She’d been eighteen, he was fifty. After eight years together, he’d died.

            “Woke up and he were cold,” she said, toying with the empty glass. “Heart gave out in the night, they said. And before you ask, I were happy with him. Everyone thought I’d sell up once he was gone but I couldn’t see the sense. We were making money. So I took it over. Not bad for a lass who grew up on the Bank, is it?” She gave him a quick smile.

            “I’m impressed,” he said.

            “So what brings a bobby in here?” Annabelle asked bluntly. “Something I should worry about?”

            “How did you know?”

            She gave him a withering look.

            “If I can’t spot a policeman by now I might as well give up the keys. You’re not in uniform. Off duty, are you?”

            “I’m a detective. Inspector.”

            “That’s posh. Got a name?”

            “Tom. Tom Harper.”

            He’d come back the next night, then the next, and soon they’d started walking out together. Shows at Swan’s and the Grand, walks up to Roundhay Park on a Sunday for the band concerts. Slowly, as the romance began to bloom, he’d learned more about her. She didn’t just own the pub, she also had a pair of bakeries, one just up Meanwood Road near the chemical works and the foundry, the other on Skinner Lane for the trade from the building yards. Now she employed people to do all the baking but in the early days she’d been up at four every morning to take care of everything herself.

 

“You’re off with the fairies again,” she said, nudging against him.

            “Just thinking.”

            “You’re always thinking.” She smiled and shook her head. “Be careful, you’ll wear out your brain.”

            They were strolling out along North Street, through the Leylands, the sun pleasant. Omnibuses passed them with the click of hooves and the rhythmic turn of the wheels, a few empty carts heading back to the stables, but the area was quiet. There’d be little noise before sunset, he thought. All the Jews would be at home for the Sabbath. He’d grown up less than a stone’s throw away, over on Noble Street, all sharp cobbles and grimy brick back-to-backs, like every other road he’d known; nothing noble about it at all. Back then there’d been no more than a handful of Jewish families around, curiosities all of them with strange names like Cohen and Zermansky. The woman all had dark, fearful eyes and the men wore their full beards long, coming out with torrents of words in a language he didn’t understand. Twenty years on and the Leylands was full of them, working every hour God sent, sewing clothes in their sweatshops. He’d be willing to bet there was more Yiddish spoken round here these days than English.

            “What do you want to do tomorrow, Tom?” Annabelle asked.

            He shrugged; he hadn’t even given the next day a thought, although it was the only one they could spend together.

            “The Park?” he suggested.

            “Aye, if it stays like this.”

            “I’m off Monday, too. Until the evening.” He hesitated. “After that I might not be around for a few days.”

            “The gas?”

            “Yes.”

            “You just look after yourself. I’m not dragging a corpse to the register office come August.”

            “I’ll be fine, don’t you worry.”

            “Anyone hurts you they’ll have to deal with me,” she warned and he believed her. If that didn’t make him safe, nothing would.

 

He was back in his lodgings by ten and in bed by half past. In the morning he’d write to his sisters and tell them he was getting married. Then there’d be the visits as they swooped in from Bramley, Otley and Chapel Allerton to inspect the bride. But he’d worry about that when it happened.

            The banging woke him from a dream that vanished like smoke as he opened his eyes. He struggled into his dressing gown and opened the door. Mrs. Gibson, his landlady, wide-eyed and shocked at the disturbance, stood here, a policeman with a long face  behind her.

            “I let him in, Mr. Harper. He says he’s a policeman.”

            “He is, Mrs, Gibson. Don’t worry.” What else would he be, Harper thought irritably, wandering round in uniform in the middle of the night?

            She scurried away. He waited until he heard her door close and said,

            “What is it?”

            “You wanted to know about Col Parkinson, sir.”

            “Has he tried to flit?”

            “No,” the constable answered slowly. “He’s dead.”