A Tale Begins…Some New Tom Harper

Stories…we’re humans, we need stories. And in uncertain, anxious times, something to take us away from our fears and ourselves is always welcome.

Here’s a brief exceprt from what will be the next Tom Harper novel. It’s called Brass Lives, and it’s set to appear sometime in 2021. Sorry, with publishing schedules all topsy-turvy, I can be more exact than that at the moment.

It takes place in 1913 and Tom is now the Deputy Chief Constable of Leeds, with an office at the Town Hall. Ash has become a Superintendent and taken over Millgarth.

Before we get to that, though: my publisher has Gods of Gold, the first Tom Harper novel, currently at 82p/99c an all ebook formats, everywhere in the world. But only until the end of May. You might enjoy it, and at that price you can take a risk.

Secondly, I’ve written a short history of Sheepscar. No fiction, all fact. If you’d like a copy, drop me a line and I’ll send it to you in a pdf file.

Now, would you like to catch up with Tom?

 

He’d been back in his office for an hour, sipping a mug of tea and reading the daily reports from the divisions when the telephone rang.

‘Morning, sir. It’s Superintendent Ash.’ The familiar voice made him smile. Until Harper’s promotion, the two of them had worked together every day. Then Ash had taken over A Division and moved up in rank to run the station.

He knew the man; Ash wouldn’t ring unless there was a good reason.

‘Good morning to you, too. What can I do for you?’

‘Something that might strike your fancy, sir,’ Ash replied after a moment. ‘I don’t suppose you’d like your dinner at the cafe in the market, would you?’

‘I imagine you could twist my arm,’ Harper said. ‘Your shout?’

‘Of course, sir. Between one thing and another, I don’t believe I’ve ever had a free lunch with you yet.’

He walked, glad of the exercise on a warm day. Briggate was thronged with Thursday shoppers crowding the pavements. Trams and lorries and carts bustled up and down the road. Harper cut through County Arcade, astonished as ever at its elaborate gilt and splendour, before crossing Vicar Lane, entering Kirkgate Market and climbing the stairs to the café on the balcony.

Ash was waiting at a table. He’d always been a big man, but now he looked broader than ever, the shaggy moustache over his top lip as grey as his hair. His face crinkled into a grin and he stood, hand extended.

‘Thank you for coming, sir. I hope you don’t mind, I went ahead and ordered; I know you like the cottage pie here.’

‘That’s fine,’ Harper said, and it was. ‘What’s so important? Something wrong at Millgarth?’

The station would always have a special place in his heart. It was home.

‘Nothing like that, sir. Something a little unusual, though.’

‘What is it?’

Ash held a letter in his hand, written on thin onionskin paper.

‘This arrived from America, sir. From the police in New York.’

That was enough to pique his curiosity.’ What do they want?’

‘It appears that one of their criminals is on his way here. I suppose he’s probably arrived now.’ Ash stopped and pinched his lips together. ‘He’s coming back here, that is. It seems he grew up in Leeds, moved to America when he was ten years old. Followed his mother. She went ahead and got herself settled.’

‘Go on,’ he said.

‘His name’s Davey Mullen. Born on Somerset Street.’ It was no more than three minutes’ walk from where they were sitting, a row of run-down, hopeless houses. ‘He’s twenty-one now.’

Harper rubbed his chin. ‘What’s he done to make them write to us?’

Ash grimaced and shifted on his seat. ‘It’s more like what hasn’t he done, sir. Quite a bit, given his age. It took me by surprise.’ He paused, just long enough to be sure of Harper’s attention. ‘They’re as certain as they can be that Mullen’s murdered at least six people.’ He let the sentence hang in between them in the air. ‘Four of them shot, the other two beaten to death. And two of those shootings were in broad daylight, with witnesses.’

‘Then surely-’ he began, then stopped when he saw the look in Ash’s eyes.

‘The witnesses decided to leave the city or refused to testify.’

Harper sighed. The old, old story. Fear and intimidation.

‘Why’s he coming here?’

‘Recuperation. That’s what he told people. He’s a member of a gang. It seems some people from another gang found him on his own outside a dancehall and shot him eleven times.’

‘Eleven?’ Harper said in disbelief. ‘Come on. Nobody can survive that.’

‘He did, and he made a full recovery. He refused to tell the police who did it, but not long after he was back on his feet the bodies of some of this other gang started turning up. Now he’s heading to Leeds until things cool down in New York.’

‘What do they want us to do?’ Harper asked. ‘They don’t have a warrant for him, do they?’

‘No, sir.’

‘Then unless he breaks any laws here, he’s a free man.’

‘They’re tipping us the wink so we can keep an eye on him. His other reason for being here is to see his father. It seems he never made the trip to America with the rest of the family. It was just Mullen and his brother who followed their mother over there.’

‘What’s the father’s name?’

‘Francis Mullen. Goes by Franny. I had Sergeant Mason dig out his file. There’s not much to him, really. Petty crook, in and out of jail. Loves his drink. Never held a proper job in his life. Parents came over from Ireland during the famine.’ He shrugged and took a photograph from his pocket. ‘The New York people included this, sir. It’s Mullen, from the last time they arrested him.’

Harper studied the picture. It showed the man’s head, viewed full on. Thick, dark hair, glistening with pomade. A smile of straight, white teeth and a face brimming with arrogance, a young man utterly certain that the world belonged to him. On the back, someone had scribbled a few details: Mullen was a big man: six feet one, weight two hundred and ten pounds – fifteen stone, he calculated – carrying sixteen scars all over his body from knives and bullets. The next of kin was his mother Maureen. Mullen still lived with her, an address on West 47th Street. Behind it, in brackets, someone had added Hell’s Kitchen. An apt name for any neighbourhood that was home to a man like him.

The waitress arrived with two full plates.

‘They’re hot, so don’t you be burning yourselves,’ she warned. ‘I’ll be back in a tick with your pot of tea.’

No talking shop while they ate; that was the rule. No spoiling the digestion. It allowed a few minutes for pleasure, a pause for thought. A constant roar of noise rose from the market, the conversation of shoppers, traders calling out their wares. Finally, Harper wiped a slice of bread around the plate to soak up the last of the juices, swallowed the final bite and washed it down with a swig of tea.

‘What did you have in mind for Mullen?’ he asked.

‘I thought Walsh and Galt could pay him a visit,’ Ash replied. ‘Just a quiet word, let him know his card is marked. Polite as a Sunday tea party.’

‘The slightest breath of trouble, haul him in,’ Harper ordered. ‘We don’t want any murderers walking round Leeds like they’re God’s gift. Keep a uniform on him too.’

‘Not plain clothes?’

‘No, let’s make it blatant. We’ll show him he’s not welcome here.’

‘I’ll take care of it, sir.’

‘Anything else worthwhile?’

‘Nothing much. Just the Boys of Erin trying to act up again.’

They’d been a growing thorn in the side of the police for a year, ever since Johnny Dempster became leader of the gang. Harper thought he’d crushed them more than twenty years ago, but they were slowly creeping back. They wanted to be a force again, to rule the Bank the way they had a generation before. It was the area of Leeds where the Irish had settled when they arrived. Back then it was desperately poor, dirty, a place where disease thrived. Even now it was bleak. Annabelle had grown up there, on Leather Street. Many still living on the Bank today could trace their ancestors back to Ireland.

‘What have they been doing this time?’

‘Tried a little protection on shopkeepers. We’ve taken care of it. I’m keeping a watch on them. Dempster’s ambitious. I’ve a feeling he has big plans.’

‘Time to stamp them down again?’ Harper asked.

‘Not just yet, sir,’ Ash replied thoughtfully. ‘I want to see what they have in mind.’

‘Keep me informed.’ He stood and patted his belly. They always served up big helpings in the cafe. ‘And make sure this Mullen knows he’s being followed.’

A New Book Trailer And More

Well, it’s been quite a week. Tonight I’m doing an In Conversation event as part of the wonder Leeds LitFest, which is roaring along in its second yeay, ambitious and energised.

I’ve also been digging into the history of Sheepscar. In part, of course, because where Tom and Annabelle Harper live, but also because my family has some roots there, at the Victoria public house (my great-grandfather ran it from the 1920s to the 1940s) and beyond (more to come on that).

Surprisingly, no one has studied the history of the area, which means a lot of digging and piecing things together from censuses, old plans, maps, anything I can find. It’s strictly for my own pleasure, really, although, since i’m a writer, I’m putting it all together – 7000 words so far, along with photos and so much more, almost 50 pages’ worth.

But I haven’t forgotten that The Molten City arrives in three weeks. It’s available to bloggers and reviewers on NetGalley, so if you’re approved, get over there…if not, I’m afraid you’ll need to wait. But in the meantime, here’s a second trailer for the book.

The Modern Milky Bar Kid In Leeds

I don’t know where this came from. It’s not part of anything bigger. It just is, little piecre of flash fiction. Make of it what you will.

When I was little, still a nipper, there used to be an ad on television. A smug little kid with fair hair and NHS specs, dressed in a cowboy outfit. His big line was ‘the Milky Bars are on me.’

This guy reminds of him. Same pale hair and round glasses. But this fucker isn’t going to be giving me any chocolate. He has a Glock in his hand. And he’s not smug. He’s shit scared, I can see the tremors in his wrist.

Evening, one of those old, little streets off Burley Road. Close by, there’s a bar with craft ales, a couple of takeaways, and blocks of shiny new student flats where mummy and daddy’s beloveds can live in comfort while they take their degrees.

I know what this guy’s thinking. It’s so obvious that he might as well come out and say it.

Killing a copper will make him a big man. A few will reckon he’s a hero.

But killing a copper means he’ll be a hunted man. No matter where he goes, or how long it takes, they’ll be coming for him.

He’s posed on a very fine line, and right now I don’t know which side he’ll choose.

Slowly, I extended my arm, palm up. A gesture; give it to me. He just tightens his grip on the gun and hunches in on himself.

My own fault. A tip, someone who claimed to have a little information about a crime. Nothing to make you suspicious. And Burley Road was more on less on my way back to Cookridge. Didn’t even see the need to tell anyone where I was going.

After so long on the job, I should know better. But that’s how it happens; you let down your guard and bang, it’s over.

It’s cold, dark, a clear Leeds sky up there. I can see my breath when I exhale, but I’m sweating. Under my arms, a trickle down my spine. I’ve faced down thugs before, back when I was on the beat. But in those days, a truncheon and a uniform seemed to carry some weight. Now I’m just a bloke easing his way through late middle age, a bit paunchy, more grey than brown in his hair. Detective Chief Inspector. Senior.

I might even make it to retirement if this fucker doesn’t shoot me.

Something’s changed on this lad’s face. He’s made up his mind. Raising his hand. Is he going to give it to me, or is he going to shoot?

Well? What are you going to do?

Everything Safe: Urban Raven, 1939

 

10 years

Continuing these 10 years of publishing crime novels set in Leeds, I’m moving back in time a little to revisit Detective Sergeant Urban Raven, the main character in The Dead on Leave.

That book took place in 1936. We’ve moved on a bit, to 1939, with the shadow of war hanging very dark over Britain.

Leeds, April 1939

 

‘I’m coming in,’ Raven shouted. ‘Just me, I’m a policeman and I’m not armed. No need to take a pot shot at me, all right?’

He waited, but there was no reply. He’d never really excepted one. He tapped the trilby down on his head, tightened the belt on his gaberdine mackintosh and took a deep breath. Nothing to worry about. The lad would be too scared to fire again, and he certainly wouldn’t dare fire at a copper.

He turned and looked at the other. Detective Inspector Mortimer and DC Noble standing behind the black Humber Super Snipe, and the three constables waiting for orders.

A deep breath and he began to walk across the cobbles. At the top of the embankment a train hurried by in a flurry of steam and smoke. Detective Sergeant Urban Raven put his hand on the doorknob of the workshop under the railway arch, paused for a fraction of a section, then turned it.

He stood, silhouetted by the daylight on Kirkgate.

The gun boomed.

 

The world was damp. It seemed to cling to him. Rain had fallen every day since the beginning of the month, sometimes heavy, sometimes no more than a mist. But it was always there. Everything seemed brown or grey in the city centre. People moved purposefully heads down. Nobody idled or stared and smiled.

Urban Raven didn’t mind. If they never looked, he’d be perfectly happy. His face bore the thick scars and shiny skin of plastic surgery. In France, October 1918, he’d been badly burned when a German shell exploded in a fuel dump. Two decades on and he was still all too aware of the effect he had, the way people glanced at him, then hurriedly turned their heads away. Sometimes he even imagined he saw disgust on his wife’s face. Or it might have been pity. Hard to tell which was worse. It seemed easier to think about work. There was always plenty to do.

War was coming. Chamberlain had claimed he brought them all peace in his time, but everyone knew the truth. All the young men on the police force would go into the services. Everything would fall on the shoulders of old-timers like him, on the policewomen and Specials. The only question was when the axe would fall. Soon, people agreed, soon; it seemed they were holding their breath.

Raven knew about some of the preparations, the amount of re-armament, civil servants preparing for a flood of army volunteers. He’d helped with checking the records on aliens around Leeds; come the declaration of hostilities and they’d quietly visit some of them and send them off to internment camps.

But right now, as he walked through Harehills, up Hovingham Avenue to Dorset Road, it all felt a long way off. It might never happen.

He rapped on the door of number seventeen, one more terraced house in a long row of them. Nobody answered. But someone was inside. He felt sure of it; he could feel them there, hiding away until he left.

Raven knocked once more, then went back down the street, glancing over his shoulder. No one had appeared. No twitch on the curtains to show he was being watched.

Easy enough to slip down the ginnel. The wall at the back of the yards was tall enough to hide him. He counted his way along, then placed his hand on the latch of the gate he wanted.

Even before he could press down, someone pulled it open and he was face-to-face with Bert Dawson, watching the man’s jaw drop in astonishment. Collywobbles, that was his nickname. The slightest thing and he’d start shaking with worry.

‘Fancy meeting you here,’ Raven said with a smile. ‘You’re just who I wanted to see.’

‘You should have come to the front door, Sergeant Raven. I was just off to the shop.’ But he was already shaking like an old man.

‘Happen I can save you the trip. We’ll have a cup of tea down at headquarters and you can tell me about those robberies you’ve been on lately. You made off with a nice little haul, by the sound of it.’

 

The CID office was upstairs in the Central Library, and Raven marched Dawson up the wide tiled steps.

‘You see, Collywobbles, you’re moving up in the world. Getting yourself charged in a place like this, not the local nick. You should be pleased.’

He’d just finished taking the statement when Mortimer popped his head round the door.

‘Have a uniform take him down to the bridewell.’

By the time he reached the office, men were already shrugging into their overcoats and pushing their hats over their eyes.

‘What is it?’

‘Wages robbery,’ Mortimer said. ‘Down at Hope Foundry. Two thieves and a driver. They had a sawn-off shotgun. Fired it. A couple of clerks were hit, one’s in bad shape. They got away, but they’re in a workshop in the railway arches on The Calls.’

‘Are we signing out any weapons?’ DC Noble asked.

‘Already done, lad. We have a trained marksman down there.’

arches

Three of them in the plain black car, Mortimer driving. No bells ringing. Everything quiet. He weaved in and out of the traffic on the Headrow and Vicar Lane, halting by the police roadblock on Harper Street.

‘Are they all still in there?’ Raven asked the sergeant in charge.

‘Witnesses said one of them scarpered as soon as they pulled up. We’ve got a description and we’re hunting for him now. But the shooter’s still inside.

‘What do you want to do, sir?’ Raven asked Mortimer.

‘First of all we’re going to evacuate all those businesses other arches. We don’t want any civilians around if there are people with guns. Take care of it,’ he order the uniformed sergeant. ‘After that, about all we can do is tell them the police are here so they should come out and surrender.’ He lit a cigarette and shrugged. ‘It’s all rather like a gangster film, but I don’t see what choice we have.’

A train rattled along, gathering speed as it left the station and going east. Smuts of soot settled all around them.

‘Do we have any idea how much they took?’

‘Well over a thousand,’ Mortimer answered as he blew out smoke. ‘Hardly pocket money, is it?’ He glanced around. ‘The marksman is upstairs in the warehouse across the street. He’ll be ready if we need him.’

‘Let’s hope we don’t, sir.’ Raven stared at the door. Big and broad for a motor car to fit through. Made of corrugated iron, like the rest of the covering over the arch. Worn and rusted. A tiny window to let in a little light. A thought struck him. ‘Could we cut off their electricity? Do that and it’ll be pitch black in there.’

‘We will if they don’t surrender,’ Mortimer agreed. ‘We’ll get someone down here, just in case.’

A young constable ran up and spoke quietly to Noble. The man frowned.

‘One of the clerks who was shot at the foundry has died. A girl, not even twenty.’

‘They’ll hang for that.’

‘Tell them, sir?’

Mortimer shook his head. ‘Not until they’re out and we have the weapon. They won’t give up otherwise.’

The sergeant dashed up, face red from running. ‘All the other arches are empty, sir.’

Inspector Mortimer picked up a megaphone and began to speak. It made his voice ring around the street. They’d be able to hear him clearly in the arch. A simple offer, a promise of fair treatment if they gave themselves up.

The silence hung heavy when he finished. Nothing from inside.

‘Electricity, sir?’ Raven said after they’d heard no sound for two full minutes.

‘Yes,’ Mortimer replied. He kept his gaze on the arch, finishing one cigarette and replacing it immediately with another.

It didn’t take long. The man was up the pole and back down again in the blink of an eye.

‘It’ll be like the dead of night in there for them,’ he said as he hitched up his leather tool belt and pulled down his cap. ‘You need me for owt else?’

 

Over the next two hours, Mortimer used the megaphone twice more. But there never any answer from inside.

Raven began to walk, flowing the pavement around the embankment where the old gravestones from the Parish Church burial ground cover the grass. No way out on the other wide. The killers were trapped in there. But not in any hurry to come out.

‘I don’t know about you, sir, but I don’t want to spend the rest of the day here,’ he said.

‘Any good ideas?’ Mortimer asked.

‘March in and drag them out.’

The inspector shook his head. ‘They have a gun and not much to lose right now.’

‘We can take go in. It might take them by surprise.’ He glanced across the street to the marksman waiting in the window, his rifle tight against his shoulder. ‘Just make sure he’s ready.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘What’s the choice, sir?’ Raven said. ‘Go in mob-handed? We risk losing more men that way. If we try to wait them out, they’ll be firing when they open the door. And God knows when that might be.’

‘I can’t order you to do it, Sergeant.’

‘I know, sir. I’m volunteering.’

If they killed him, what would that matter? No more looking at the face in the mirror every morning. No more thinking that his wife couldn’t stand to see him. She’d be able to find herself someone who looked normal.

He liked his job, he enjoyed being a detective. But if this was it…at least he wouldn’t pass the young lads on the street and wonder which of them might end up like him after the next war. And it was coming soon enough…

Mortimer cocked his head, as if he could read all the thoughts in Raven’s head.

‘If that’s what you want.’

‘It is, sir.’

 

A deep breath and he began to walk across the cobbles. A train crossed overhead in a flurry of steam and smoke. Detective Sergeant Urban Raven put his hand on the doorknob of the workshop under the railway arch, paused for a fraction of a section, then turned it.

He stood, silhouetted by the light on Kirkgate.

The gun boomed.

A pause, then it fired again.

 

The smell of cordite. Thick smoke that made him cough. His ears rang; he couldn’t hear a thing.

But he wasn’t hit. No wounds at all.

As the air began to clear, he could see them. A pair of young men in cheap, flashy suits, gaudy Prince of Wales checks. They were lying on the floor, sprawled on their back and staring into eternity. They shotgun lay between them.

Christ, he thought. He’d expected the worst, but not that.

Christ.

‘It’s me,’ he called. ‘I’m coming out, Everything’s safe in here.’

The Dead on Leave is available in paperback and as an ebook.

The Dead on Leave (1)

The Dead On Leave (Again)

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

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

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

1930s boar lane 2

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

‘Only one man, sir.’

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

‘Yes sir.’

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yesterday…’ Raven began.

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

‘I was there. I saw it.’

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

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

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

‘Yes.’

‘Was he one of ours?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘None of my lot would do that.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Thank you.’

1930s gipton estate

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

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

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

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

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

1930s albion street

The Dead on Leave (1)

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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Tales Within A Tale 7 – A Teaser

Now it’s just four weeks until Skin Like Silver is published in the UK. That’s still plenty of time to introduce you to some of the characters. Not Tom Harper or Annabelle, not Billy Reed or Superintendent Kendall. Not even Ash. But some of the others who populate this book – there are over 60; I counted.

They’re relatively minor characters, but they all have their stories to tell. About once a fortnight until publication you’ll get to meet some of them. One of them could well be a killer. Or perhaps not. But when you read the book and come across them, you can smile and say ‘I know you.’

Read the first Tale within a Tale, about Patrick Martin, here, the second with Robert Carr here, the third with Miss Worthy here, the fourth with Barbabas Tooms here, the fifth with John Laycock here, and the six with Samuel Sugden here.

This time it’s a little different, a short teaser that tells you how the books gets its name.

And, of course, you can read more about Skin Like Silver here.

Like what you see? Order your copy here (this is currently the cheapest price by far!).

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Harper stood in the superintendent’s office the next morning. His palms were bandaged and tender but they’d mend in a few days. Annabelle has fussed around him, putting on a lotion that burned before it soothed. He ached all over.

‘I need you down to have a look at that fire,’ Kendall told him. ‘Take Ash with you.’

‘I thought they’d put it out.’

‘They have. I want to make sure it wasn’t anarchists who caused it.’

The man was as immaculately turned-out as ever, suit pressed, moustache and side whiskers trimmed, the crease in his trousers as sharp as a blade. But his face was lined with worry.

‘I thought they were all talk,’ Harper said.

‘They are,’ the superintendent replied. ‘But you know how it happens. All it needs is one hothead taking that “assault on the system” line of theirs to heart.’ He shook his head. ‘Stupid. Work with Dick Hill until he’s established a cause. Just in case.’

‘Yes, sir. I have that dead baby, too.’

‘I know. What have you found?’

‘Nothing.’ He paused, thinking of the tiny corpse on the table. ‘Honestly, I’m not sure if we ever will.’

‘Keep trying, anyway. Your hands, Tom…’

‘From the pumps yesterday.’ He held them up. ‘Blisters. They’ll heal soon enough.’

‘You’d think the criminals would have been running free, what with every officer down there,’ Kendall said. He took his pipe from his waistcoat pocket and lit it with a match. ‘But there was nothing reported.’ He arched his eyebrows. ‘Think about that. Not a single crime anywhere in Leeds.’

There was just enough of a breeze to bring a sense of freshness, the hint that autumn might arrive soon. Harper walked side by side with Ash, the constable quiet as they passed the Corn Exchange. Carts clattered quickly along Duncan Street. Piles of horse dung were flattened on the road. Men ran, pushing barrows piled with goods to deliver. A tram rolled by with the grinding sound of wheels in the iron tracks. The air smelt burnt and dead as they neared the station.

‘How did you like the inspection?’ Harper asked.

‘It was right enough, sir.’ He gave a small grin. ‘My missus thought I looked that smart all dressed up.’

‘Mine made me have a photograph taken wearing it.’

‘They must love the top hats, those women.’ He shook his head and tapped his old bowler. ‘Me, I’m more comfortable in this.’ He paused. ‘I heard one of the firemen died yesterday.’

The inspector nodded. ‘When the platforms collapsed. Nothing anyone could do. They couldn’t even get in to bring the body out.’

‘Sad business, sir.’

They’d become used to working as a team since Reed had left. They functioned well together, although there’d been little to tax them too hard. All the crimes they’d investigated in the last few months had been straightforward. Profit or passion, and a simple matter to find the culprit.

Harper doubted there’d be much for them here, either. He didn’t believe any anarchists were involved. The only problem would come if Hill said the fire was arson.

New Station was filled with rubble and wreckage. Thick dust clung to piles of bricks, and charred wood still smoked lightly. But passengers were already crowding the three undamaged platforms, craning their necks to see all the ruin, and most of the trains were still running. Harper shook his head in amazement; after all the destruction, he wouldn’t have believed it possible. Or safe.

They found Hill down among the arches that had once supported everything. All the surfaces were black with soot, the smell of fire and destruction heavy and cloying, and he started to cough. A yard or two below them, the River Aire rushed by.

‘Hello, Dick,’ Harper said. ‘We’ve been sent down to help.’

Inspector Hill looked haunted. He was still wearing the uniform he’d had on when the blaze began. There were rents along the seams, the blue so covered with dirt that it seemed to have no colour at all. Dark rings lined his eyes.

‘Tom,’ he answered and let out a sigh. ‘We just brought out that man who died. Schofield.’

‘One of yours?’

Hill shook his head. ‘He worked on the one the insurance company engines. The floor just gave way underneath him.’ He stared up at the sky. ‘Ten years and I’ve never seen anything like it. As best as we can guess, he must have crawled forty feet after he fell. Almost made it out, too, poor bugger. It’s a miracle there was only one, really.’

‘Any idea where it started yet, sir?’ Ash broke the silence that grew around them.

‘Oh, we know that.’ Hill pointed to an empty space, nothing left at all. ‘You see that? It used to be Soapy Joe’s warehouse. Packed full of tallow and resin. Tons of the bloody stuff. That’s where it began. And that’s why it burned so hard and long. Once that went up there wasn’t a chance.’

‘What caused it?’ Harper asked.

Hill shrugged. ‘A spark? An accident? Deliberate? There’s not enough left to tell. I wouldn’t even like to guess. The best I’m ever going to be able to say is that it happened. It’s nothing to worry CID, anyway.’

‘The superintendent wondered about anarchists.’

‘I don’t see it.’ He shook his head wearily. ‘Honestly, Tom, I don’t. I’m going to dig around but I don’t think I’ll find any evidence of anything.’

‘You should get some sleep, Dick.’

‘Later.’ Hill brushed the idea away. ‘I need to take care of a few things first. We’ve never had anything as bad as this before in Leeds.’ He waved at hand at the damage. ‘Look at it. It’s going to cost a fortune to rebuild. But the railway’s already had engineers out this morning. Can you believe that?’

‘They want to be making money again,’ Harper said.

‘Sir! Sir!’ The shout echoed off the stone, making them all turn. A fireman was picking his way through the mounds of stone and brick. ‘There’s another body down here. It looks like a woman.’

They ran, scraping their way over the debris. Dust rose around them as they scrambled.

‘Over here,’ the man called. He was standing by a pile of rubble. ‘You can just see her foot over there.’

They gazed. Half a button boot, the leather torn clean away to show bloody flesh. The rest of her was buried under chunks of concrete.

‘Must have collapsed right on top of her,’ Hill said grimly, taking off his uniform jacket. ‘Let’s get this shifted.’

Ash glanced at Harper’s bandaged hands.

‘Will you be all right, sir?’

‘I’ll manage,’ the inspector told him as he stared at the foot.

It took them a quarter of an hour to move everything, sweating and grunting. Blood seeped through Harper’s bandages. He grimaced and worked on.

‘Christ,’ Hill said quietly.

Most of her clothes had burned away. Her hair was gone. She was part-flesh, burned and black. But it was the rest of her that made them draw in their breath. Patches of metal across her body that glinted in the light. Skin like silver: the thought came into his head.

‘What..?’ At first he didn’t even realize he’d spoken.

‘Must have been the girders,’ Hill said. He couldn’t take his eyes off the body. ‘They melted in the heat and the metal dripped down on her.’ He wiped a hand across his mouth. ‘I just hope to God she was already dead.’

Harper took a deep breath and squatted, moving this way and that around the corpse. Only the shape and size of the body and the torn button boot showed she’d once been female. Now… he could scarcely believe what he saw. It was grotesque. A statue of death. He shuddered as he stood again.

‘What the hell was she doing down here?’ he wondered.