A Little Of The Blood Covenant

Hard to believe that time barrels along so fast, and that The Blood Covenant will be out in just a few weeks, on the 30th of December. If you order it for Christmas, though, there’s a very fair chance it will arrive in time (just a hint and a nudge).

It’s a very angry book, about finding justice for those who’ve been abused. Those who don’t have the power to fright for themselves. For Simon Westow, it’s more than it job, it becomes something very person, and very, very dark. But not only him. Jane, too, is going to have to face demons she thought long since vanished.

Here’s an abridged extract from near the opening. A way to whet your appetite and have you clicking online to order, I hope. Remember, please, every time you buy from an independent bookshop, all the angels cheer. The cheapest price, with free postage, is here.

‘You testified to the commission that was in town three years ago, didn’t you?’ Dr Hey asked

            ‘Yes,’ Simon answered.

Oh, he’d talked to them. Men sent from London, part of an investigation around the country into child labour and abuse. Simon knew all about that; he still carried the scars on his body. As he spoke, seeing them sitting safe behind their polished table, he relived all the punishments and torture he received as a boy, at the mill, as an inmate of the workhouse. Year after year of it, from the time he was four until he turned thirteen, when he could take no more and walked away, knowing that even death would be better. Just the memory made the skin of his hands turn clammy and his heart beat faster. He’d talked. But he didn’t believe they’d ever really listened.

‘What made you think about that?’ Simon asked

            ‘A pair of deaths I had to examine recently.’ Hey pulled some papers from the inside pocket of his coat. ‘I made a few notes I wanted you to see. Read them and come to see me when you have chance.’

            Back in the old stone house on Swinegate, Simon read as he ate supper, then spent the evening quietly brooding. For once he scarcely paid attention to Richard and Amos, the twins. Little else existed beyond the thoughts in his head.

            ‘What is it?’ Rosie asked after she’d put the boys to bed.

            ‘No need to worry. It’s nothing like that.’ Simon took a deep breath and told her. ‘He made a copy of what he’d written when he saw the children’s bodies. The older boy was ten. He’d lost two fingers on his left hand when he was younger. His body was covered in bruises, it looked like he’d been beaten with a stick or a strap. It was much the same with the younger one. He was just eight.’

            ‘Who did it?’ Rosie asked. Her fists were bunched, fingernails digging into her palms.

            ‘A mill overseer,’ he replied.

            ‘Which mill?’

            Simon shook his head. ‘He didn’t put that in there.’

Now he was out here, walking as he tried to stay ahead of his memories and pain.

The sky had cleared. It was colder now; his breath bloomed in front of his face. The remnants of rain dripped slowly from gutters. The stink of the manufactories had returned to fill the air.

Simon walked.

Damn Hey. He’d released the past from its cage. Now it was out here, hounding him, snapping and snarling at his heels. All these years and still it wouldn’t leave him. But better for Simon to be doing something than be restless and wakeful at home.

            He’d gone from Sheepscar across to Holbeck, along the river all the way to the ferry landing as he tried to exhaust his mind. He’d sensed Leeds grow silent around him as people gave up on the last dregs of night. He was tired, his legs ached and his feet were sore. But he knew he’d be out here for a long time yet. Bloody Hey.

Simon made his way past the warehouses on the Calls. Bone-weary, needing to sleep. But the images, the history, the pain kept raging through his head. He was just a few yards from the river, able to hear the water lapping and smell the low, thin perfume of decay.

A sound cut through, the creak of oars in their rowlocks. Late to be out, he thought. Maybe someone was stealing from the barges moored at the wharves. Never mind, he decided; it wasn’t his business. Not until someone paid him to retrieve what might be taken.

            ‘Grab him under the arms. Get him out of there.’

            The night watch, taking care of some drunk who’d fallen in the river. It happened at least once a month. A man would grow fuddled, lose his way and walk into the water. Some jumped, dragged down by despair. A very few were lucky; they were pulled out and survived. Most drowned, found bobbing downstream when morning came.

            ‘He weighs a bloody ton.’

            ‘You don’t need to be gentle, he’s already dead. Just grab him. Oh Christ, his throat’s been cut. The constable’s going to want to see this one.’

            Simon felt a chill rise through his body, colder than the night. The men were on Pitfall, only a few yards downriver from Leeds Bridge. Two of them, standing and stretching their backs. Between them, lying on the stones, a shape that had once been a man. Simon could make out the jacket and the trousers, soaked and stained by the water. The men from the watch turned at his footsteps, surprised to see another living soul out at this hour.

            ‘Can I see him?’

            One of the men shook his head. ‘You don’t want to do that,’ he said. ‘The dead are never pretty, mister.’

            ‘I know,’ Simon told him. ‘I’ve seen my share.’

            A short silence. In the glow from a pair of lanterns, he caught the two men glancing at each other. A penny for each of them helped make up their minds.

            The light caught the corpse’s face. Simon knelt, brushing away some dirt and a piece of cloth that was caught in man’s hair. He lifted the chin. A straight, deep gash across the neck. Clean and quick. But definitely no accident. Murdered and tossed into the river. He hadn’t been dead long, either; it couldn’t be more than an hour or two. Nothing had nibbled at his eyes yet, the flesh still intact and fresh.

            He didn’t recognize the face.

            One of the men coughed.

            ‘There’s something else, sir.’ He raised the lantern. ‘You see? Down there.’

            The right hand was missing. Severed at the wrist. It looked like a single, swift blow had gone through the bone. For the love of God. Before or after he was dead?

            ‘The constable will be wondering who you are, sir. He’s going to want to know about someone asking to see the body.’

            ‘Tell him it’s Simon Westow. The thief-taker. He knows me.’

Another Extract From The Hanging Psalm

It’s just over three weeks until The Hanging Psalm is published in the UK (Jan 1 in the rest of the world).

That means I’m trying to tempt you into ordering a copy. All the big retailers have it, and if you’re in Leeds there’s going to be a very special launch event. Meanwhile, it’s now available on NetGalley for authorised bloggers and reviewers.

And it’s the Severn House Editor’s Pick of the Month. Read about that here.

Meanwhile…take a step back to 1820. The Regency. But it’s not Assembly Rooms and genteel manners at the Pump Rooms in Bath.

This is Leeds. It’s Regency Noir.

Enjoy.

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The night was quieter than the day. Shops were shuttered. Lamps flickered in the houses. People safe behind locked doors.

But another Leeds arose in the darkness. A different population that came to life with the shadows. Simon had known them for years, people like Colonel Warburton, the former soldier who always wore the tattered French officer’s coat he claimed to have stripped from a corpse on the battlefield at Waterloo. He held court in a back room of the Boot and Shoe, a bottle of good brandy on the table, quietly buying and selling stolen bonds.

Or Hetty Marcombe. She looked like a harmless, vacant old woman wandering forlornly around the yards of the coaching inns. But she had quiet cunning behind the empty eyes, ready to make off with any case that passengers didn’t keep close. Josh Hartley, Silver Dexter, all the flash men and burglars, and the whores who strutted up and down Briggate. Once the daylight faded, Leeds belonged to them.

Simon was at ease in their company. He talked a little and listened as they spoke. With a word or a nod, one person often led him to another. He learned who’d stolen what, if it had been sold and for how much. Information he’d be able to use in the coming weeks. But tonight his eyes were open for a particular man.

At the Cross Keys, just across the river in Holbeck, he stood inside the door and watched the crowd. Almost every face was young, drinking with the grim determination that dashed headlong towards oblivion. A few more years and most of them would be gone. Violence, disease, the gallows, a ship to the other side of the world. Something would carry them away. And deep inside, they knew it. So they forced out their pleasures like duty.

Strange, Simon thought, Harry Smith didn’t seem to be anywhere tonight. People called him the Vulture. He’d earned the name; he relished it like an honour. Smith fed himself on the weak, the gang of young boys who worked for him, picking pockets and robbing shops.

But Harry heard things that didn’t reach other ears. He was sly, he understood that knowledge brought a good price. And he always knew who’d be willing to pay.

Simon moved on. By the time the clock struck ten he’d gone all round the town. No word of anyone anticipating a fortune soon. Finally, close to midnight, he turned his key in the lock and climbed up to bed.

 

‘You’re a pretty thing. How much do you charge?’

Jane turned away and the man laughed.

‘Don’t play coy, luv. Tuppence and you’ll get the bargain. You might even like it for once.’

She began to walk down Kirkgate, but he staggered along behind, drunk, cursing her. She’d survived the nights out here for too long. She knew the men who populated them. This one was harmless, all drink and bluster and noise. Still, she reached into the pocket of her dress and curled her fingers around the handle of her knife.

The voice faded and she forgot he’d ever been there. No one behind her now. With the shawl over her head, she slipped in and out of the shadows. People passed without a glance. The only light came from gaps in the shutters, but she knew her way around in the darkness.

Lizzie Henry lived out on Black Flags Lane, the far side of Quarry Hill. The building stood alone, looking as if it had once been a large farmhouse. Now, as she entered, she saw a series of rooms off a long hallway. The lamps had been lit and trimmed, the floorboards swept, paintings on the walls; everything was clean and tidy. The faint sound of talk leaked from behind closed doors. But she had no sense of joy from the place.

Jane had heard tales. This was a house that catered to the worst things men desired, anything at all if the fee was right. From somewhere upstairs there was a stifled scream, then silence. She paused for a second, feeling the beat of her heart and the breath in her lungs, then walked on to the open door ahead. Beyond it, a neat, ordered parlour and Lizzie herself sitting in an armchair, close to the blazing fire.

Jane had always pictured the woman as a hag. Instead, the woman was slim, darkly attractive, dressed in an elegant, fashionable gown whose material shimmered and sparkled in the light. She had power and wealth, and wore them easily, a woman who held her secrets close – the names of the men who came here, what they did, those who went too far.

She’d never have difficulty finding girls to serve in the house. Too many were desperate. All it took was the promise of a meal and a bed. And then enough gin and laudanum to dull the pain of living and the agony men inflicted. If a few died, there was ample land for the burials. Girls without names, without pasts; no one would ever ask questions.

Lizzie Henry looked up and her mouth curled into a frown.

‘Who are you? How did you get in?’ Her voice had a harsh rasp. But there was no trace of worry or fear on her face. Beside her, a decanter, a glass and a bell sat on a small wooden table.

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