Step Back 200 Years And Meet The Real Leeds People Of The Hocus Girl

At the end of September the second Simon Westow novel will be published in the UK. Quite honestly, I believe it’s one of the best books I’ve written. The main story is a version of the William Oliver affair (you can Google it), shifted to 1822 and more taking place in Leeds than the West Riding.

But other threads in the book involve people who were really here at that time – Joshua Tetley, about to set up as a brewer as he bought a site just south of the river which had been Sykes’s Brewery.

There’s also Matthew Murray, a visionary who ran the Round Foundry, which made (among other things) the locomotive that hauled coal from the Middleton Colliery down to the staithe at the bottom of Salem Place, just by…the brewery. The special cog system in the wheels of the engine and on the rails was the idea of Peter Blenkinsop, the mine manager. He’s here, too.

As to hocussing, well, you’ll have to read the book and find out, won’t you? And isn’t that cover a thing of beauty (scroll down to the end)?

Come on, come and meet them. They’re waiting for you…

Across the bridge and through the people on Boar Lane to Mill Hill. Tetley’s occupied an old shop, bow windows on either side of a varnished door. A small bell tinkled as he entered. Inside, open sacks of malt stood against the wall, the smell so overwhelming that Simon thought it might choke him.

Small casks of brandy and bottles of wine stood on the shelves by the wall. He was catching his breath as a tall man emerged from a back room.

‘How might I help you, sir?’ A warm, pleasant voice.

‘I’m looking for Mr Tetley. Joshua Tetley.’

‘I’m Joshua,’ the man said.

‘Simon Westow.’

‘Good of you to call, sir.’

He was tall, with wispy brown hair and sideboards that started down his cheeks before fading away to nothing. Friendly, merry blue eyes.

‘My apologies, I know the scent can be a little intoxicating. I’ve spent too long around it to notice any more. Would you care for coffee, perhaps? Or tea? It will clear the taste.’

Simon coughed. ‘I’ll be fine. You said you needed my services?’

Tetley glanced down at the ground for a moment before he spoke. ‘I do. But a question first, if I might.’

‘Of course.’ Everyone had their own strange ways; he’d learned that over the years.

‘I’m considering buying a brewery. Sykes’s, on Salem Place.’

‘Then I wish you good luck.’ Most of the inns and taverns brewed their own beer, the way they always had. He’d seen any number of men try their luck as commercial brewers. Most only lasted a few months before closing their doors. Sykes was one of the very few who’d survived.

‘If I said I wanted you to investigate him and his business to find any weak spots, what would you say?’

‘I’d turn you down,’ Simon replied, and Tetley smiled. The answer seemed to satisfy him.

‘Good, very good. I wouldn’t want someone willing to stoop to that. We have a problem, Mr Westow. One of our clerks has vanished and he’s taken fifty pounds of our money with him.’

Quite a sum, close to a year’s wages for a clerk. ‘He could live for a long time on that.’

‘We want it returned. Quietly, though. No need for everyone to know our business.’

‘Of course.’ If people learned the firm had been gulled like that, their reputation would suffer. ‘And no prosecution, I take it?’

‘Just the money, Mr Westow. As much of it as is left.’

‘You’d better tell me about this clerk of yours…’

tetley

***

‘This is Mr Peter Blenkinsop from the Middleton coal field. He designed the cog system for the locomotive that allows it to pull heavy loads of coal.’

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He was a burly man, with strong callused hands and a sharp face. Like Murray, another man who spent most of his time outside the office. Dark, intelligent eyes assessed him.

‘A pleasure to meet you,’ Simon said.

Murray rubbed his cheeks, looking like someone who craved sleep far more than riches.

‘Mr Blenkinsop has been very generous in the past, letting people sketch the details of the engine and telling them the specifications,’ he said. ‘So far, no one else has managed to duplicate our success.’ His mouth curled into a smile. ‘Of course, there might be one or two things we’ve chosen not to reveal.’

Blenkinsop laughed, a raw sound like a bark. ‘We’d like to keep it that way,’ he said. ‘Hold on to our advantage. You told Matthew this man had also been at the staithe.’

‘That’s right,’ Simon told him.

‘You’re sure it was him?’ Blenkinsop’s stare hardened. ‘I know there’s been someone who resembles the description.’

That was what Jane had said. He didn’t doubt her. ‘I’m positive.’

‘As you can tell, we’re taking this very seriously,’ Murray said. ‘I’ve had men here bribed to pass on secrets before. It happened a few years ago and it came close to ruining me.’ Memory turned him silent for a few seconds. ‘I’m not going to let that occur again.’

‘What do you know about this man, Mr Westow?’ Blenkinsop’s turn, his rough voice loud.

‘His name’s Whittaker. He’s the bodyguard for Curzon the magistrate.’

‘Is Curzon involved?’ Murray asked with alarm.

‘No,’ Simon answered. ‘I’m sure he’s not.’

‘We want him gone.’

‘Warned off,’ Murray said.

‘Gone,’ Blenkinsop repeated. He’d made his hands into fists, the knuckles white. ‘And we’ll pay you good money to send him on his way. I don’t care how you do it.’

‘Peter—’ Murray began, but the man waved his hand.

‘I don’t know what you imagine a thief-taker does,’ Simon said coldly. ‘But I find what’s been stolen and return it. I don’t kill for money.’

‘Then don’t. Get rid of him some other way. I just told you: I don’t care. Secrets aren’t worth a damned thing once they’re gone.’

‘We’re prepared to pay you one hundred guineas if you can keep our trade secrets intact from these men and send them on their way. The method is up to you. Is that arrangement agreeable to you, Peter?’

A grunt of assent from Blenkinsop. ‘Come and see me tomorrow.’

‘I’ll do that,’ Simon said. He could imagine Rosie’s eyes lighting up with greed as he told her the amount. ‘My methods. But in the meantime, make sure your men turn Whittaker away from the works – and the staithe, too. That will help.’

‘Of course,’ Murray said. ‘We’ll leave you to start your work.’

Hocus Girl final

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

A Different Kind of Book Launch

Let me start by apologising to those of you not in Leeds, and I know most of you live elsewhere. I would love it if you could be involved in this, but the nature of the beast means it’s simply not possible.

As you may know, my book The Hanging Psalm comes out at the end of September. To coincide with that, I’ve teamed up with the lovely people at #foundfiction for something that’s a mix of treasure hunt, geocaching and Pokemon Go.

Probably the easiest thing is to use their words:

HP Press Release

Sounds like fun? I really hope so. And it seems like a good way to introduce a new series about a thief-taker. But for those who can’t take part, there will be a launch event on Thursday, October 4, 6.30 pm at Waterstones on Albion Street in Leeds. No need to book; simply show up. Sadly, no free books, but you’ll be able to hear all about The Hanging Psalm and (please) purchase a copy.

Of course, you can pre-order a copy from your favourite independent bookshop, chain store, or online retailer…and I hope you will. This series definitely feels like it has something (I’ve just finished writing the second book).

Hanging Psalm revised

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