Immigrant Song

It’s 45 years since I added my name to generations of immigrants to America. On January 3, 1976, to be exact. It wasn’t my first trip; I’d been there seven months earlier, to celebrate our first anniversary with my wife’s family, the trip their present to us – a huge gift in those days.

My wife loved England and Leeds, but maybe the idea of it more than the reality, after all, the first half of the 70s were a bleak, grey time in Britain. I, like all those who journeyed across the ocean before me, saw opportunity in the US. To do what, I’m not sure. Live a more open life, maybe.

But our journey was faster than those thousands who left from docks all over Europe. We didn’t go on a sailing ship, no journey for weeks in steerage. Just seven hours in a 747 after a flight down to Heathrow. Another plane trip and we were there, in Cincinnati, at the start of a new life.

I’d move again, pretty much 10 years later to the day, and this time on my own. Another flight, this time heading west. Not so much following Horace Greeley’s advice, but the footsteps of so many who’ve found disappointment and hope for something better in fresher pastures. I was divorced, a pretext for something different. And the West Coast has always had a sense of allure.

Not California for me, but Seattle. Still the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen, with both salt water and mountains to east and west. And the most liberal place I’d known – a huge relief after the stultifying, rabidly conservative Midwest. For a while at least, I felt as if I’d come home. Home to the very edge of America. About as far as you could go without wading into the Pacific.

The city seemed new, still shiny, barely out of the wrapping. A place constantly remaking itself. After a fire in 1889 they’d simply raised the street level and rebuilt. Hell, the last building that had been my home in Leeds was built before the first white settlers arrived in Seattle. It was, people claimed, a city where it was okay to fail.

That’s true, or it was back then. Not just of Seattle, but almost anywhere in the west. You fail, move on and try again. But when you’ve gone as far as possible and not succeeded (although success was such an intangible thing), you have to be allowed to keep failing where you are. And I did fail, more than once.

Seattle would be my hone for pretty much the next 20 years. Eventually, on terms I could define to myself, I succeeded. And then I left.. I came back to England and eventually Leeds, and realised that this was home. The prodigal returning, maybe. No place like it, Toto.

Why think of all this now now? After all, it’s 15 years since my return, seven since Leeds became home again.

The time of year, perhaps, those anniversaries of Western movement. It coincides with reading about Montana, the homesteaders of Ivan Doig’s English Creek trilogy, and Jonathan Raban’s Bad Lands and about immigrants in Hunting Mister Heartbreak. Different eras, different outcomes, but still that sense of flowing to somewhere new. It’s appealing, seductive, even if I’m quite content here with no intention of moving again

I had my adventure, and I started when I was young enough to be malleable. I could live cheaply and enjoy it. I had momentum. Time change, rapidly and often radically. I was lucky, I know. 45 years…it can’t really be that long, can it?

My new book, To The Dark, came out last week in the UK. I hope you might consider buying it or borrowing it from your library (hard as so much is closed now, I know). But if you request if from your library, it might start wheels turning for them to get a copy. And the ebook comes out February 1…

South of the Deadline – Seattle, 1898

Maybe quite a few of you know I spent 20 years living in Seattle. It’s not Leeds, but I have a lot of affection for the place, and it has a wonderfully colourful history.

I was reading back over some of that and I realised that the Klondike Goldrush era of 1898 was fertile ground for a fiction writer. Thousands of people came through Seattle, looking to make their fortunes in the Yukon. The city was wide open – like a more urban version of Deadwood, perched out there on the edge of America, as far as you could go without getting on a boat.

So I started a little something. Seriously, please do tell me what you think. I”d like to know. I’ve written a bit more than this, but i’m not giving it all way…

Seattle, July 1898


‘I’m going to say it once more. Let him go now.’

He stood in the middle of the sidewalk, thumbs hooked in his vest pockets, blocking the way.

‘Yeah?’ One of the young men asked. He had a cocky curl to his lip and a wisp of a moustache.

‘That’s right. Doesn’t take five of you to handle an old man. Look at him, he’s not likely to hurt you. Hell, you’ve got his hands tied and his denims round his ankles. All he can do is waddle.’

‘What you going to do if we don’t?’  The young man shoved his prisoner and sent him sprawling down to the ground.

‘This.’ He’d hardly seemed to move, but suddenly there was a gun in his hand. A brand-new Colt, pointing level and steady.

‘There’s five of us here.’ The young man was still grinning, pushing the derby back on his head. A faint Southern drawl to his voice. Another goldrush stampeder.  ‘You can’t take us all.’ He glanced over his shoulder. The crowd that had been following was quickly melting away.

He didn’t bother to reply, just moved his gaze from one face to the other along the line. Two of them couldn’t meet his stare. No need to worry about them.

‘He tried to cheat us at cards,’ another voice said. ‘He was fixing the deck.’

‘Charlie Turner? He couldn’t fix his own shoelaces. Now get out of here while I let you.’

‘Why?’ The leader again. ‘Who the hell are you?’

With one hand, he turned the lapel of his coat to show the badge.

‘Seattle Police Department.’ He waited for a moment. ‘If you want to complain, my name’s Detective John Linden.’

He waited until they were fifty yards away before he helped the man to his feet and cut the rope holding his wrists behind his back.

‘Pull up your pants, Charlie. You got an old man’s legs.’ They were spindly and hairless, pale as a clam shell where the legs of the grubby union suit had ridden up. Hurriedly, Turner dressed and tucked in his shirt, then patted his pocket. ‘They took my gun.’

‘Take a walk up First Avenue. There’s a dozen pawn shops be glad to sell you one cheap.’

‘They took my billfold, too.’

First & Yesler 1898

Linden shook his head. ‘I’m not giving you anything. Get a job and earn some damn money. Go up to the Klondike. Everybody else is. You might get rich in the gold fields.’

‘Me?’ Turned opened his eyes wide in panic. ‘Way too cold for me up there. I’m grateful, John. I really am.’ He scurried away.

One of these days he wouldn’t be around to save Charlie and his body would turn up on the tideflats. Nothing he could do about that. Linden leaned against the telegraph pole, pushed up the brim of his homburg hat and felt the sun on his face. The middle of July and Seattle’s summer had begun. With luck, it would stay this way until October. A small breeze brought the welcome smell of salt water. Out over Elliott Bay a seagull cried then dived down to the water to snag a fish. Boats crowded along the wharves, ready to fill up with passengers who all just knew for a fact that a fortune was waiting just for them in the Yukon.

seattle watyerfront 1898

He remembered the news that arrived down the line, hours before the Portland steamed in. Just a year ago now. It was carrying a ton of gold the first prospectors had discovered. It had been on the wires all across the United States long before the sun went down. Two days later the first of the hopefuls arrived, looking to book passage and make themselves Kings of the Klondike. A few Queens, too. The gold was there for the taking, they believed.

It hadn’t stopped since. Hundreds of them still coming every week. America was crammed to the gills with fools who wanted to get rich quick. Every hotel, rooming house, every single barn in Seattle was full each night. The first month it had cost two bits for a bed, then four, six, and now it cost a dollar and a half for a crib, cash up front.

Seattle 1898_1

The city rumbled and roared, all day and long into the night. Drink and card games, the girls in their little rooms in the box house theaters or in the brothels. Seemed like every sporting man and girl from across the West had flocked here, too, ready to fleece the hopefuls before they could even head north. People with hard eyes, short tempers and violent ways. He’d put away his share in the last twelve months. Next to them, Charlie Turner was nothing, a harmless little man. But even the harmless could end up dead.

Seattle 1898_3

He stayed for five minutes, eyes closed, trying to find a little pleasure in just being there. But he couldn’t shake the feeling in his gut.

Something bad was going to happen.

(I’m sure it’s not necessary, but the words are copyright Chris Nickson, 2019).

A Different Kind Of Story…Or Maybe Not

Yes, it’s crime. But most of you are familiar with my work know it from Leeds – in various eras – or medieval Chesterfield.

This is far from that. About 5,500 miles distant, in fact. It’s 1939, and it’s Seattle. I lived in the city for 20 years, and it’s history fascinates me. The first white people only arrived in 1851, and not even 90 years later it was a metropolis. How could that happen?

Add to that the fact that I love noir novels and well, this opening just came to me. Given that it’s different, I have no idea if any of you will enjoy it. But I’d appreciate you letting me know…




Dave Stone chewed on the meatloaf special, washed it down with a sip of coffee, then looked at the other man again.

‘Let me get this straight,’ he said. ‘You want me to give you city money for information I could maybe get for free by leaning on someone else. That it?’

Chapman had a weasel’s face, sharp and pointed, unattractive when he smiled and showed his set of stained, uneven teeth.

‘Well yeah, but you get it faster and with cleaner from me.’

They were sitting in the Dog House restaurant, on the short block of Denny between Aurora and Dexter. From his seat, Stone could look down the hill toward the bay and see the shipping heading in to Seattle or going down Puget Sound to dock in Tacoma. The sky was blue, the late May sun was bright and warm through the window. He felt happy with the world.

‘I could take you downtown and sweat it out of you for nothing.’

Chapman glanced at him nervously. He was sweating under a cheap seersucker suit and a gaudy tie, a straw boater casually pushed to the back of his head. He tried to look as if he didn’t care; instead he seemed desperate.

‘C’mon Dave, I’m trying to make a buck. It’s solid news.’

‘I’m already spending a nickel on a cup of coffee for you.’ He took out a pack of Luckies and lit one, sitting back as Harriet the waitress came over and took the empty plate.

‘You want dessert, honey? There’s apple pie. Made fresh this morning. It’s good a la mode.’

‘I’m fine, thanks.’ Once she’d gone he turned back to Chapman. ‘Okay, if it’s good I’ll give you five.’ Before the other man could object, he held up a finger to stop him, ‘And I pay you after. You’ve given me too many bum tips in the past, Tony. I’m don’t trust you these days.’

Everyone had something to sell. Information, the name of a bum who’d was looking to lie low, the winner in the last race at Longacres. That was the Depression. It had left everybody hustling. It was history now, that’s what the politicians said. But the remains of the Hooverville down on the tideflats or the people crowding the nickel lodging houses on Skid Road told a different story. There was still plenty of poverty in Seattle. Too many suspicious eyes and hungry bellies.

Chapman tugged a sack of Bull Durham tobacco from his suit coat, and took his time rolling a smoke.

‘Okay,’ he agreed finally and slid a folded piece of paper across the table. Stone raised an eyebrow as he took it. ‘You’re gonna owe me big for this, Dave.’ He slid out of the booth and left. Stone left two quarters and walked out to his Buick Special. The parking lot was almost empty. On the passenger seat the block headline in the P-I proclaimed Europe On Verge Of War. Let them fight, he thought. He had more important things on his mind, things much closer to home.

Very carefully, he unfolded Chapman’s note. Spider writing, bad spelling, but the meaning was clear. There was going to be an attempt on the life of Wilton Davis, the head of railroad workers’ union. Olympic Hotel, Friday night.

As he drove along Seventh Avenue, Stone rolled down the window and tossed out the cigarette butt. If he stopped that happening, maybe the Seattle Police Department would have a new lieutenant.






‘Goddammit, Stone, what were you doing?’ Captain McReady tossed the newspaper down on the desk. The room was almost empty. He was the only one there, sipping a cup of coffee he’d picked up at the Greek diner on the corner.

Saturday morning and the story was all over the front pages of the Seattle Times. ‘The chief called me this morning to congratulate me and I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about.’ He rested a hip against the corner of the desk, anger still flaring in his eyes, his mouth twisted, breath sour. ‘I realize you’re a big star of the press now, but maybe you’d been willing to tell me what happened.’

It had been easy enough. He’d checked Chapman’s story; it was copacetic. Davis was a bagman for the mob out of Chicago that was trying to get a foothold on the coast. But he’d been keeping back some of the money and they’d found out.

Stone had talked to the union man. Friday nights he met his girlfriend for a few hours at the Olympic when his wife thought he was out at the American Legion. A few quiet facts of life and everything was easily arranged. Davis and his friend had gone to a motor court at the top of University Way. Stone was in the room at the Olympic, gun drawn, ready as the killer picked the lock and entered silently. There wasn’t even a fight.

While he sat, passing time until the assassin showed up, he’d called the crime desk at the Seattle Times.

‘Pat, it’s Dave Stone.’

‘Dave, hey buddy, long time.’ He could almost hear the man sweating for a story. ‘You got something for me?’

You might want to be outside the Olympic a bit later. Bring a photographer with you.’

‘Wait a-’

But he’d already hung up.


‘I had a tip, Cap’n,’ Stone said. ‘Just enough time to get down there before it all happened.’ He could see that McReady didn’t believe a word, but it didn’t matter. There was no one to contradict the story. He’d given Chapman ten bucks and a warning to keep his mouth shut.

‘Is that right?’ the captain asked. ‘And you want to tell me how come the Times just happened to be there with a snapper?’

Stone shrugged.

‘Maybe a bellhop tipped him off.’ He shrugged. ‘I don’t know.’

Pat Drake had laid it on thick in his article. Hero detective, the story read, taking on a murderer single-handedly. And there was his favorite sentence:

Detective Stone, 34, showed that, in spite of stories about corruption on the force, some Seattle policemen put the public first and show extreme bravery.

The photograph had caught his good side, too, as he led out the handcuffed prisoner. A pretty good evening’s work. And he was still home in West Seattle by eleven.

‘The chief promoted you to the empty lieutenant slot,’ MacReady said grudgingly. ‘Congratulations.’





He had to wait while the drawbridge went up and a boat passed along the Duwamish and into Elliott Bay. Then he was hitting the gas and the Buick leaped along the road, up by Longfellow Creek and toward home.

The house was a 1920s Sears catalog bungalow on a lot that still needed grass and plants. He’d picked it up at auction four years before. After the previous owner hadn’t been able to afford the taxes. Stone bumped the car over the dirt and parked by the steps to the back door.

It was a small place, but that was all he needed; he was the only one living there. It wasn’t too heavily settled out here yet; the nearest neighbor was a hundred yards away. But that was changing. It seemed like every month a new house was going up and a fresh family moving in. Right now, though, West Seattle felt like a different place, open and free.

Saturday night, still sunny and warm, but work wasn’t quite over yet. In the bedroom he tuned the radio to KVI as he changed into an old pair of pants and a faded shirt, with a jacket on top to hide his gun.


Alki Beach was busy. Families had arrived in their cars, kids too young to drive had ridden the trolley bus. The stretch of beach was packed, the water full of people. Out in the bay the ferries from the mosquito fleet plowed over to the islands and the peninsula.

This was the Seattle he loved. His father had brought him out here when Luna Park still existed. Stone was just five years old. Given him a fortune, fifty cents, to go on all the rides while he sat at the longest bar in Seattle and drank beer.

About the only time the old man was happy was when he had a full glass on the table and two or three drinks inside him. He’d been a old-time Seattle cop, knocking the heads of the drunks and the grifters south of Yesler until the Alaska gold rush. Just married, he’d left his wife and headed north, returning empty-handed a year later and begging to have his job on the force back. He’d settled down after that, no more running away. Instead, he’d drowned his sorrows and disappointments in the bars.

Stone had learned his lesson early. He enjoyed a drink, but in moderation. The picture of his father stayed at the back of his mind.

He strolled along as far as the lighthouse, watching the pretty women sitting in on the sand and enjoying the evening sun. One or two gazed back, but no one he was interested in knowing. Finally he leaned against a wall, seeing the waves sparkle out in the Sound.

‘Nobody followed you, Loot. I hung back enough to tell.’ Stone didn’t turn toward the man, just nodded and said,

‘Good job. Thanks.’

For the last week Jenkins had been tailing him. Just a year out of uniform and already the best shadow man in the department.

Stone hadn’t wanted it. He didn’t believe the threats that arrived after he arrested the killer at the Olympic Hotel. But Captain McReady was taking no chances. It would look bad if his new lieutenant ended up dead.

Stone didn’t complain, even though he liked the freedom to operate the way he wanted. A couple of times he’d manage to escape, but he couldn’t let it happen too often.

This time he didn’t even try. He strode along the sidewalk and past the screen door into Lou’s Tavern. A few steps and he was hidden in the cool shadows, away from the crowds and the noise. Jenkins would stay outside, eyes alert for trouble.

Stone bought a Rainier and carried it to the last booth at the back of the bar. John Winchester was waiting there, smoking, a half-empty glass in front of him.

‘You’re late, Mr. Stone.’ His voice was tight and he kept looking around.

‘Yeah?’ He checked his watch. ‘Five minutes. Loosen up, Johnny. What you got for me?’

They met once a month, always a Saturday evening, always at Lou’s. It was out of the way, there was a back door, and Lou kept a Colt Police under the bar in case of trouble.

‘Nothing,’ Winchester said. ‘I got nothing this time.’

He was a snappy dresser, wearing a gabardine suit from Frederick’s and a silk tie, trilby resting on the table. When the mood took him, he could be a persuasive talker, when he was getting the people in the jazz clubs of Jackson Street to spend their money on his reefer and cocaine. Stone had a tobacco tin of marijuana in his desk at work, Winchester’s prints all over the metal. That was the reason the man was here now. Good information once a month or jail. Straight choice.

‘Johnny,’ Stone said wearily, ‘I never liked liars. And you don’t do it well.’

Winchester glance darted around again, then he lowered his head as if he was speaking to the table and his voice became little more than a whisper.

‘There’s something big brewing, okay? Last night I saw Duke Swenson talking to Big Ricky Gibson in the Cotton Club, and you know those two don’t even speak.’

‘Could you get close?’ Stone asked.

Winchester shook his head.

‘Bodyguards all around.’

It was bad news. Swenson and Gibson were two of the biggest operators in Seattle. Swenson looked after everything north of the Ship Canal, while Gibson controlled the territory from Chinatown south. The only person missing from the meeting was Chuck Bowden. Downtown and Capitol Hill were his. And the fact that he hadn’t been invited was the worrying part.

‘I need you to find out what you can,’ Stone told him.

Winchester stubbed out his cigarette, lit another and took a drink of his beer.

‘Not a chance, Dave. The word’s out Talk and you’re dead. I shouldn’t even be here with you. You see why I’m scared?’

Swenson and Gibson were ruthless. And they were men of their word.

‘Okay. Keep your ears open. And if you hear anything, let me know. Anything at all.’


At home, he sat in his chair, blinds down, thinking about Winchester’s words. In the background Leo Lassen’s play-by-play on the Rainiers game came out of the radio. Suddenly it was into extra innings, the commentator yelling ‘hang on to those rocking chairs’ and he was hooked until they edged it in the twelfth, five to four, and he turned off the set. Maybe tomorrow he’d go over to Sick’s Stadium, catch the first part of the double-header. Sit with a beer and a hot dog and forget about the world.

Stone smiled as someone tapped on the door. Three short knocks, a pause, then two, another pause, three more, and one. The smile widened into a grin.

‘Hello, angel,’ he said. She came in and wrapped herself around him like she needed the affection. Five feet three, blonde hair, and a smile that could melt ice at a hundred paces. There first time she’d been here in a week.

‘Hello, Johnny. I’ve missed you.’

Stone took a couple beers from the icebox. She leaned back in her chair and sighed. Helga Lindstrom waitressed at the Rainier Club, where the city’s elite gathered to do their business and drinking away from prying eyes. She was a Ballard girl born and bred, Scandihoovian all the way back to the old country, and looked it. But he knew that someone very tough lurked under the delicacy. He’d watched her take down the thief who tried to steal her purse one lunchtime. Two blows and he was out cold on Fourth Avenue. After that, Stone knew he had to ask her on a date.

He lit a pair of Luckies and handed her one.

‘I saw something interesting tonight,’ she told him as she blew out smoke. ‘Chuck Bowden was having dinner with Joe Robinson. Then they went off to the billiard room together after.’ Helga raised an eyebrow.

‘Is that right?’ He tried to sound casual but his mind was racing. Robinson was the city attorney. His job was to put criminals in jail, not eat with them. ‘I don’t suppose you heard any of the conversation?’

‘They had a corner table and a couple of guys with them. Big lummoxes, both carrying. And they shut up while they were being served.’

Winchester was right. Something big was brewing.



Of Turnarounds Or Circles…

…or call it just wandering until you end up where you began.

I’ve harped on before about the way I love Leeds, but it wasn’t always that way. At 17 I couldn’t wait to be out of the place. It seemed so small and parochial and I was ready for somewhere – anywhere – different. The fact that I hadn’t explored most of my own city didn’t even occur to me. Like any teenage boy, I was certain, and I knew that my destiny was somewhere greater than Leeds.

In the end I went overseas, 30 years in the US. Life seemed much brighter over there, in brilliant colours until the muted tones of England. It was open and brimming with possibilities. I enjoyed it. I loved much of it. But life is life, with that annoying habit of only being as good as you make it, no matter where you are.

I’m not even sure exactly how or when my real love affair with Leeds began. Not on the first few visits home to see my parents, that’s for sure. It was, maybe, my curiosity about history that had grown, or some stray fact about the place that someone mentioned. Enough for me to pick up a recently-published history of Leeds and take it back to Seattle. That was the kindling that started the blaze, I do know that.

It wasn’t enough for me to move back to Leeds, of course. I had no intention of doing that. I was in Seattle, 5500 miles away, enjoying being near mountains and water, the glorious views and air.

And then I wasn’t any more.

I was back in England to stay. A number of factors that don’t quite matter here, but I was living on the edge of the Peak District and loving the area. By then I was already writing about Leeds, a novel that was rejected, but with some positive thoughts, enough to get me started on The Broken Token – although the journey that had to publication was long and tortuous. I was back in Leeds very regularly to visit my mother. But no thoughts of returning permanently, especially after she died. At that point I felt I had no tie with the place beyond my writing.

Yes, well.

I’d never imagined the past could exert such a big pull. turns out I was wrong. I published more books set in Leeds, kept returning for events and suddenly I understood how good it would be to be in Leeds all the time. I felt like a politician doing a U-turn. But if it works for them…

Now it’s been almost two years since the return and it was right. My partner loves it here as much as I do, maybe even more, as so many of the things in Leeds are still discoveries to her. My joy isn’t in the comfort of the place, or the arms of my own past around me. It’s being able to touch history. My family’s history, the city’s history. To feel, maybe for the first time, completely grounded.

A Seattle Short Story

Some of you might know that I lived in Seattle for almost twenty years, and that I have two books set there, Emerald City and West Seattle Blues. It’s not Leeds, but the place still has a chunk of my heart.
The main character from those novels, music journalist Laura Benton, popped into my head several weeks ago with a little tale to tell. This is it…(and if you like Laura, those two novels are available as ebooks or audiobooks. Just, you know, a suggestion).

This is to the memory of Cyril/Larry Barrett, a wonderful man and a startlingly original singer and songwriter who died far too soon. And he was a real original.

‘I swear to God,’ he slurred. ‘I’m not shitting you.’
He looked at me, eyes at that point just past focusing, the words barely hitting the mark. I nodded and hoped he’d go away. But Danny had his audience; he wasn’t going to leave anytime soon.
I should have guessed there was a reason for the empty barstool in the Two Bells on a Thursday night, the time most people in Seattle started celebrating the weekend. I’d just planned on a quick beer before walking down to the OK Hotel to catch Girl Trouble.
Instead, I got Danny Hill. Over the last ten years he’d been in at least a dozen bands, none of them good, none of them original. For as long as I’d known him he’d been a drunk. And now he was saying that Nirvana had ripped off one of his songs. It was about as likely as all the Californians who’d arrived here in the last couple of years heading back home again. Especially with Nevermind just out and the whole world suddenly smelling like Teen Spirit. Hey, suddenly we were famous all over again in the Pacific Northwest.
‘I’ll prove it, man,’ Danny said and fumbled in his pocket until he brought out a cassette. ‘You listen to that, okay? Just listen to it. You’ll see.’ He half slid off the stool and vanished toward the john. Time to leave, I decided.
‘He’s ripped,’ Annie the bartender, said, shaking her head. ‘He’s been going on about this all evening. I’m going to cut him off when he comes back. If you’re heading out, do it now, Laura. He’ll be following you all night if you don’t.’
‘Good plan,’ I agreed. ‘I’m going to jet.’

I loved music. I loved writing about it. I’d been lucky enough to make a living from it. Pieces for magazines all over the country, and a lot for The Rocket here in town. The downside was people like Danny. People were always giving me demos, saying they were the shit, they were going to be huge. Most of them ended up like him, working down at Pike Place Market or for Muzak Corporation while they waited for something that was never going to happen.
I still had his cassette in my coat when I walked home later that night. I was living up on Queen Anne, a good, cheap apartment that looked over Lake Union and the downtown skyline. Crane my neck and I could see the Space Needle. Best of all, it was just five blocks from Tower Records.
Girl Trouble had been good – they were always good – a burst of energy that blew out the cobwebs. I just wasn’t ready to sleep yet. I pulled a Henry Weinhard’s from the refrigerator, stuck the tape in the deck and settled back on the couch.
For maybe the first time in his life, Danny was right. I played the song, rewound it, and played it again. Then I dug out my copy of Nevermind. The song wasn’t an exact copy, but it was close enough to make me wonder.
There was no date on the plastic cassette case. I had no idea when it had been recorded, and the whole style was different from Nirvana. Still…

Just after ten the next morning I opened the door of the old building on Fifth Avenue and climbed the stairs to the office The Rocket.
Jack was back in the editor’s ocubbyhole, going over the proofs for the next edition. I tapped on the door and waited until he finished reading the paragraph.
‘Hey,’ he said. ‘What’s up? Got two pieces of yours in here.’ He pointed to the byline: Laura Benton. I’d been seeing it for years but it still made me stupidly proud.
‘Got something interesting. Take a listen to this and tell me what you think.’ I put the cassette on his desk. He gave me an odd look, turned in his chair and put it in the player.
‘Shit,’ he said when it was done. ‘Who gave you that?’
‘Danny Hill. He says he wrote it.’
Jack ran a hand through his hair and gave a long sigh. He knew as well as I did that Danny was a lush.
‘Have you heard the radio this morning?’
I shook my head. I’d slept late, tumbled out of bed and into the shower, then walked downtown.
‘He was killed last night. Hit and run, up in the U-District.’
‘Are you serious?’ I asked, not able to believe it. ‘I just saw him in the Two Bells about nine-thirty.’
He shrugged.
‘All I know is what I heard.’ He took out the cassette and handed it back to me. ‘Sorry.’
‘Maybe…’ I began, then shook my head. ‘No.’ No one was going to kill over a song. Not a band, not even a big record label. That was just stupid. ‘It doesn’t matter.’
‘Look, if you want to see if you can find out about the song, go ahead,’ Jack told me. ‘I mean, it’s probably a coincidence, but…’
‘Just bring it to me if there’s anything interesting, okay?’
I gave him a loose salute and left.

Back in the apartment, I called the Seattle Police Department’s public relations woman. She wasn’t going to give too much away, but she did confirm that a male aged twenty-nine had been struck by a vehicle the night before at a little after eleven. The victim has been taken to Harborview but was declared dead on arrival. The cops were still hunting for the car and driver.
Twenty-nine, I thought. He must have come out here for college. I tried to think where Danny was from. He’d told me once; somewhere back East, I could remember that much, but that was all. As far as I knew, he wasn’t married, and he seemed to break up his bands every six months.
The White Pages showed an address for Daniel Hill on Beacon Hill, nowhere near the U-District. So what could have taken him out that way? That was one question. Then death was another.
First of all, though, I wanted to find out about the song on that cassette. I tried to think back and come up with people who’d played in Danny’s bands. Cathy. She’d done some gigs with him the year before, I knew that. But I didn’t have a number for her.
It took five calls before I managed to find one, and then she wasn’t home. I left a message. All I could do now was wait.
The phone rang a little after six. I’d just finished writing a couple of reviews, the final drafts ready to go in the mail.
‘This is Laura,’ I said.
‘It’s Cathy Leighton. You left a message?’
‘Yeah. I write for The Rocket. I’m calling about Danny Hill.’
‘Oh.’ There was a flat, defensive note in her voice.
‘I know, it’s pretty bad, isn’t it?’
‘Yeah, a friend of mine called to tell me. I mean, I quit his band six months ago, but…’
‘This is going to sound weird,’ I said, ‘but I saw Danny last night. He was pretty wasted, but he gave me a cassette. Just one song on it.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘It…it sounds very much like something else. He kept saying he’d been ripped off, that someone had stolen his song.’ I paused. ‘I told you it was strange.’
‘We recorded some stuff, you know, demos.’ She sounded uncertain, as if she was dredging up memories and not sure about sharing them. ‘But it was all kind of funk back then. He was on this thing like he wanted to be Cameo or something – “Word Up” kind of stuff.’
‘That’s nothing like this,’ I assured her. ‘You didn’t do anything more rock, loud-soft-loud, Pixies-ish?’
‘No. Nothing like that.’ She seemed mystified.
‘Do you have any idea who was playing with him recently?’
‘The last I heard, he was looking for people.’ She hesitated. ‘I mean, I don’t want to say anything bad with him dead and everything, but he wasn’t very easy to get along with. And his songs weren’t so great. Not as good as he thought they were, anyway.’
‘I know that. I’ve seen him play before. Is there anyone you can think of who knew him well, a friend or anything?’
‘Have you talked to Mette?’ Cathy asked.
‘Mette. She’s this Danish girl. They were really close. Not like, you know, but buds.’
‘I’ve never heard of her,’ I said.
‘Let me see what I can find out,’ she offered.

Cathy called back a little before nine. I was zoning out with some stupid TV show, debating whether I wanted to go down to the Ditto and catch Chemistry Set or just stay home.
‘This is Laura,’ I said.
‘Hey, it’s Cathy. I found Mette if you want to talk to her.’ I wrote down the number. ‘I said you’d be calling her.’
‘Thanks,’ I told her. ‘I appreciate it.’
‘If you find out about that tape, let me know. I’m curious now.’

Mette might have been Danish, but there was only the slightest trace of it in her accent, a small lilt of music in the words. She lived on Queen Anne, too, on West Galer just by the top of the hill.
‘I’m sorry about Danny,’ I told her.
‘Thank you.’ Her voice seemed empty and far away. ‘I can’t believe it. I keep thinking…I don’t even know what I’m thinking.’
‘He gave me a tape last night.’
‘Was he drunk?’ she asked.
‘Yeah,’ I admitted. ‘He was.’
She stayed silent for a while.
‘I’d like you to hear it,’ I said finally. ‘See if you recognize it.’
‘Okay,’ she agreed reluctantly. ‘You mean now?’
‘If that’s okay.’
‘I guess,’ Mette said.

I drove over, up Taylor and along the strip past the supermarkets and the restaurants that had blossomed up there. She showed me into a cozy studio, the kitchen with a red Formica table and vintage chairs, then through to the main room. Photographs spilled from a shoebox, all of them of Danny.
I turned and looked at her.
‘Look, if you’d rather do this another time…’
She shook her head, blonde hair swishing from side to side around a big moon face.
‘No, no,’ Mette said in quiet despair. ‘I guess now’s fine.’ She held out a hand and I gave her the cassette.
I watched her face as the song played, the intense concentration, then the way her features softened and the faint smile as Danny’s voice came out of the speakers. She let the whole piece play without saying a word.
‘I’ve never heard it before,’ Mette told me when it was done. But there was more in her tone. ‘I remember the bassline, though. He came up with that a couple of months ago, one night when I was at his apartment.’
‘Two months?’ I asked in astonishment. That was shortly before Nevermind had been released.
She nodded.
‘It wasn’t any longer than that. It can’t have been.’ She pulled a Kleenex from the sleeve of her sweater and dabbed at her eyes. ‘I’m sorry. I…’
A thought struck me.
‘Did Danny ever see Nirvana play?’ I asked. He must have done. It seemed as if every musician in town had been to plenty of their gigs.
‘Oh yeah.’ The small smile returned. ‘He loved those guys. I guess the last time was back in the winter. We went down together. You remember when the weather was really bad?’
I did. During February it had been surprisingly brutal, inches of snow and ice shutting down the city for a few days. Seattle was fine with rain, but we couldn’t cope with worse.
‘It was just after that. I don’t think I ever saw Danny focus as hard on anything as he did that night. It was like he was taking in every note.’
‘Was he drinking much?’
‘Not really. Just a couple beers. He was fine to drive home after.’
I nodded at the tape in the player.
‘What about the song?’
‘I don’t know. It sounds like he did it all himself. That’s his guitar playing and his bass. I’d know it anywhere. He has a four-track. Had,’ she corrected herself.
‘I see.’ It was simple enough. The riff, the idea, had lodged in his head when he’d seen the band. And it had come out later, all his own work, maybe, but so close to the original.
I didn’t know he was insisting he’d been ripped off. Very likely he’d just convinced himself it was that way. I didn’t know what went on in an alcoholic’s mind. And we’d never find out. Danny wasn’t around anymore to say.
‘Do you know why he’d go up to the U-District?’ I asked. ‘He was down in Belltown when I saw him, at the Two Bells.’
‘Sheila.’ The word came out so quietly that for a second I believed I’d imagined it.
‘Sheila.’ Mette looked at me. ‘They broke up a month ago. She lives up near there. He’d get drunk and just stand across the street from her place, out of sight. No hassles,’ she added quickly. ‘He wasn’t like that. But she called the cops once. They warned him, but he kept going back.’
It was creepy. It was disturbing. Once I thought about it, I could believe it was something Danny would do. But I could see from Mette’s face that she wished Danny had loved her.
‘Thank you,’ I told her.
‘Do you mind if I keep the tape?’ she asked. ‘You know.’
I did.
‘It’s all yours.’ I didn’t need it any more.

I was awake early, struggling out of strange, dark dreams that evaporated as soon as I opened my eyes. In the kitchen I made coffee and switched on the radio, the news on KUOW.
‘Police have made an arrest in the hit-and-run killing of a man the night before last in the U-District. The deceased has been named as Daniel Hill. The driver is said to have been intoxicated at the time of the accident.’
So simple. So terrible. So fucking empty.

Time, Place And the Quote Of Great Joy

Back at the start of 1986, a decade after moving to America, I ended up in Seattle. Once I had the chance to find my feet, the city felt like home. For those who don’t know it, it’s a place that lives up to the hype in its beauty, scenery and people. I was happy there. But there was that lingering feeling of being a man without a country, not quite American, not quite English.

Four months ago I finally came back to Leeds. It only took 37 years for me to find my way home. And home is a real, deep feeling. I do feel like someone who’s found his true place in the world. Considering that most of my novels have been set here, it’s taken me a while to realise that this is where I belong. I feel this city deep in my bones, the way I can feel no other. I understand it, and in an odd way I feel that it understands me.

I’ve been writing about Leeds quite a bit lately. Not just the monthly history blog (which has now migrated to the Leeds Big Bookend website), but my books. August sees the publication of Gods of Gold, the first in a new series set in the Leeds of 1890. I’ve completed another one set in Leeds, Dark Briggate Blues, a surprisingly noir novel – well, that aspect surprised me, anyway – in 1954 Leeds, and I’m at work on the second Victorian novel.

This is the place that moves me, that makes my heart beat a little fast.

And yet. And yet…I can’t fully say goodbye to Seattle. It’s a place with plenty of memories, the home of my son, and where I made many friends. I’m not ready to see it sail away just yet. My way of dealing with all that, to try and make sense of the past, is to write about it. Out of that comes West Seattle Blues. It’s the second of my Seattle books, and this one takes place in March and early April of 1994. For anyone who knows music and Seattle, that’s a time to ring big bells. A time when the course of history altered a little. Here’s the cover.


But it’s going to be Leeds that fills my time for a while yet. Not just living in the here and now, but also with my head in 1890/91.

And I teased with that talk about a quote, didn’t I? It’s one that’s made my month, probably my year. I had one a year ago from Candace Robb, one of the great historical crime novelists (and someone who’s become a treasured friend), whose work influenced the way I’ve looked at mine. My publishers used it on promotional material and it really helped. For Gods of Gold I plucked up my courage and approached the wonderful writer Joanne Harris, who’s read the Richard Nottingham books, to ask if she’d be willing to read this new one and, if she liked it, to write a few words about it. Well, she was willing, more than gracious and once she’d finished it, this is what she replied:

Gods of Gold creates a vibrant sense of living history and of place, with strong, well-drawn characters and dialogue that’s just made for film, as well as a damn good story.”

Happy? I was over the moon. I still bloody am. As was my publisher. Thank you, Joanne. That, very proudly is going on the book cover.

And I wish you all a happy Valentine’s Day.

My Son

Yesterday my son flew home to Seattle at the end of his annual summer visit. It’s never the easiest day for either of us, but by now we’re used to it. After all, this is the eighth year in a row. But there was something a little different about this trip. It might well be his last for a few years.

In 2005 I moved back to the UK from America. My wife and I had divorced, and for many reasons I chose to leave the US. I’d weighed things out very carefully before coming to a decision. After all, my son was there, just 10 when I left. But he could spend every summer here with me, we could talk every day – I’d bought him a cell phone and there was MSN for chatting, onscreen and even with a webcam.

We were lucky. As a writer I’d been able to work from home since he was born. We’d had the chance to spend time together, to form a real bond and become close. That made a huge difference. I believe that I could move away and that bond would remain strong.

I remember picking him up at Heathrow Airport in 2006, having to sign for him like a package. He’d flown on his own, looked after by cabin crew and escorted through the airport. I’d never, ever been happier to see someone. We took the train into London, then the underground, and finally another train north. He was tired – it’s a nine-and-a-half hour flight – but still wide-eyes and marvelling at how large and just how green England was.

The parting that year was tearful, on both sides, the journey back to my flat bleak and empty. Next year was better, even with the adventure of the 2007 floods that left us stranded overnight in Derby. He’d grown, as he has every year since.

In just over a week from now he’ll turn 18. He’ll spend his birthday at his university orientation. But he’s already a man, thoughtful, responsible, intelligent and creative. His loves – manga, anime, mathematics – aren’t mine, but that’s as it should be. We share other things. We talk three times a week, but that will change soon enough, I’m sure. The options for communication – email, Facebook, phone, Skype, Facetime – have grown exponentially. We can be in touch anytime. I can be there for him if he needs me.

He’s the very best part of me. I’m proud of who he’s become, although much of the credit for that goes to his mother. And now he’s about to begin this new life as a college student. He seems to be ready to take it in his stride. Me? I’m full of trepidation, although I’m sure he’ll be fine. I’m as anxious as…a parent. I’m lucky. The bond is still strong between us. But he’ll be making new friends, and have new plans for his year. Already he’s talking about taking classes next summer. Things will be different now. I always knew they would, he’s growing up and growing away into his own life, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

But I’ll always love him and be proud of him.

Thinking About Tattoos

Back in 1989, when the Re/Search book Modern Primitives appeared, I was living in Seattle and saw the ripples it caused. Within a few very short years people who weren’t ex-cons, ex-service or gang members were wearing barbed wire and Celtic design tattoo bands around biceps and calves, and a healthy smattering of California’s finest tattoo artists had set up shop in the Emerald City.

Nowadays I’m back in England and until last week I worked a few hours a week in a corner shop. Both there and in supermarkets- everywhere, in fact – I’ve been quite amazed at the number of men of all ages with tattoos. There was a customer in his 20s, with a shaved head and menacing manner, with a scorpion on the side of his skull and a teardrop under his eye (and yes, I know what the latter is meant to signify). So many with tattoos on their necks. Women with them inside their forearms, on their backs, feet.

The speculation in the 90s, as the percentage of tattoos among white folk shot up, was that it was a need to belong, to feel part of a tribe. That was 20 years ago and tattoos are now more prevalent than ever, certainly in England. Is that sense of identity so lacking that the need to tattoos has become much greater? Does this explain the fact that so many EDL members seem to be tattooed in pictures (they all also seem to have shaved heads, but that’s another topic), this urge to belong?

Modern Primitives dealt not only with tattoos but also piercings, although (in England, anyway) the fad for them has passed.  That seems strange, given how widespread they became. But why do tattoos remain so vital? I do genuinely want ideas and opinions. If you have a tat, why did you get it? Do you want more? What do you think is the reason so many have/desire them?