When The Music Plays In Chesterfield

All too often I’m amazed at the things that have happened because I started writing historical crime novels. Things I could never have anticipated or imagined. I’ve helped with an exhibition, The Vote Before The Vote, that showcased the 19th century Leeds woman who worked towards a proper franchise. I was commissioned to write a play about Dark Briggate Blues’ Dan Markham by Leeds Jazz Fest, and ended up with something that included a live jazz quintet and sold out two performances. I’ve become the writer-in-residence for Abbey House Museum in Leeds.

But Saturday was perhaps the most surreal experience of them all. I was in Chesterfield for the matinee performance of The Crooked Spire, the murder-mystery music that had been made from my novel set in the town in 1360.

Full disclosure. I’m not a fan of musicals, so I approached this with a degree of trepidation.

But it was outstanding. A very professional production, with full credit to all the backstage people who helped make it that way, A superb band that was always spot-on. Wonderful direction and production, a great set and costumes.

Of course, it’s the actors that we see and hear. They were great. The audience loved it. So did I. I knew it wouldn’t quite be my book on the stage, and it wasn’t. It would have felt wrong if it had been. This told its story beautifully. Some of the songs were quite transcendent and deserve a life beyond the five performances of the run. I hope they have that chance.

After the show, I took part in a Q&A with the director, musical arranger, set/costume designer, script writer, and producer, and felt embarrassed when many of the initial questions were for me. After all, the others were the ones responsible for what they’d just seen. But at the end, when people came up and brought out copies of the book or their programmes for me to sign (one man had his autograph book, his “memory book” as he called it), I was moved. Dumbfounded.

The Crooked Spire had gone beyond anything I’d envision when it was published nine years ago. It’s grown far beyond me.

I’m told that the performances were recorded and something will be available online soon. I’ll let you know.

Strange things happen when you write, and some of them are wonderful.

Popping Up All Over

The details are on my events page, but I’m heading into a busy season of showing my face in public after two years of being behind closed doors.

April 15, Good Friday, I’ll be at Waterstones in Chesterfield, signing copies of my four Chersterfield books, all set there in the 1360s. Performers from the murder-mystery musical of The Crooked Spire will be there in costime, performing some songs from the show. Just show up between 10.30 and 12.

On April 20 I’ll be at Chapel Allerton library. It’s the place I went to as a kid, so it has great resonance for me, especially as I had to rearrange last month’s date. It’s free, but you need to book your ticket here.

Friday, April 29 will be me in auspicious company at Waterstones in Harrogtate, part of a panel with Julia Chapman (the Dales Detective) and Bella Ellis (the Bronte Sisters mysteries).

The Real Crooked Spire

It’s that time of year again. The leaves tumbling down off the tress to form piles you just have to kick and jump in. The first frost. The silent thanks for a working boiler in the morning. And a time to go from my old – and also very new – stamping grounds for a visit to a place I explored a few years ago.

This Saturday (that’s November 23rd, 2013 for those who discover this blog in a time capsule) and on December 9 I’ll be in Chesterfield. It’s all to do with the launch of my new book, The Crooked Spire – which also happens to be the name everyone uses for the Church of St. Mary and All Saints in the town.


It’s a beautiful building, which dates from 1360, and part of one of the loveliest market towns I know. Climb up the tower to the base of the spire and Chesterfield is spread out beneath you. But watch because, because the spire, more than 100 feet of it, is only held on to the tower by its own weight. And yes, it’s definitely crooked. There are several theories about that…

The first is that the builders used unseasoned wood for the spire. Given that the Black Death had wiped out many craftsmen, it’s possible that the builders didn’t know that the oak needed to be left for three years before use. After it was covered, the word dried and began to warp, which resulted in the twist so visible today.

That’s one fairly reasonable explanation. The others are much better. One tale goes that the spire, hearing a wedding in the church, was so amazed that there was a virgin in Chesterfield, craned around to look at the woman and couldn’t fully straighten itself. Should another virgin ever marry in the church, the spire will straighten itself. And in the third story, a blacksmith in Bolsover, a few miles away, was putting a new iron shoe on the Devil. He mishit a nail, which drove deep in the Devil’s hoof, causing him to leap in pain. Hanging on to the spire, he twisted it.

These days, though, there’s belief is that the twisting is related to the lead on the spire, which came a few centuries after it was built; the original covering was oak tiles over the beams. The heating and contraction of the lead caused the warping. There are, however, many who discount that.

Whatever the reason, there’s an odd phenomenon. The first reports of the spire being crooked didn’t come until the 17th century, long, long after it was built. But since then it’s become Chesterfield’s main feature and symbol. And the church, both inside and out, is a place of real wonder.

A Few Thoughts To End March

March has been an eventful month. Right at the tail end of February At the Dying of the Year came out, the fifth Richard Nottingham mystery, and a book I’m very proud to have written. It cut deep into my soul and drained me emotionally to write it.

Then, for March, my publisher scored a Kindle 100 deal in the US for The Constant Lovers. The upshot is that the book’s been featured on the Kindle 100 page and pushed by Amazon. And, to help, the publisher lowered the prices of the other ebooks in the series. Having kept track during the month (as well as pushed them on Twitter and Facebook – sorry!) it’s definitely had an effect. At one stage three out of the four books were in the Top 20 in the Kindle Historical Mystery section. I know, a small sub-genre, but it made me very, very happy.

As if that wasn’t enough, I finished the rewrite of the sixth Richard Nottingham book, Fair and Tender Ladies, and heard back from the publisher – within 48 hours, no less! – with an acceptance. The result of this is that I’ll end up with four novels out during 2013, a pair of Richard Nottinghams, The Crooked Spire, my medieval book set in Chesterfield, and the one we’re coming to next.

March 29 was the publication day for Emerald City. It’s a very different kind of book for me, and the only one to date that draws on the write what you know theory. It’s set in Seattle, where I lived for 20 years, set in the just pre-grunge (hate that word) music scene, and it’s a murder mystery featuring a music journalist (which I still am, although I’ve never actually murdered anyone. Yet). But it’s the closest to the present day that I’ve come, although the central character is female, a change suggested by the publisher for very practical reasons, as it meant that the excellent Lorelei King could narrate the audiobook, and she does a superb job of it.

There was also a week’s break in Whitby, no snow but a withering wind off the sea for most of the time. Yet it was curiously enjoyable, discovering a church with beautiful medieval wall paintings in Pickering and a day in Durham, where I’d never been before and seeing a Norman cathedral. I’m more familiar with the slightly later elegance of York and Lincoln, so airy and light. By comparison, this seemed somewhat oppressive. The city itself, however, was lovely. And, of course, a walk along the beach to Sandsend and a little time at the abbey.

Now I’m back where I should be, in the Leeds gas strike of 1890, trying to catch murderers and find a missing girl.

To any of you who bought one of these books this month, or at any time, thank you so much. It sounds trite, but I really do appreciate it.

The Crooked Spire

A few weeks ago, some of you might have noticed me announce on Facebook and Twitter that I’ve signed a contract for a new book, The Crooked Spire. Technically, I’m awaiting the contract from the publisher, but my agent has ironed out the details and it’s a done deal.

People outside North Derbyshire or South Yorkshire might not be aware of exactly what the Crooked Spire is. It’s St. Mary’s Church in Chesterfield and yes, the spire is crooked. Built right around 1360, with the spire added just after – around 1361 – it’s reputed to be the largest church in Derbyshire, and quite beautiful. Yes, the spire is crooked (Google it), and the supposed reason is that unseasoned, green timber was used in its construction. However, there’s no mention of it twisting for a few centuries after so, in many ways, it’s anyone’s guess, and these days it’s all covered in lead so it’s impossible to see. You can go up to the base of the spire and look out over the town – a great view – and see just how the spire leans. What’s possibly worrying is that the only thing holding the spire in place on the tower is its own weight.

There are other folk tales as to how the spire ended up so twisted, one involving the devil landing on it, although my favourite is that a virgin was marrying in the church and the spire was so astonished that a virgin could be found in Chesterfield that it twisted to look and couldn’t twist back.

For four-and-a-half years after moving back to England I lived in Dronfield, a small town just six miles from Chesterfield. It’s the place where I did my shopping, where I’d wander the market – the market square is the same one laid out in 1265 – and through the cramped streets that make up the Shambles, where the butchers had their shops. It’s a place that’s held on to much of its history.

The Black Death tore Europe apart from 1348-50. Estimates are that around one-third of the population died, although it’s impossible to be certain. What we do know is that it upset the social order and sparked the end of feudal society, creating more freedom. It makes for an interesting back from John the Carpenter – this is an era just before established surnames – a young worker in wood, originally from Leeds, orphaned when young, his only heirlooms a bag of tools and a rare ability to sense the wood, to be able to make things from it. He arrives in Chesterfield, having fled York and work on the Minster there. It’s a time when a skilled man can find a job anywhere, with nothing to tie him down and reasonable wages.

It’s a murder mystery. The master carpenter is found dead at the top of the church tower and, as a stranger, John is immediately suspect. He has to prove his innocence and find out exactly who’s responsible. At the same time, against his plans, he begins to find he’s growing attached to some people in the town and wanting to stay…

And that’s pretty much all I’m going to say. There’s no set date for publication, although autumn looks likely for The Crooked Spire. When I know more I’ll pass it on…