Who Are The Thief-Takers of Leeds?

Thief-taker.

The title has a ring of romance, doesn’t it? Basically a forerunner of the private detective, back before there was an organised police force, other than the Bow Street Runners. But, like being a private detective, there was precious little glamour involved.

Simon Westow is a thief-taker, quite possibly the only one in Leeds at the start of the 1820s, when he first appeared in The Hanging Psalm. To understand how he makes his living, you need to know how justice worked in those days. Big crimes were prosecuted by the state – in The Hocus Girl, it’s the government, through its magistrates, who come after Simon’s good friend Davey Ashton – but theft was a different matter. When items were stolen, the victims would advertise in newspapers for their return. The thief-taker would endeavour to retrieve them for a fee. The victim could prosecute the thief, but it would be done privately, with no guarantee of success. No surprise that most people were simply happy to get their goods back.

Some thief-takers were corrupt, in cahoots with thieves. Simon, though, is far more upright. An honourable man who grew up in the workhouse, bullied and beaten in the early factories where he was sent to work. Until he was 13, already physically imposing, and he’d had enough. He walked out, to face life on his own terms.

He’s been lucky. Very good at his work, he’s become a wealthy man, with a house on Swinegate (that ironically belonged to Amos Worthy, a violent crook who lived there in the 1730s – see the Richard Nottingham books), a resourceful wife who helps at time, and twin sons.

simon and rosie thief taker

Simon and Rosie Westow

He’s a man of principle, trustworthy, respected – and also dangerous. He’s learned from all manner of people: how to fight with knives (he carries there – one on his belt, a second in his boot, and a third up his sleeve), to pick locks, to be a card sharp. And he’s intelligent, a man who can think on his feet.

He’d hate the term, but he’s a hero.

That’s Simon, but who is Jane?

She’s the enigma, the girl who appeared one day to help him find someone. A young woman by the time of The Hocus Girl. She has the ability to follow without being detected and to know when someone is shadowing her. As soon as she pulls the shawl over her hair, she becomes like every other woman: invisible. She knows every inch of Leeds; for fives years she lived on the streets, thrown out by her mother after being raped by her father. She’d a survivor, not afraid or anyone or anything. A killer when she has to be. Someone who expects perfection from herself, and cuts her flesh when she can’t achieve it.

She’s utterly self-contained, able to put all the parts of her life in different compartments and lock them away. She doesn’t need anybody. She doesn’t want anybody. What she owns, she carries in the pocket of her dress, and her most precious possession is her knife. She has money – Simon pays her half of what they earn together – but it’s buried under a tree. She’s a rich young woman if she wants to be, but it’s nothing to her.

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Jane

Jane lives with Simon and his wife, Rosie, sleeping in their attic. But it’s a place with a bed, not a home for her. She could walk away without a qualm. There’s only one person in Leeds that she cares about, an old widow named Catherine Shields, who lives in a space off Green Dragon Yard where the town seems to vanish.

Over the course of The Hocus Girl, Jane is going to learn about herself and her past. Things she’d never imagined, things she’d chosen to erase. She’ll learn to come face to face with the truth.

Simon Westow and Jane…the thief-takers.

The cheapest place to pre-order a copy of The Hocus Girl is right here. But better still, why not order it from your local independent bookshop, or from Blackwell’s or Waterstones?

If you want to know what a hocus girl does…you’ll have to read the book.

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What People Are Saying About The Leaden Heart (And Some Thoughts Of My Own)

Last night I was in a library talking to people about The Leaden Heart. I was happy to do it – and not just because it’s one of my favourite libraries, the one I used all through my childhood.

I’m proud of it. It’s out there with my name on it. Months of work and thought went into the writing. I want people to read it.

One gentleman said he thought it was the best of my books, with strong parallel stories and very tight plotting. That last bit, if it’s there, is more good luck that planning. I don’t plot. My characters lead the stories. The most I do is nudge them.

This morning I’ve been thinking about what he said. It chimes with the reviews the book has received. I’m gratified. I honestly believe that with The Tin God, my writing moved up a notch. That’s something every writer wants, to make each book better than the last. We learn, we strive to improve. It’s there too in The Hanging Psalm and now this. And having gone through the publisher’s edit for The Hocus Girl, which appears this autumn, I feel it’s also in that.

But I’m glad others see it. More than people may really know.

Thanks to all who’ve read the book. I’d love it if all of you did, whether it’s buying a hardback or ebook. And if you leave a review, may your soul be blessed.

Meanwhile, a look at some of those reviews might sway you.

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Thank You

It’s almost four weeks since The Hanging Psalm was published, three since the launch event. The conventional wisdom is that there’s a two-week window after publication in which to make a splash about a book, something that can be especially important with a new series.

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I’m perhaps luckier than most; with a gap between UK and US publications, I have two of those windows. That said, one isn’t any easier than the other. So many books appear these days, from traditional publishers and independents, that it’s hard to be heard above the noise.

Reviews help. They help beyond compare, especially in these days when we’re all online. But still, the most important is word of mouth. I don’t expect everyone to like my books. Historical crime is niche enough. Leeds historical crime is an even smaller niche. and I certainly don’t expect everyone to like all my books (although I can live in hope).

But, if you do like one, please tell your friends. Ask your local library to stock a copy – most library services will order the book if they don’t already have it. Like every other author, I love people taking my books out of the library. They’re such a vital community resource and they need to be used as much as possible. Read all you want and it costs you nothing. What could be better than that?

There’s also a bonus for writers. Not only do we receive the royalty when the service buys a copy, we receive a small amount whenever someone borrows one of our books, whether a physical or ebook copy. Win-win, truly.

Yes, I want to sell books. I want people to read what I write. That’s why it’s out there. But I depend on people like you. Without you, it all falls apart very quickly.

So I thank you for all you’ve done, and hope I can keep you entertained and make you think for quite a few years yet.

One final thing. If you’re in the UK and haven’t read The Tin God yet (I’m immensely proud of that book, and of Annabelle Harper in it), the hardback is currently £10.07 on Amazon (sorry, US readers). Not my favourite retailer, but if you’re looking to give the feminist in your life a Christmas gift, well…this would definitely fit the ball. Maybe you can see the printing sell out – that would be a great present for me.

But whatever happens, thank you all.

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How Do I Rate My Books?

As you hopefully know, I have a new book coming out next week (it called The Hanging Psalm, in case you weren’t aware). Take a big breath time, it’s the start of a new series, and my publisher has just accepted the follow-up, which will be appearing in a year’s time (I know, it’s hard to think that far in advance).

When something like that happens, though, I tend to look at those titles on my bookshelf with my name on them and have a think about them. It’s very rare for me to go back and re-read any. Certainly not for pleasure; I might have forgotten the details of the plots, but not the months of work that went into each one. If you’re a writer, by the time you’ve written something, revised it, gone through the publisher’s edits and then the proofs, you’re pretty much sick of seeing it.

But I have a surprising number of books out there. Quite often it astonishes me, makes me wonder just how that happened. And it makes me wonder what I think of them in retrospect. So, it’s time for an honest assessment.

 

I started out with the Richard Nottingham books. The Broken Token took several years to see the light of day. It was finished in 2006 and finally appeared four years later. In my memory, it’s curiously poetic, as is most of the series, a style that seemed to fit the character and the times – Leeds in the 1730s, for those who don’t know. Cold Cruel Winter was named one of the Mysteries of the Year by Library Journal, something that floored me. It’s a book that came from a single fact – the trial transcripts of executed men were sometimes bound in their skin. What crime writer wouldn’t relish doing something with that? And it was where I began to explore the grey area between right and wrong. The third book, The Constant Lovers, has its points, but taking Richard out of Leeds, even if it’s just into the surrounding villages, was probably a misstep. It diffused the focus. Leeds, tight and dense, is his milieu, and he’s been back in there ever since. The standout in the series for me, though, will always be At the Dying of the Year. It was the hardest to write, the one that cut deepest into me and left me depressed for a while afterwards. But the emotions are very raw and real on every page. Even thinking about it now, I can still feel them. Returning to Richard after a few years with Free from All Danger felt like a homecoming of sorts. I’d originally intended eight books in the series. That was number seven, but it left him at the end with some share of happiness, and God knows he deserves that.

I do have a soft spot for the pair of novels featuring Lottie Armstrong (Modern Crimes and The Year of the Gun). She’s so vibrant and alive, both as a young woman and in her forties. It’s impossible not to like her. The problem is that I painted myself into a corner; it’s impossible to ever bring her back, although she seems quite happy to leave things as they are. In different ways, I’m hugely proud of them both, and particularly of Lottie. I still feel she might pop in for a cup of tea and a natter.

The Dan Markham books (Dark Briggate Blues and The New Eastgate Swing) book came after re-reading Chandler once again and wondering what a private detective novel set in the North of England would be like. I found my answers. The original is the better book, harder and more real, and it spawned a play, to my astonishment. The second certainly isn’t bad, but it doesn’t quite catch the pizazz of the first.

Then there are the anomalies – a three-book series set in medieval Chesterfield. The first came as a literal flash on inspiration, the others were harder work, and the difference shows. I lived down by there for a few years, I like the town itself and I think that shows. There’s also a pair of books set in Seattle in the 1980s and ‘90s that hardly anyone knows about – they’re only available on ebook and audiobook. But I spent twenty years in that city, a big chunk of my life, and I loved it. I was involved in music as a journalist (still am, to a small degree), and the novels, still crime, are part of that passion. You know what? I still really believe in them. They’re pretty accurate snapshots of a time and place, and the scenes that developed in the town – the way music itself was a village in a booming city.

The Dead on Leave, with Leeds in the 1930s of the Depression, was a book born out of anger at the politics around and how they seem to be a rehash of that period. It’s a one-off, it has to be, but I do like it a lot – more time might change my view, but honestly, I hope not.

And that brings me to Tom and Annabelle Harper. I’m not quite sure why, but I feel that they’re maybe my biggest achievement to date. That’s a surprise to me, given that I swore I’d never write a book set in Victorian times. Yet, in some ways they feel like the most satisfying. More complex, yet even more character-driven. And I think someone like Annabelle is the biggest gift anyone can be given. She’s not the focus of the novels, but she walks right off the page, into life. I didn’t create here – she was there, waiting for me. And what feel like the best books in the series are the ones that involve her more, in an organic way: Skin Like Silver and The Tin God. Not every book works as well as I’d hoped; in Two Bronze Pennies I don’t think I achieved what I set out to do. My ambition was greater than my skill. But maybe I’m getting there. The next book in the series, The Leaden Heart, takes place in 1899, the close of a century, and I feel I’m starting to do all my characters real justice. I’m currently working on one set in 1908, so the 20th century is already here, and I still want to take them to the end of World War I, a natural closing point for the series. I feel that I’m creating not only good crime novels, and I strive to make each one quite different, but also a portrait of a family in changing times – and also a more complete picture of Leeds.

And that’s always been the subtext, although it took me a long time to realise it. Leeds is the constant, the character always in the background, changing its shape and its character a little in each era. And I’m trying to portray that, to take the readers there, on its streets, with their smells and noises. I’m hoping to have a novel set in every decade from 1890s-1950s (maybe even the ‘60s, if inspiration arrives), to show how the place changed.

In a way, the nearest I’ve come to running after the character that is Leeds and its essence is a collection of short stories, Leeds, the Biography, even if I didn’t realise it at the time. It’s based on anecdotes, snippets of history, and folk tales, and runs from 360 CE to 1963. For the most part, they’re light tales. But one has resonance – Little Alice Musgrove. That still stands as a good story (you can probably find it online)

But with The Hanging Psalm, out next week, I’m going back to an unexplored place, Leeds in the 1820s, when the Industrial Revolution was still quite new. The Regency, although there’s very little gentility to it; better to describe it as Regency Noir. The book is still too fresh for me to asses it fairly. But I do know how electric it felt to write. So I’m hopeful it will stand the test of time in my mind…and in the meantime, I hope you’ll buy it (definitely buy it if you can!) or borrow it from the library and enjoy it.

Hanging Psalm revised

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