More From The Hocus Girl And Big News

A week and a half until The Hocus Girl is published in the UK.

Yes, I do believe it’s a good book, one of my very best (if you want to know, I feel it’s up there with Cold Cruel Winter, At The Dying of the Year, The Tin God, The Leaden Heart, and The Year of the Gun). It brings real depth to the characters, which you can never do with the first book in a series; at that point, you’re still getting to know them yourself. But Jane in this book…I knew from The Hanging Psalm that she was someone special, but in this she blooms…well, you’ll have to read the book and see, won’t you?

And…BIG BIG NEWS…to put the icing on the week, the publisher has said they’ll be putting out the third book with Simon Westow and Jane at the end of September 2020 (hard to believe such a time exists!). It’s called To The Dark.

Meanwhile, have two more brief extracts from The Hocus Girl to push you to buy it/reserve from the library.

 

As he walked back towards Leeds, Simon sensed someone behind him. Trying to be quiet and doing a piss-poor job of it.

Close to Lady Bridge the path curved, the bushes at the side growing thick and wild. For a handful of seconds, he’d be out of sight. That was long enough. Simon slipped the knife from his sleeve.

By the time the man appeared, head moving from side to side in confusion, Simon was hidden from view. He loosened a second knife in his boot. Give it another few moments. Long enough for the follower to grow frustrated.

Screened behind the leaves, Simon held his breath. A broad, hulking man with a vicious expression was staring this way and that. A club dangled from his belt, next to his knife. Very likely another weapon or two hidden on his body.

The man turned, eyes searching, then stared at the road beyond the bridge. Lady Lodge stood alone, surrounded by a field and a hedge before the hill rose towards a row of half-built houses.

Simon eased himself out from the branches, tensed then dashed forward. Just five paces, but he was moving fast enough to send the man sprawling as he caught him behind his thighs.

The man tried to turn. Before he could struggle, Simon was on him, kneeling on his back, the edge of his blade against the side of his neck as he searched him. Two knives and the club. Simon tossed them into the beck. It had only taken three seconds, and the rush of it left his breathing ragged.

‘I don’t like people following me.’

No response.

‘Why are you doing it?’

‘Orders.’ The man’s voice was stifled in the dirt. Simon grabbed him by the hair.

‘Whose orders?’

‘Curzon.’

Now he knew who this man was. The magistrate’s bodyguard. Whittaker, the former government man.

‘And why does Mr Curzon care what I do?’

‘You’ve been asking questions about his case.’

‘Is that a crime now?’

‘It is if you try to stop justice.’

‘No, Mr Whittaker.’ He felt the man stir at the mention of his name. ‘I’m trying to stop an injustice. You’re going to go back and tell your master that.’

Whittaker snorted. ‘Do you reckon that’ll be the end of it? He’ll give up and apologize because you’re not happy? He’s more powerful than you’ll ever be.’

‘That doesn’t mean he’ll always win. You might want to remind him of that.’ He felt the man tense under him, ready to try and move. ‘Don’t,’ Simon warned. He pressed the steel hard against Whittaker’s neck. ‘I’ll have you dead before you even reach your knees.’

‘We’ll be seeing each other again.’

‘I daresay we will.’

‘Next time things be different.’

‘We’ll find out about that, won’t we?’ He rose swiftly, standing back with his knife ready. ‘Your weapons are in the water. The current won’t have carried them far.’

Simon walked away, alert, ready for Whittaker to chase after him. But he didn’t come.

Curzon had set his dog to warn Simon off. If his case was so strong, why would he need to do that?

 

She needed him to follow her to the churchyard. She’d be waiting there, waiting for him.

The man was twenty paces behind her, she judged. Even in the crowd she could pick out the rhythm of his feet as he followed her. She’d have plenty of time to prepare.

Jem was over by the wall, sitting and watching. He stirred as he saw her. Jane gave him a small sign: stay there, don’t move. Then she stood, as if she was slightly lost, waiting for someone. The knife was concealed in her hand.

Whittaker came up behind her. He probably thought he was quiet, but to her ears, he might as well have been an army on the move. He was close when she turned, and for the smallest moment his step faltered. Then he was on her, leering, his eyes hungry.

‘So you’re Westow’s little slut. People tell me you’re dangerous. There’s nothing to you.’

His hand moved, cupping her breast, fingers squeezing so hard that the pain shot through her. It shocked, it hurt, but Jane didn’t let her face betray a thing. One second, two and then three. Just long enough for him to think her had her cowed. The hilt of the knife rubbed against her gold ring as she let it slide in her fingers. Her right hand shot up and the blade carved a line down his cheek.

He jumped back as if he’d been burned, raising his hand to his face and bringing it down to stare in disbelief at the blood.

‘You bitch!’ he shouted.

Jane didn’t move. She stood with the knife in her hand. Her voice was quiet and calm, hardly more than a whisper.

‘I’m going to kill you,’ she told him. ‘For Henry.’

She took a step forward and Whittaker retreated, still pressing a hand to his face. Blood seeped through his fingers, dripping down his neck to stain the white of his shirt.

He kept moving, watching her until there was enough distance for him to turn his back and walk off.

She’d bested him. Humiliated him. He wouldn’t let this rest. He couldn’t; he was a man. Jane knew that before she began, but she didn’t care. The next time, though, he’d be cautious. He’d be slow. That didn’t matter. She’d do exactly as she promised.

‘Did he hurt you?’ Jem had run across as soon as it was safe.

‘He tried.’ She could still feel Whittaker’s touch on her body. Her breast ached. The mark of his fingers would show in a few hours. The hurt went deeper in her, to her core. She wouldn’t forget and she’d never forgive. ‘But I hurt him more.’ She turned to the boy. For now she’d put it out of her mind; there would be time to think about everything tonight. ‘Have you found the man with the limp?’

Hocus Girl final

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A Taste Of The Hocus Girl

In a little more than a fortnight, The Hocus Girl will be out in the UK (Amazon is already sending copies to customers). If you’re a blogger or review, the book is available on NetGalley.

Yes, I really do want you to buy it. I’ll try to persuade you and twist your arm.

But perhaps a few short extracts might convince you. You can order from your local bookshop. Give them the business, keep them going. And if you can’t afford it, then please ask your local library to stock it. Libraries are vital to us all. We need to use them, to fight to keep them open.

I hope you enjoy this – please let me know.

 

Near the top of Kirkgate, Simon pushed open the heavy door of the gaol. The place was old now, mortar crumbling between the stones, cold even in the spring sun. The clerk at the desk raised his head.

‘Mr Westow,’ he said in surprise. ‘Have you brought someone for us?’

‘Davey Ashton. Do you have him in the cells?’

‘No, sir.’ The man frowned and pushed the spectacles up his nose. He put down his pen and rubbed the fingers of his right hand. ‘There’s no one by that name. When was he arrested?’

‘This morning.’

The clerk’s expression cleared and his mouth turned down. ‘Is this the sedition case?’

‘Yes.’

‘They’re questioning him at the Moot Hall. I’ll warn you now, though, they won’t let you in. It’s supposed to be secret, but I’ve heard there have been arrests all over the West Riding. Breaking up a rebellion, that’s what they’re saying.’

Simon felt a chill rise through his body. Rebellion was a capital crime. The death penalty. Hanging. In God’s name, what was going on?

‘Who’s the magistrate?’

‘Mr Curzon.’

He knew all about Curzon. A mill owner, a rich man who paid his workers as little as he dared and worked them as hard as he could. A man who’d honed away his compassion and conscience and replaced them with gold.

He’d be putting his questions, damning Davey to hell and threatening him with transportation for life or the noose. Simon felt the desperation clawing in his belly. He had to do something. But he wouldn’t even be able to see Davey until Curzon was done. And he didn’t know how he could save his friend.

‘I see. Thank you.’ A nod and he left. At least he knew his enemy now.

 

‘The government’s spying on Englishmen?’ For a moment, Simon wasn’t sure he’d heard properly.

‘You make it sound as if that’s something shocking,’ Miller snorted. ‘They’ve been doing it for centuries. They’re petrified, Simon. Terrified. With the price of food so high and wages low, they’re afraid we’re going to rebel like the French did thirty years ago and send them all to the guillotine.’

‘More Peterloos.’

No one would ever forget the day when a Manchester magistrate sent the cavalry to break up a political meeting. Fifteen had died, hundreds were wounded.

‘Or worse,’ Miller continued. ‘They’re taking no chances. So they’re sending agents to spy on people.’ He shrugged and drank again.

A spy. Simon considered the idea.

‘What else do you know?’

The man shook his head as an answer. ‘That’s it, Simon. Little things I’ve heard and put together. It might not be true. But I’ll wager good money it is.’

It was. He could feel it in his bones. He took out another coin and slid it across the table.

‘I’d like to know more about this spy. If you can find anything. Anything at all…’

Miller rubbed the thumb and the stubs of two fingers together. Money. ‘I’ll let you know.’

 

 

With great care, Jane emptied the sack. Five pieces made from silver. Barstow had stolen eight. Simon had recovered the watch; two still missing, exactly as the man had said. She stacked everything in the corner, tucked out of sight behind the chair, wadded her shawl and pushed it deep into the sack. A moment later she emerged into the daylight, the fingers of her right hand curled tight around the knife.

Someone was behind her. She could hear him, the way the rhythm of footsteps matched her own. It wouldn’t be Barstow; he didn’t have the skill or the courage. Not that it mattered. Jane was going to lead him through the courts and yards and finish up behind him. Then she’d make him regret this.

She didn’t even need to think where she was going. Leeds was imprinted in her mind, in her feet. She’d walked every inch of the town time and again, she’d lived on its streets when she was a child. Sometimes knowing where to turn and how to hide could be the difference between staying alive and dying.

 

It only took five minutes before she came out of a tiny ginnel to see the figure ahead of her, gazing around, unsure which way to turn. Jane stopped, staring in disbelief. Not a man at all. A woman. Taller and heavier than her, several years older, with a tumble of thick dark hair that hung like a rat’s nest over her shoulders. She wore an old, patched cotton dress too short to reach her clogs, a threadbare shawl gathered on her shoulders.

For a second, Jane was too stunned to move. Then she breathed slowly. Man or woman, it didn’t matter. This was a threat.

The woman tensed as Jane pricked her back with the tip of her knife and whispered, ‘Why are you looking for me?’

‘He paid me. Two pennies.’ She opened her fist to show a pair of coins.

‘Who?’ Jane wanted to hear the name.

‘Him.’ That was her only response.

‘Why? What does he want?’

‘He said I had to see where you went then go back and tell him.’ Her voice shook. ‘Please… don’t hurt me.’

Jane took two steps back. Something was wrong. As soon as he heard her voice, Barstow would have known exactly who she was. Every crook in Leeds knew she worked with Simon, and the thief-taker didn’t hide his address. This woman came from someone else. Who?

‘Then you’d better tell him I managed to lose you.’

‘I can’t.’

Silently, Jane took another pace away from the woman, eyes fixed, knife ready for any movement.

The woman turned, lunging. Light glinted on the blade of a long dagger. But all she caught was air. Before she could recover, Jane was on her. A slash opened the girl’s arm and her knife clattered to the ground. Jane kicked it away.

‘Do you really want me to kill you?’

A shake of the head. The girl pressed the edge of her shawl down on the wound, trying to staunch the blood. Her face had turned pale.

‘Then don’t come after me again,’ Jane warned. ‘Ever.’

For a moment she stared, then turned and walked away. Even as she did it, Jane knew she was making a mistake. If this had been a man, she’d have killed him. She’d been too cautious. Too generous. Too stupid. Too weak. This wasn’t finished yet. As certain as morning, the woman would return.

Hocus Girl final

The Thief-Taker’s Tale

On September 27 my new book, The Hocus Girl, will be published in the UK. A month later it’ll be available everywhere as an ebook, and from January 1 in hardback in the US.

I think it’s one of the best books I’ve written, up there with four others. I hope you’ll find out. If you’re a blogger/reviewer, it’s now available on NetGalley. If you read it, well, I honestly hope you like it, and you’ll leave a review.

That’s for the end of the month. Right now, as something to whet your appetites, here are Simon Westow and Jane. But a warning: it’s not for the faint-hearted.

leeds 1830

Leeds, June 1822

 

‘Sir…sir!’

Simon Westow stopped suddenly and turned towards the voice. All around, people on Briggate pushed and jostled past him. The butchers’ shops at the bottom of the old Moot Hall were doing brisk business as servants began early errands for their mistresses.

The man who called out gathered his hat in his hands as he approached. He had the hangdog look of someone who’d been beaten down too many times, and thick, callused skin on his hands, fingernails rimed with grime, eyes looking down at the floor. Not starving, and his clothes weren’t in tatters. A machine operative, perhaps. Someone barely surviving.

‘What can I do for you?’ Simon asked.

‘I don’t mean to disturb you, sir, but are you the thief-taker?’

‘I am.’

He looked up, a helpless man with only slivers of hope left.

‘Then I hope you can help me, sir. Someone’s stolen my little girl.’

 

Simon sat at the long table in the kitchen.

‘His name’s William Wardell. His daughter’s name is Anne. He claims that someone snatched her from his lodgings the afternoon before last. He’s spent every waking moment since then looking for her. He doubts he has a job anymore, but this is more important.’

‘Was the girl on her own?’ Jane asked. She worked with Simon, somewhere close to fourteen years old now and a natural at the trade. With a shawl over her hair, she could follow without being seen, and she had a rare sense when someone was trailing her. She’d killed people, he knew that much. He’d never asked how many. But she’d survived five years on the street before she began working for him. That was no place to turn the other cheek like a Christian, not if you wanted to stay alive.

‘The girl was playing and her mother slipped out to the shop. It was just four doors away at the end of Copenhagen Street. I met her. She’s as distraught as her husband, she blames herself.’

‘How old is the girl?’ Simon’s wife, Rosie, asked.

‘She turned five last month.’ He frowned and stared at the table. ‘A thin child, very quiet. According to the mother, she’s pretty, everyone remarks on it, and her hair is so pale it’s almost white.’ He stared at them. ‘One of her eyes is blue and the other is violet.’

‘That should help,’ Jane said. She started to rise.

‘Where are you going?’

‘To ask questions.’

The door closed behind her. In the silence, Rosie said: ‘This Wardell man, do you believe him?’

‘Yes,’ Simon replied. ‘I do. Any man who’ll walk away from a job to try and find his daughter is telling the truth.

‘Can he afford to pay?’

‘No. But we’ve done well this spring. Perhaps we owe a good deed.’

 

Jane knew what happened to the little girls who were taken. So did Simon; there was no need to say it. Anne Wardell had been gone a day and a half. If they could find her quickly enough, they could bring her home before the damage took her somewhere beyond returning.

She knew. Her own father had raped her when she was eight and her mother had thrown her to the streets. Better to keep a man who could provide than a daughter who took and took, someone her husband preferred to her. Yes, she knew. Jane lifted the shawl over her hair. She’s be invisible now, just another figure in a tattered dress. Jane reached into her pocket and gripped her knife.

Anne’s father had been asking questions, but he didn’t know people who might have answers. She did. And she’d make sure they told her.

The man lived in one of the courts that ran of Wood Street, between Briggate and Vicar Lane. Inches of filth covered the flagstones, tossed out of windows every morning for years and never cleared.

His room stood near the top of the building, up three flights of stairs. Some of the treads were missing and the bannisters hung loose. It all needed to be torn down and rebuilt. But as long as people were willing to pay for a room in this place, nothing would happen. Not when there were profits to be made.

She knocked on the door, hearing the sound of feet on the floorboards and watching the handle turn. As it began to open, she threw her weight against it.

Jane was slight, but it was still enough to send the man crashing back and catching him off guard. Before he could recover she held the blade against the side of his neck.

Simon had never killed anyone. It went against all he believed. He’d wound if he was attacked, but nothing more. Jane didn’t have those boundaries. She’d had to learn so she could stay alive.

And Ezekiel Harrison knew it.

‘Who’s taking young girls?’ she asked.

‘I don’t know.’

‘You’re lying.’ She could see it. He was desperate, but he’d still try and hide the truth from her. She pricked his skin with the knife, just enough to let a few drops of blood trickle down into his shirt collar and stain the cotton. The shirt was dirty. Nothing in the room was clean. ‘Who?’

He squirmed and tried to stay quiet. But the longer he looked into her eyes, the more he realized what would happen. No mercy for silence.

‘Marjorie Wilson and Elizabeth Wallace.’

‘Those names had better be right. If not, I’ll be back.’

She left him cowering on the floor.

 

‘I was given two names,’ she said.

‘Who?’ Simon asked. They stood by the old market cross at the top of Briggate, staring down the street towards the bridge and long slope down to the river. Two coaches set out within seconds of each other, one from the Talbot, another from the Rose and Crown, scattering people and barely avoiding a cart and its driver.

The air hung heavy, stinking of oil and soot, poisoned by the smoke that rose every day from the factory chimneys all around Leeds.

Jane told him.

‘I heard that Marjorie Wilson has been ill,’ he said.

‘I’ll go and find out,’ she said, but there was no trace of sympathy in her voice. ‘She might have recovered.’

 

Elizabeth Wallace. Simon had known her once. She’d been a matron at the workhouse when he grew up there. Not an ounce of kindness or compassion in her. She seemed to relish beating the girls for any little thing. Shutting them away in dark rooms, depriving them of food for the smallest offence. All to temper their wilfulness and wildness, she claimed. Finally the governors could take no more and she’d been dismissed.

She had a small house off York Street, quite new, not even ten years old. A young girl answered the door, wearing a dress made for someone older. There was fear in her eyes as she asked his name. She looked thoroughly cowed.

When she returned, she gave a small curtsey.

‘I’m sorry, sir, but Miss Wallace says she can’t see you right now.’

She tried to close the door, but Simon leaned against it.

‘I’m sorry. I know what she told you, but I’m afraid Miss Wallace will be disappointed today. I need to talk to her.’

She was in the parlour, working on a piece of embroidery. The woman looked up in annoyance as he entered with the servant trailing helplessly behind.

‘I told you not to let him in,’ she said to the girl.

Simon came close, towering over her. He was tall, broad, so different from the small child who’d entered the workhouse after his parents died.

‘I have a question for you.’

‘Run for the watch, girl,’ Miss Wallace shouted. ‘Tell them I’m being attacked.’

He heard the door to the parlour slam, then the front door.

‘It’s just you and me in here,’ he told her.

‘I know who you are. I’ll swear out a complaint against you for trespass.’

Simon bared his teeth in a smile. ‘You do that and the judge will hear how you snatch girls and sell them to the brothels,’ he said.

‘Prove it.’ But there was a tremor of fear in her voice.

‘That’s easily done,’ he warned. ‘But I still have to ask my question. I suggest you tell me the truth.

‘Why-’

His voice rose over hers.

‘You took a girl. One eye blue, the other violet. Don’t say it’s a lie, we both know it’s not. Who bought her?’

 

The room smelled of decay and death. Marjorie Wilson was just clinging to life. A neighbour fed her soup, changed her linen and the sheets on the bed. But the woman couldn’t even speak, let alone do anything more. It was an effort for her to even open her eyes.

 

She’s at Johnson’s,’ Simon said. ‘Elizabeth Wallace admitted it.’

They’d gathered round the kitchen table of the house in Swinegate. Simon, Rosie, and Jane.

‘Then we’ll go there,’ Jane said. She started to rise, but he shook his head.

‘He has two guards. I’ve seen them. They’re the type who kill. We’re going to need a plan to get inside.’

‘Two guards?’ Rosie said. ‘I have an idea.’

 

Rosie dressed in her best gown. Expensive deep-blue silk with a high waist, cut low and trimmed with a froth of lace. A small hat, sky blue and decorated with plumes. People turned to stare as she walked. Jane was beside her, uncomfortably aware of everyone looking, and making sure no one was following.

Out to Long Balk Lane. This had been a place for men with deviant tastes until two years before, when the woman who owned it had been murdered. Now a man named Johnson had opened it once more, drawing the same clientele. Men with deep purses and twisted mind.

It was a large house, a darker shadow in the deep night, its stones blackened by the years. It stood alone, set back from the street. At the top of the drive, Rosie took a deep breath.

‘Ready?’ she asked.

‘Yes,’ Jane answered.

 

The brick wall at the back had tumbled. He could walk over it and move quietly through the overgrown garden. Two years of neglect. So much the better, Simon thought.

Light leaked from the shutters, enough for him to find rocks the right size to throw. He was ready, in place. Now he just needed to wait for to right time.

 

‘Sir?’

The guard answered the door. A big man, his hair cropped short and a face filled with prize fighter’s scars. Heavily muscled in his black suit, neckcloth tied tight.

‘What is it?’ He was ready to dismiss them and close the door.

‘I hear the owner wants girls,’ Rosie said quickly. ‘My servant has been ill-behaved. She needs to learn her lesson in a place like this.’

His eyes moved to Jane, sliding away from Rosie. Suddenly he froze, the tip of a knife pressing into the flesh under his chin.

‘Move back,’ Rosie told him. ‘Very carefully.’

Jane closed the door and searched him. Two knives and a cudgel. He tried to stop her. Her knife flashed, slicing through the flesh of his palm. So sharp he didn’t know what had happened until he saw the blood flow.

After that he was docile, bound hand and foot and left in the hall.

Rosie put her fingers in her mouth at let out a long shriek of a whistle.

‘You know what to do.’

 

As soon as he heard, Simon threw one rock, then a second. The satisfaction of shattering glass. He brought his boot down hard against the lock on the back door. Once, twice, three time before it gave and swung wide.

The guard stood, smiling and waiting for him.

Simon had a knife in his hand. He took a second from his sleeve.

‘I’m giving you one chance to run. Once I’m done here, there won’t be anything left.’

The guard laughed.

‘Look behind you,’ Simon told him.

The man just shook his head. ‘Do you really think I’m that stupid?’

The next second he was on the floor, clutching at his leg. Jane stood over him, wiping the blood from her knife on his coat.

‘You’ll live,’ Simon told him. ‘But she’s cut the tendons. You’ll never walk properly again. Now you can crawl out of her.’ He kicked the man’s knife away and strode on.

They searched in every room, emptying girls and men from each as they went.

Jane spotted the small staircase. She crept up and eased open the door at the top. The room was lit by a single candle in a dresser. A girl lay on the bed in a nightgown, paralysed with fear. Hair so pale it glowed white. One eye blue, the other violet.

A man sat in the chair.

‘What do you think you’re doing?’

‘I’m taking her home. And all the others who’ve been stolen.’ She looked at the girl. ‘Your name’s Anne, isn’t it?’

No words, just a nod.

‘Hurry down the stairs. You’ll see a woman. She’ll look after you.’

The smallest hesitation, then the girl hurried off.

‘I know who you are. You work with Simon Westow. I have friends in Leeds. Important men. We’ll destroy you.’

 

The men had all vanished into the night, hiding their faces. Rosie gathered the girls around her, shepherding them back into town.

The blaze had begun at the top of the house. It had quickly taken hold, lighting up the night sky.

‘No one was left inside, were they?’ Simon asked.

‘No,’ Jane said. ‘There was no one alive inside.’

She turned away and began to walk.

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.

jane

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.

Hocus Girl final

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.’

330px-The_collier

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

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

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