Skin Like Silver – It’s Coming

It’s actually a little over a month until the UK publication, and time to remind you about the release of Skin Like Silver, the third Tom Harper novel.

I believe it’s the best, most complete novel I’ve ever written. It’s the kind of book I’ve been trying to write all along. Whether I’ve succeeded or not is a different matter, but I’m proud of what I’ve achieved in that, and I hope some of you will be eager to read it after having a taste of it.

All the parts are in place. The launch has been set for Thursday, December 3, 6.30 pm at the Leeds Library, Commercial St., Leeds. There’s also going to be something very special at the event, a piece of true Victorian time travel. Seats are free but going very quickly.  Reserve yours by calling the library on (0113)245 3071 or emailing them at enquiries@theleedslibrary.org.uk – and there will be wine.

To whet your appetite properly, here’s the first chapter. Keep going after to see the cover and the precis. And please, tell me what you think…

Tom Harper sat on the tram, willing it on to his stop and feeling foolish. As soon as it reached the bottom of Roundhay Road, he leapt off, scurried across the street hoping no one would spot him, then quickly disappeared through the door of the Victoria public house.

‘You’re looking dapper, Tom,’ Dan called from behind the bar. He grinned. ‘Better watch out, they’ll have you for impersonating a toff.’ As Harper opened his mouth to reply, Dan continued, ‘Annabelle’s out in the yard. Said could you go through as soon as you were home.’

He turned away to serve a customer. Why did his wife need him so urgently, Harper wondered testily. With a sigh, he slipped along the hallway and through the back door. Barrels and crates were stacked against the wall, by a brick shed that was secured with a rusty padlock. On the ground, flagstones jutted unevenly, a few ragged weeds showing between them.

She was waiting, hands on hips, smiling as she saw him.

‘You took your time,’ she said. Annabelle Harper was wearing a gown of burgundy crepe, trimmed with cream lace, that fell over a pair of black button boots. Her hair was swept up and the sun glinted on her wedding ring. ‘I expected you half an hour back.’

‘It ran late,’ he explained. ‘What’s so important, anyway? I want to change out of this get-up.’

‘In a minute.’ Her eyes twinkled with mischief. ‘Just one thing first.’

She stood aside and he saw the photographer waiting patiently, his large camera resting on a tripod, the small developing cart behind him.

‘No,’ Harper said firmly.

‘Come on, Tom,’ Annabelle pleaded. ‘You look so smart like that. It won’t take any time at all.’

He was beaten, and he knew it. She’d have her way in the end; she always did. Instead, he popped the top hat on his head and stood up straight. At least it would be over quickly, more than he could say for the rest of the day.

It was the annual inspection of detectives, the time of year when they all had to turn up dressed like dogs’ dinners to be reviewed by the chief constable. A frock coat, striped trousers, the sharp points of a wing collar pushing tight into his neck, boots shined and glowing to within an inch of their lives. And the top hat.

He couldn’t avoid it. It was part of the calendar for Leeds Police, the one day that the uniforms could laugh at them. Standing at attention in the yard behind Millgarth station, the ranks of them all waiting, everyone looking uncomfortable. Detective Inspector Tom Harper hated it. The only consolation was that he was at the end of the line. His right ear, where the hearing kept deteriorating, was towards the wall.

He’d glanced over at Detective Constable Ash, turning out for his first parade, clothes new and stiff, the pride of promotion showing across his face.

‘That’s fine, sir,’ the photographer said after the flash had gone off with a puff of smoke, pulling him back to the warm evening. ‘You can move now. I’ll have the print in a little while, missus.’

Harper removed the top hat again, the black silk brushing against his fingers. Annabelle kissed him.

‘You get can rid of your glad rags now, if you want, Tom.’

In the bedroom, he tossed them all over a chair and stretched, grateful for the freedom. He put on a comfortable shirt and old trousers, finally feeling like himself again, not some mannequin in a tailor’s shop window. Every October it was the same, come rain or today’s sunshine. A day wasted.

He filled the kettle, putting it to heat on the range, and settled into a chair, glad that it was all done for another year. Tomorrow it was back to real work. He had a woman to find.

It had begun the morning before, when Superintendent Kendall waved him into his office.

‘Go to the Central Post Office,’ he ordered. ‘See the chief clerk.’ His face was grave. ‘I’ll warn you, Tom, this one’s bad.’

The building stood at the bottom of Park Row, two grand stone storeys looking across to the railway stations. All day long, people crowded around the counters, waiting to send their letters and parcels. Upstairs, in the offices, things were more hushed.

The chief clerk was a fussy man, standing erect, too conscious of his position. But his gaze kept sliding away to the small cardboard box on a side table, brown paper and string folded back around it.

‘I made the decision to open it,’ he said. ‘It was beginning to smell.’

‘I see, sir,’ Harper said.

‘I’ve never seen anything like it,’ the man continued. His hands began to fidget.

‘What was inside, sir?’

‘A baby,’ he replied emptily. ‘A tiny, dead baby.’

Harper peered into the box. There was just a scrap of threadbare blanket left. Nothing else. The box was tiny. Small, he thought. God, the baby must have been so small.

‘You’d better tell me what happened.’

The parcel had been posted, but the delivery address didn’t exist, so it had been returned and placed on a shelf until the stink of decomposition became obvious.

‘How long had it been there, sir?’

‘Two days. I ordered that it be opened yesterday afternoon, and we discovered the body.’ He moved to the window and stared out, trying to hide the expression on his face.

The details came slowly. It had been posted three days earlier from this building. The clerk had asked all the assistants: no one remembered the parcel, but why would they? They handled thousands every day.

The body had been taken to the police pathologist. There was nothing more Harper could do here. He needed to go over to Hunslet.

They all called it King’s Kingdom, the home of Dr King, the police surgeon whose mortuary lay in the cellar of Hunslet Lane police station. The smell of carbolic filled the air and rasped against his throat as he walked in. His footsteps echoed off the tiled walls.

‘Here about the baby?’ King asked. He had to be close to eighty, his hair pure white, a stained apron over a formal suit covered with the debris of this or that. But he was still deft in his work, his conclusions sharp and insightful.

‘I am.’

The surgeon peeled back the sheet from a small object. A naked baby, a boy, a cowl of dark hair on his scalp.

‘There you are, Inspector. That’s him, the poor little devil. As sad a thing as I’ve seen in all my years here. God only knows what the mother was thinking.’

‘Was he dead when she put him in the parcel?’

‘Definitely,’ King said with certainty. ‘If he wasn’t stillborn, he died minutes after.’ He held up a finger to stop the next question. ‘And no, she didn’t kill him. It was natural.’

‘Is there anything else you can tell me?’

The doctor sighed. ‘The baby weighs two pounds ten ounces. I put him on a scale. Do you know anything about children?’ He glanced as Harper shook his head. ‘That’s nothing at all. If I had to guess, the mother was malnourished, probably young. From what she did, she probably didn’t want anyone to know about the child.’

He’d thought that, too. But she’d taken a devious route to hide it all. A servant, maybe, or someone who’d hidden the pregnancy in case she lost her position. He’d find out.

‘Would she have showed much, do you think?’

‘Hard to say,’ King replied thoughtfully. ‘Most women do. But with a very small foetus… if she was young and dressed carefully, perhaps not. Otherwise…’ He shook his head. ‘I wouldn’t like to give an opinion, Inspector.’

It was a slow, sorrowful walk back across Crown Point Bridge into Leeds. All around, smoke rose from chimneys and the streets were noisy with the boom of manufacturing. He tried both the infirmary, but they’d had no women brought in with complications after childbirth. By the end of the day he had no idea how to find her.

Now the annual inspection was over. Tomorrow he could begin the search again.

Just as the tea finished mashing, she came up the stairs, the bright click of her heels on the wood.

‘Take a look,’ she said, holding up the picture. ‘He really caught you, Tom.’

It was true. The image captured him perfectly, the jut of his chin, the stance, one leg forward, his deep-set eyes and sly smile. But those clothes… it wasn’t how he wanted anyone to remember him.

‘It’s good,’ he agreed mildly.

‘But?’ Annabelle asked. ‘You don’t look too happy.’

‘I don’t know. I’m not used to seeing pictures of myself, I suppose.’

‘Cheer up.’ She gave him a peck on the cheek. ‘You look handsome. You do to me, anyway.’

He set out cups, sugar and milk, moving a book from the trivet to make room for the pot. The Condition of the Working Class in England, he saw on the spine. Not a novelette, he thought wryly. But none of the volumes that filled the place these days were.

The change had begun in March. The new bakery in Burmantofts was doing so well that Annabelle had put Elizabeth, the manager, in charge of all three bakeries. They were thick as thieves, together two and three times a week for business that was also pleasure.

The pub more or less ran itself, and without the other businesses to look after, Annabelle had an empty space in her life. Idleness wasn’t something that suited her. She’d started out as a servant in the pub before marrying the landlord, inheriting the place when he died, then opening her first bakery. She was wealthy now, but still never content unless she was busy at something, filling every waking hour to overflowing.

He’d come home from a long day in the early spring rain to see her reading a pamphlet. Votes for Women, it said on the cover.

‘What?’ she asked sharply when she saw him staring.

‘I’m just surprised, that’s all,’ Harper told her. She’d never shown much interest in politics.

The tale poured out, her eyes blazing. The old coalman had retired, and the new one had come that morning. When she complained about the quality of the coal, he rounded on her, telling her that maybe he’d do better dealing with her husband, then saying she needed someone who’d give her a good clout to keep her in line.

She’d seen him off with a spade from the yard. Still seething, she’d taken a walk, barely noticing where she was going. Down by the market a woman had stopped her with a gentle touch on her arm.

‘Are you all right?’

‘No, I’m not,’ Annabelle said through clenched teeth. ‘I’m bloody fuming.’

‘Trouble with a man, luv?’

Annabelle laughed. ‘Something like that.’

‘They’re useless, the lot of them.’ The woman shook her head. ‘Here, you look like you need this,’ she said with a warm smile, handing Annabelle the pamphlet before vanishing back into the crowd.

‘I don’t know, Tom. It was just so odd. Almost like I’d imagined it. I came home and started reading it.’ She held it up. ‘You know, there’s a lot of common sense in here.’

Within a fortnight she had books on all the tables, devouring each and every one. She began going to the suffragist meetings held in halls around Leeds, talking with other women, coming home glowing with excitement and possibilities for the future. But that was Annabelle, Harper thought. She never simply dipped her toe into something; she always had to immerse herself.

She didn’t ignore the businesses. She still kept a close eye on them, totting up the accounts every week and making sure the money rolled in.

‘Are you sure you don’t mind?’ she asked one evening after she returned from another meeting.

‘Mind what?’ he asked, surprised.

‘Me getting involved in all this.’

Harper was astonished. ‘Don’t be daft. Why would I?’

‘I don’t know,’ she answered. ‘Plenty of men would.’

‘I’m proud of you,’ he told her. He loved the way she could just fearlessly dive into something. And they still had their time together; she made sure of that.

The evening slid by, warm enough to leave the window open. 1891 had been a strange year for weather. So much snow and bitter cold to start, then a blazing summer that still hadn’t withered as October began.

It had been an odd year all round. He’d missed Billy Reed at the parade, and regret flowed through the inspector’s heart. They’d never resolved the resentment that seemed to hang between them at the start of 1891; they’d barely spoken in the last few months. Back from his injuries, the sergeant had quietly transferred to the fire brigade; it was part of the police force. The man had made his decision. He’d done what he believed he had to do. But it was a blow Harper had never expected. Billy had a sharp mind, and a clear, concise way of looking at things. More than that, Reed had been a friend, someone he’d always trusted completely. He knew it was his own fault. His insistence on a lie. But he couldn’t turn back time.

At least Ash had come on quickly. He’d become an excellent detective, not afraid of hard work, observant, with a brain that was quick to find connections. In his own way he was just as good as Reed. But it could never be the same.

The image of the dead baby slipped back into his mind again. Tomorrow, he thought. There was time for it then.

The grandfather clock gave its chime for half past nine and he stood. She was gazing at the photograph, propped against the mantelpiece.

‘What are you thinking?’ he asked, placing a hand on her shoulder.

She turned. ‘That I’m lucky to have you.’ There was love and tenderness in her eyes. ‘And how I’m hoping you’ll suggest it’s time for bed.’

He put his fingers over hers. ‘That sounds like a wonderful idea,’ he said.

He’d been slowly stirring, still half-dozing, not wanting to move. Somewhere outside, beyond the open window, he could hear the first trills of the dawn chorus as the birds began to sing and chatter.

Then the explosion. Louder than thunder, deeper, a dull sound that rippled and boomed. And then it was gone, leaving a sudden, dead silence that seemed to hang in the air.

Harper sat up abruptly, looking at the clock. A little after half past four, still full darkness outside.

‘What was that?’ Annabelle’s voice was a sleepy mumble.

‘I don’t know,’ he said. He parted the curtains. Off in the distance, down towards the river, he saw the raw glow of a fire. For a moment a tongue of flame rose into the sky. ‘I need to go.’

Whetted your appetite? Want a little bit more? Then look here.

Leeds. October, 1891. An unclaimed parcel at the Central Post Office is discovered to contain the decomposing body of a baby boy. It’s a gruesome case for Detective Inspector Tom Harper. Then a fire during the night destroys half the railway station. The next day a woman’s body is found in the rubble. But Catherine Carr didn’t die in the blaze – she’d been stabbed to death, and Harper has to find her killer.

The estranged wife of a wealthy industrialist, Catherine had been involved with the Leeds Suffragist Society, demanding votes for women, the same organization for which Harper’s wife, Annabelle, has just become a speaker. Were Catherine’s politics the cause of her death? Or is the husband she abandoned behind it? But when her brother escapes from the asylum and steals a shotgun, Harper has to race to find the answers.

Order your copy here – this is by far the cheapest price around.

skin like silver 1

A Privilege

I’m very lucky. So far at least, publishers have wanted to put out the novels I’ve written, and many of the people who read those books seem to enjoy them. I truly enjoy receiving emails from readers, it’s a chance for a one-on-one exchange.

I’m amazed when people want to interview me, and always flattered that they consider my work worth that time and effort. When you’re sitting at a computer and typing away you always hope your words and characters will resonate with people. But you never really know.

I was thrilled when Society Nineteen approached me for an interview. It’s a site that goes beyond the writer, into the idea of the 19th century itself. And the piece gave me the real freedom to talk at length about how I view Leeds in that time and my personal connection to it. It’s certainly the most in-depth interview I’ve ever done, and I thank them for indulging me.

Even better, it’s all presented in a very beautiful way that only adds to everything.

Intrigued? Read it right here.

SO19

Free Book!

Want a free book? Of course you do. With Two Bronze Pennies now out I have a paperback copy of Gods of Gold, the first book in the Tom Harper series, to give away. Doesn’t matter where in the world you are, you can enter (not applicable to other planets).

All you have to do is tell me where in England Gods of Gold is set. You can reply by the contact on this site, Facebook private message, Tweet me in a direct message, any way you can get an answer to me. I’ll choose the winner of June 15. Good luck!

gog finalx

What and How, And Especially Why

To all those who logged on Sunday for what was should have the world’s first streamed book launch, my sincere apologies. It ought to have happened. We had video – but the audio let everyone down. It was fine at soundcheck, it was fine an hour later. But on broadcast? Not a peep of sound.

I don’t know why. I tried everything I could, but nothing worked. But people stuck around, and we ended up with Two Bronze Pennies having what was certainly the world’s first book launch by instant messaging.

But…I still felt bad about it. So I sat down and made a little movie about the book. What caused me to write it, and how the world today all too often seems to sadly reflect the world of 1890. What a short, short way we’ve come.

It’s not long, only about six minutes. Make yourself a cup of tea or coffee and sit down. Let me entertain you – and maybe make you think a bit. Oh, and if you really can’t get enough, further down is a link to a longer extract. And you can, if course, buy the book and read the whole thing. I certainly won’t mind if you do…

https://soundcloud.com/chris-nickson-5/tbp

And this place offers free delivery worldwide:

http://www.bookdepository.com/Two-Bronze-Pennies-Police-Procedural-Set-Late-19th-Century-England-Chris-Nickson/9780727884916

Another Day

Well, the global streamed launch for Two Bronze Pennies is two days away, and this is your final reminder (promiise!). All you need to do is click  https://www.concertwindow.com/89118-chris-nickson   to take part. No registration, no pack drill. 6 pm Sunday UK time, 1 pm Eastern US, 10 am West Coast, 7 or 8 pm in Europe. I hope you’ll log in, even if it’s just for five minutes – it’ll only be about 45 minutes in total.

To sweeten the deal, and try to persuade you, I’m going to tempt you with a brand new Tom Harper story. Can’t say fairer than that, can I? Call it something for the long weekend – and please, enjoy.

He finally found the woman at half-past five on a cold November evening. She was sitting on the pavement, knees clasped against her chest like a small child. Right there on Briggate, in the very centre of Leeds, people moved around her without noticing, without caring, just an impediment as they made their way home.

Detective Inspector Tom Harper bent down next to her.

‘Ada?’ he asked and she turned her head slowly, as if she’d been off and away, thinking of other things.

‘Hello luv,’ she said. ‘Do I know you?’

‘No,’ he told her with a smile, ‘but everyone’s been looking for you. Do you think you can stand up?’

It had started twelve hours before, when a woman had dashed out of her house off St. Peter’s Place. Not even light yet but she was yelling, ‘Mam! Mam! Where are you?’ until the copper on the beat came running.

‘You’ll have the whole street up,’ he told her. ‘What’s the matter? Where’s Ada gone?’

‘If I knew I wouldn’t be shouting for her, would I?’ She gave him a withering look and started to shiver. Just a thin dress with a shawl caught around her shoulders to keep out the winter cold. No stockings, just a pair of clogs on her bare feet. ‘I woke up and looked in on her and she’d gone.’

He looked at her. Constable Earnshaw had been fifteen years on the force, the last five of them around here. It was a poor area, no more than a loud shout from the nick down at Millgarth. Filled with rooming houses, the Mission, a run-down Turkish bathhouse in among the back-to-backs. Too many people crammed into houses that needed to be torn down. But it was what they could afford.

‘Outhouse?’ he asked.

‘I already looked,’ Millie Walker told him. She shook her head, wrapped her arms around herself, trying not to cry. ‘She’s gone again.’

The first time had been the year before. Ada Taylor was old, half-blind, spending more hours lost in the past than she did in the present. She talked to her husband, dead for nigh on twenty years, as if she could see him right there in the room, and to Dollie, Millie’s younger sister who hadn’t lived past the age of eight. Sometimes she was fine, making as much sense as anyone, cackling with the other women who gathered on the doorsteps and gossiped. But when her mind slipped, no one knew how long before it would return. Or even if it would come back.

Everyone in the area kept an eye out for her, leading her back home if she began to wander. One day, though, she managed to just disappear, gone for an hour as people searched, until they found her down by Marsh Lane, standing and talking to someone that no other person could see, calling him granddad, listening to the answers only she could hear.

There’d been two other occasions since. Once at the start of spring, when someone finally spotted her over on Kirkgate, so soaked after a heavy shower of rain that Millie was scared her mother would take a chill and die. Then in the summer when she ended up on the river bank – and God only knew how she’d walked so far with bad knees and swollen ankles – just sitting with her legs dangling and smiling up at the blue sky.

This time, though, there was no telling how long she’d been gone.

‘I felt the sheets in her bed,’ Millie said, ‘and they were cold. Like ice.’ She was trying to keep her face steady and her voice strong. The weather had been bitter the last few days, she could almost taste the snow in the air, along with all the soot and the stink.

‘You get the people out around here,’ Earnshaw told her. ‘Go all around. I’ll get the bobbies out.’ He waited until she gave him a short nod then turned on his heel and dashed away.

Harper was at the station just before the shift changed at six. All the night men looking ready for their beds, faces red with the cold. And the ones on days looking glum at the idea of twelve hours out in the weather.

‘Sir?’

He looked up, setting aside the report he was writing.

‘Morning, Victor. Time to go home for you, isn’t it?’

They knew each other; Earnshaw had shown him some of the ropes when he’d been a recruit, in the days when he’d been too eager to please and believed everything anyone told him. The older man had helped him quickly rub off some of the green and give him an edge.

‘Not this morning, sir. I’ve got something. And old woman who’s vanished in the night. She’s a bit, well, you know.’

‘How long’s she been gone?’

‘Anytime up to eight hours, sir. That’s the problem. She’s done it before, an’ all.’ He explained quickly, giving a short description of the woman. ‘I thought I’d go back and help out if I can.’

‘What do you need?’

‘I know you get out and about. If you can pass the word, please, sir. I’ve let Sergeant Tollman know. Everyone’s going to be watching for her.’

‘I will,’ Harper promised.

‘Bless you, sir. A few of the lads are going to come with me. Happen we’ll find her soon.’

By dinnertime there was no sign of her.

Harper had had a full morning trying to track a thief who’d broken into at least twenty houses. He had the man’s name, but he’d gone to ground somewhere, nowhere to be found. It was a time to go around the pubs and corners, to ask his quiet questions and mention Ada Taylor as he was leaving. Half the men he talked to couldn’t care – they could trip over her and not give a damn – but others nodded with serious eyes. They their mams and their nanas.

To mke it worse, he was working alone; Sergeant Reed was in court, giving evidence in a fraud case and likely to be there all day and half the next.

At three the word reached him. The man he wanted was hiding in an empty cellar on Commercial Street. Sold out for three shillings, and the inspector paid it gladly.

The only way in was a set of steps off Packhorse Yard. At the top he took a deep breath and moved as quietly as possible, keeping one hand against the wall to steady himself. Under his boots he could feel the stone, greasy and slick. One slip and he’d tumble all the way down.

The door at the bottom was pulled to, but gave when he pushed lightly on it. The day was already near dusk, the light dim. Inside it would be black.

God alone knew what the man had in there to protect himself. And all detectives carried were their police whistles. It was going to be bluff.

With a kick, he rattled the door back off the wall.

‘Police, Jem.’ He let his voice ring out. ‘I’ve got three coppers out here who are cold and angry. They wouldn’t mind warming themselves up on you. It’s your choice.’

If he’d been given the wrong information he’d look a right bloody fool. And he’d be getting his money back from someone, no mistake on that.

He waited, flexing his hands into fists. Ready. Harper knew his hearing was poor, all down to a blow six years before. The man could be creeping across the floor right now and he might not even know it.

Then the face was there in the doorway. Dirty, hair ragged, a weeping sore filling one cheek. The inspector grabbed him, turned the man against the wall and snapped on the handcuffs on tight.

One thing done, at least.

Writing out the report took an hour, but at least there was a good coal fire burning in the office. No sign of Ada Taylor, though. The word that she was still missing had rippled through the station. He could only imagine the thoughts going through her daughter’s mind.

Ten past five and the door opened suddenly, Tollman peering through.

‘Disturbance, sir. Corner of Briggate and Boar Lane. Sounds like they need all the help they can get.’

Harper ran, panting, but it was still three full minutes to reach the scene. Traffic was stopped, omnibuses, carts, and trams all one behind the other. There had to be fifteen coppers already there, truncheons out, herding two groups of youths apart and cracking a head or two. All over bar the shouting and the arrests.

In the November darkness it was time to call it a night. And that was when he saw Ada Taylor.

He helped her up. She was cold, shaky, but she could shuffle along if she clung tight to his arm.

‘You’re like Bert,’ she told him with a coy expression. For a moment the years parted and he could see the pretty young girl she’d been so long ago. ‘You should have seen Bert. He was good-looking, too. I should never have turned him away for Eddie. I’d have had handsome children then.’

The cocoa house was nearby. He helped her inside and bought her a cup, watching as she gazed around the place, not saying a word, drinking with dainty sips.

‘Come on, we’d better get you home,’ he said finally. ‘Your daughter must be beside herself with worry.’

‘I can see your fortune,’ Ada said. It came out of the blue and took him by surprise. The voice didn’t even sound like hers. It was darker, graver, something he couldn’t quite pinpoint. Her eyes seemed to be staring at something far away. ‘You’re never going to be a rich man unless you do one thing.’

He’d play along, he thought. Who knew what was going on inside her head?

‘What’s that?’ he asked.

But as quickly as it arrive, the moment passed. The confusion had returned to her face.

‘Who are you again?’ she asked, sounding like an old woman once more.

‘Someone who’s getting you home. There’s bound to be a hackney outside. You fancy a ride in that, Mrs. Taylor?’

It was the best part of seven o’clock before he climbed the stairs at the Victoria. A long day, but then they all were. Still, he had a thief ready to go to trial and there was someone back with her family. He’d experienced worse.

‘Tom?’ Annabelle called from the kitchen as he opened the door.

He walked in and put his arms around her.

‘Busy day?’ he asked.

‘No more than usual. You look all in.’ She stroked his hair.

‘It was interesting,’ he said. ‘I almost found out how to be rich.’

‘What?’ Her eyes widened. ‘Don’t be so daft. What on earth are you talking about?’

He smiled.

‘Honestly,’ he told here, ‘I wish I knew.’

Go on, have a listen

The best way to enjoy a book is to feel part of it, to be immersed in it. Well, that’s how it works for me.

With that in mind, here’s a teaser from Two Bronze Pennies, just enough to whet your appetites, I hope, and all read by my own fair larynx.

https://soundcloud.com/chris-nickson-5/tbp

Go on, have a listen.

And after that you can buy it here – the best price I’ve seen – with free worldwide delivery.

And of course, don’t miss the online global launch, 6pm UK time, Sunday May 24. Click the link below and you’re in. No leaving home, no getting dressed up. Read all about it here.

https://www.concertwindow.com/89118-chris-nickson

Two Bronze Pennies Launch – what do you think?

If you look at this site at all, you’ll have seen me going on about the publication of Two Bronze Pennies in the UK on April 30. Probably early August elsewhere. I wanted to do something a little different for a launch, something to involve everyone. I’ve hit on an idea and I’d like to know what you think about it.

To backtrack a second Leeds.: Two Bronze Pennies is the second Tom Harper novel, set in late Victorian Leeds. It starts with the killing of a young Jewish man in the area known as the Leylands, where Jewish refugees from all across Eastern Europe settled in towards the end of the 19th century. There’s also a sub plot involving the disappearance of Louis Le Prince, who took the first motion pictures and invented the camera to take them – he lived in Leeds and actually did vanish in France. And Annabelle features more heavily as she considers opening a new business.

Those are the bones. So what about the launch? Plenty of my readers live abroad, and as I can’t travel to them, why not have something that can bring everyone together? There’s a platform called Concert Window, which will let me broadcast the launch live from my home to yours. A little bit of talk, a couple of short extracts from the book, a story from the remarkable Jewish storyteller Shonaleigh (who really is one of the best storytellers in the world) and hopefully a tiny but of history from some people who written about the Jews in Leeds. An hour of your time, and there’s a chat room for you to ask questions, comment, and even exchange conversation with each other.

As far as I’m aware, this will be a world first for a book launch. No one has tried anything like this before, live online. I plan on holding it at 6pm on a Saturday evening towards the end of May. That should allow most people to log on and take part (that’s 1pm East Coast time, 10 am West Coast and rather early in the morning in Australia – sorry). Logging on only requires clicking a link. You don’t have to give details, it doesn’t cost you anything.

It could be a resounding failure, of course, but that’s part of the fun. My question to you is, what do you think of the idea? Would you be willing to watch at least part of it? I hope so. It would be great to have plenty of people from all over the world involved. And we’d be trying something new.

Please, let me know.

Two Bronze Pennies – A Short Extract

You know – don’t you? – that my second Tom Harper novel, Two Bronze Pennies, comes out in the UK at the end of April (August/September elsewhere). Much of it is set in the Leylands, that area just north of the city centre where most of the Jewish immigrants settled when they came to Leeds.

Just to whet your appetite, here’s the opening few pages. Tom, Annabelle, Billy Reed, the Victoria – a dead body and men speaking in Yiddish. Go on, you know you want to….

One

‘Have you heard a word I said, Tom Harper?’

‘Of course I have.’ He stirred and stretched in the chair beside the fireplace. ‘You were talking about visiting your sister.’

Annabelle’s face softened. ‘It’ll only be for an hour. We can go in the afternoon, after we’ve eaten.’

‘Of course,’ he told her with a smile. He was happy, finally at home and warm for the first time since morning.

He’d spent the day chasing around Leeds on the trail of a burglar, no closer to catching him than he’d been a month before. He’d gone from Burley to Hunslet, and never a sniff of the man. But it was better than being in uniform; half the constables had been on patrol in the outdoor market, cut by the December wind as they tried to nab the pickpockets and sneak thieves. It was still blowing out there, howling and rattling the window frames. As a police inspector, at least he could take hackney cabs and omnibuses and dodge the weather for a while.

Tomorrow he was off duty. Christmas Day. For the last five years he’d worked it. Not this time, though. Christmas 1890, the first together with his wife. He turned his head to look at her and the wedding ring that glinted in the light. Five months married. Annabelle Harper. The words still made him smile.

‘What?’ she asked.

He shook his head. ‘Nothing.’

He often glanced at her when she was busy, working in the kitchen or at her desk, going through the figures for her businesses. Sometimes he could scarcely believe she’d married him. Annabelle had grown up in the slums of the Bank, another daughter in a poor Irish family. She’d started work here in the Victoria public house and eventually married the landlord. Six years later, after he died, everyone advised her to sell. But she’d held on and kept the place, trusting her instincts, and she’d built it into a healthy business. Then she’d seen an opportunity and opened bakeries in Sheepscar and Meanwood that were doing well. Annabelle Harper was a rich woman. Not that anyone round here called her Mrs Harper. To them she’d always be Mrs Atkinson, the name she’d carried for so long.

Whatever they called her, she was his.

‘You look all in,’ she told him.

Harper gave a contented sigh. Where they lived, in the rooms over the pub, felt perfectly comfortable, curtains drawn against the winter night, the fire in the hearth and the soft hiss of the gas lights. He didn’t want to move.

‘I’m cosy,’ he said. ‘Come and give me a cuddle.’

‘A cuddle? You’re lucky I put your supper on the table.’

She stuck out her tongue, her gown swishing as she came and settled in his arms. He could hear the voices in the bar downstairs. Laughter and a snatch of song from the music halls.

‘Don’t worry,’ she told him. ‘I’ll send them on their way early tonight. They all have homes to go to. Then we can have some peace and quiet.’

But only for a few hours. Annabelle would be up before dawn, the way she always was, working next to the servants, stuffing the goose that was waiting in the kitchen, baking the bread and preparing the Christmas dinner. Dan the barman, the girls who worked for her, and God knew who else would join them at the table. They’d light candles on the tree, sing, laugh, exchange gifts and drink their way through the barrel of beer she’d set aside.

Then, after their bellies were full, the two of them would walk over to visit her sister, taking presents for Annabelle’s nieces and nephews. For one day, at least, he could forget all the crime in Leeds. Billy Reed, his sergeant, would cover the holiday. Then Harper would  return on Boxing Day, back to track down the damned burglar.

Annabelle stirred.

‘Did you hear that?’ she asked.

‘What?’

He gazed at her. He hadn’t heard a thing. Six years before, while he was still a constable, he’d taken a blow on the ear that left him partially deaf. The best the doctor could offer was that his hearing might return in time. But in the last few months, since autumn began, it had grown a little worse. Sometimes he missed entire sentences, not just words. His ear simply shut off for a few seconds. He’d never told anyone about the problem, scared that it would go on his record.

‘On the stairs.’

He listened. Still nothing. Then someone was knocking on the door. Before he could move, she rose swiftly to answer it.

‘It’s for you.’ Her voice was dark.

He recognized the young constable from Millgarth station. One of the new intake, his uniform carefully pressed, cap pulled down smartly on his head and face eager with excitement. Had he ever looked as green as that?

‘I’m off duty—’ he began.

‘I know, sir.’ The man blushed. ‘But Superintendent Kendall told me to come and fetch you. There’s been a murder.’

Harper turned helplessly to Annabelle. There’d be no visit to her sister for him tomorrow.

‘You go, Tom.’ She kissed him on the cheek. ‘Just come home as soon as you can.’

Two

The cold clawed his breath away. Stars shone brilliantly in a clear sky. He huddled deeper into his overcoat and pulled the muffler tight around his neck.

‘What’s your name?’ Harper asked as they started down the road.

‘Stone, sir. Constable Stone. Started three month back.’

‘And where are we going, Mr Stone?’

‘The Leylands, sir.’

Harper frowned. ‘Whereabouts?’

‘Trafalgar Street.’

He knew the area very well. He’d grown up no more than a stone’s throw from there, up on Noble Street. All of it poverty-scented by the stink of malt and hops from the Brunswick Brewery up the road. Back-to-back houses as far as the eye could see. A place where the pawnbrokers did roaring business each Monday as housewives took anything valuable to exchange for the cash to last until Friday payday.

In the last few years the area had changed. It had filled with Jewish immigrants; almost every house was packed with them, from Russia and Poland and countries whose names he didn’t know, while the English moved out and scattered across the city. Yiddish had become the language of the Leylands. Only the smell of the brewery and the lack of money remained the same.

‘Step out,’ he told the constable. ‘We’ll freeze to the bloody spot if we stand still.’

Harper led the way, through the memory of the streets where he used to run as a boy. The gas lamps threw little circles of light but he hardly needed them; he could have found his way in pitch blackness. The streets were empty, curtains closed tight. People would be huddled together in their beds, trying to keep warm.

As they turned the corner into Trafalgar Street he caught the murmur of voices. Suddenly lights burned in the houses and figures gathered on their doorsteps. Harper raised his eyes questioningly at Stone.

‘The outhouses, sir. About halfway down.’

The cobbles were icy; Harper’s boots slipped as he walked. Conversation ended as they passed, men and women looking at them with fearful, suspicious eyes. They were goys. Worse, they were authority.

They passed two blocks of four houses before Stone turned and moved between a pair of coppers, their faces ruddy and chilled, keeping back a small press of people. Someone had placed a sheet over the body. Harper knelt and pulled it back for a moment. A young man, strangely serene in death. Straggly dark hair, white shirt without a collar, dark suit and overcoat. The inspector ran his hands over the clothes, feeling the blood crusted where the man had been stabbed. Slowly, he counted the wounds. Four of them. All on the chest. The corpse had been carefully arranged, he noticed. The body was straight, the arms out to the sides, making the shape of a cross. Two bronze pennies covered the dead man’s eyes, the face of Queen Victoria looking out.

Harper stood again and noticed Billy Reed talking to one of the uniforms and scribbling in his notebook. The sergeant nodded as he saw him.

‘Do we know who he was?’

‘Not yet.’ Reed rubbed his hands together and blew on them for warmth. ‘Best as I can make out, that one found him an hour ago. But I don’t speak the lingo.’ He nodded towards a middle-aged man in a dark coat, a black hat that was too large almost covering his eyes. ‘He started shouting and the beat bobby came along. They called me out.’ He shrugged. ‘I told the super I could take care of it but he wanted you.’ His voice was a mixture of apology and resentment.

‘It doesn’t matter.’

It did, of course. He didn’t want to be out here with a corpse in the bitter night. He’d rather be at home with his wife, in bed and feeling the warmth of her skin. But Kendall had given his orders.

The man who’d found the body stood apart from the others, head bowed, muttering to himself. He scarcely glanced up as Harper approached, lips moving in undertone of words.

‘Do you know who the dead man is?’ he asked.

Er iz toyt.’ He’s dead.

‘English?’ the inspector asked hopefully, but the man just shook his head. He kept his gaze on the ground, too fearful to look directly at a policeman.

Velz is dayn nomen?’ The Yiddish made the man’s head jerk up. What’s your name?

‘Israel Liebermann, mayn ir,’ the man replied nervously. Sir. Growing up here it had been impossible not to absorb a little of the language. It floated in the shops and all around the boys that played in the road.

Ikh bin Inspector Harper.’

A hand tapped him on the shoulder and he turned quickly to see a pair of dark eyes staring at him.

‘What?’ He had the sense that the man had spoken; for that moment he hadn’t heard a word. He swallowed and the world came back into both ears.

‘I said it was a good try, Inspector Harper. But your accent needs work.’ The voice was warm, filled with kindness. He extended his hand and Harper took it.

‘I’m Rabbi Feldman.’

The man was dressed for the weather in a heavy overcoat that extended almost to his feet, thick boots, leather gloves and a hat pulled down to his ears. A wiry grey beard flowed down to his chest.

A gust of wind blew hard. Harper shivered, feeling the chill deep in his marrow.

‘If you think this is cold, you never had a winter in Odessa.’ The rabbi grinned, then his face grew serious. ‘Can I help at all?’

‘Someone’s been murdered. This gentleman found him.’

Feldman nodded then began a conversation in Yiddish with Liebermann. A pause, another question and a long answer.

He’d heard of the rabbi. Everyone had. Around the Leylands he was almost a hero. He was one of them; his family had taken the long march west, all the way to England, when the pogroms began. He understood their sorrows and their dreams. In his sixties now, walking with the help of a silver-topped stick, he’d been head of the Belgrave Street Synagogue for over ten years. He taught in the Hebrew school on Gower Street and met with councillors from the Town Hall. He was man of mitzvahs, good deeds. Portly and gentle, with quiet dignity, he was someone in the community, a man everybody respected.

‘He says he needed the outhouse just before ten – he’d looked at his watch in the house so he knew what time it was. He put on his coat and came down.’ Feldman smiled. ‘You understand, it’s cold in these places. You try to finish as soon as possible. When he was done he noticed the shape and went to look. That’s when he began to yell.’

‘Thank you,’ Harper said, although it was no more than they already knew.

‘Murder is a terrible business, Inspector.’ The man hesitated. ‘Is there anything else I can do?’

‘We still don’t know the name of the dead man.’

‘May I?’ Feldman gestured at the corpse. Harper nodded and one of the constables drew back the sheet again.

Mine Got.’ He drew in his breath sharply.

‘Do you know him?’

It was a few seconds before the rabbi answered, staring intently at the face on the ground. Slowly he took off the hat and tugged a hand through his ragged white hair.

‘Yes, Inspector,’ he said, and there was the sadness of lost years in his voice. ‘I know him. I know him very well. I gave him his bris and his bar mitzvah. He’s my sister’s son.’

His nephew. God, Harper thought, what a way to find out.

‘I’m sorry, sir. Truly.’

The man’s shoulders slumped.

‘He was seventeen.’ The rabbi shook his head in disbelief. ‘Just a boychik. He was going to be the one.’ Feldman tapped a finger against the side of his head. ‘He had the smarts, Inspector. His father, he was already training him to run the business.’

‘What was his name, sir? I need to know.’

‘Abraham. Abraham Levy.’ The rabbi rummaged in a trouser pocket, brought out a handkerchief and wiped his eyes. ‘Why?’ he asked quietly. ‘Why would someone kill anyone who was so young?’

And Two Bronze Pennies is now available to order ahead of its publication on April 30. Follow this link.

So Why Do I Write Historical Crime?

A number of times people have asked me why I choose to write historical crime novels. The crime part is easy to answer: it offers a good moral frame work on which to rest a novel. All fiction is about conflict in one form or another, and crime – good vs. evil – reduces it to the basics. But it also gives a chance to explore that nebulous grey area between the two, which can be the most interesting.
But historical…well, for me there are a number of reasons. I’m a history buff, most particularly a Leeds history buff. So it’s an excuse to delve into that world. But there’s far more.
I lived abroad for 30 years, and I’ve been back almost 10. That means I haven’t been there for the development of speech patterns in England. And to write convincing dialogue you need to be sure of that. I have no problem with American speech – I have novels set in the ‘80s and ‘90s there – but less in England. By going back in time, to an era that’s closed and over, it’s much easier to capture the speech of the period.
Many of my books are set in Leeds, and that gives me the chance to show how the city has changed over the years, from the 1730s to the 1950s. I try to make Leeds a character in the book, but the Leeds of 1890, industrialised and full of dark, Satanic mills, is a far cry from 1731, when the population was around 7,000 – hardly more than a village. And by 1954 and Dark Briggate Blues it’s changed completely again as we enter a post-industrial age.
And yet there’s continuity, is the layout and names of the streets in the city centre. Richard Nottingham could find his way around 160 years later, and Tom Harper from Gods of Gold would find Dan Markham Leeds relatively familiar. That sense of a thread running through it all is very attractive to a writer.
Going back in time offers the opportunity to view current events through the prism of history. The contracts handed to the gas workers that sparks the Gas Strike which is the backdrop of Gods of Gold has strong echoes in today zero-hours contracts. The anti-Semitism and xenophobia that lies at the heart of the upcoming Two Bronze Pennies can be seen in the rise of the right, Islamophobia and the very recent rise of a fresh wave of anti-Semitism.
Sometimes it’s none of that at all. Dark Briggate Blues was me asking ‘what would a 1950s English provincial noir be like?’ and offering one possible answer.
Technology and life moves so quickly that a contemporary novel can quickly seem dated. No mobile phones on computers in the ‘80s or ‘90s. We’ve only really relied on the Internet since the beginning of this century. Social media is just a few years old, and smartphones only became widespread after 2010. If you write today’s world, it’s changed by tomorrow. Setting a novel in the past, people know going in where they stand. It can’t seem dated because, in a way, it’s timeless, a scene set in amber.
And there’s one final reason. Today we rely on DNA, forensics, all manner of this and that to solve crimes. That’s fine – the tools are there, use them. But for a writer (and hopefully a reader), forcing the main character to use his wits and his brain is far more satisfying.

Thank You

2014 has been a very good year. My first full 12 months back in Leeds, so that it truly feels like home now. A book and the start of a new series with Gods of Gold, which has been receiving some lovely reviews and reader comments. I’m grateful.

Above all, my thanks go to you, the people who read what I write, whether in books or on the blog or in the serials I’ve begun on this site. If you write, you want people to read it, and you have. It means a lot, and when people email to tell me how much they like a book, or even with an historical quibble, I love it. Yes, of course I’d like to sell more books (what author wouldn’t?), but times are tight, and public libraries are free. Please, remember to support them.

So thanks to all of you. And to those you don’t see. I’m grateful to all my publishers, the wonderful staff at Severn House, Mystery Press, and Creative Content, all of whom believe in what I do enough to put it out there. Beyond them, friends and family who put up with me constantly at the computer, and whose support (and sometimes criticism) is vital.

What does 2015 hold? More books. January see the publication of Dark Briggate Blues, a 1950s noir set set in Leeds in 1954 and featuring enquiry agent and jazz lover Dan Markham. In April there’s Twp Bronze Pennies, the second Tom Harper Victorian novel (and yes, Annabelle has a larger role – she assures me that’s how it really was). July brings something different. I’m working with local publishers Armley Press on Leeds, The Biography, which is a history of Leeds in short stories (several of which have already been on my blog) running from 363 CE up to 1963. All of them based in things that really happened, or folk tales, and sometimes real people. I’m trying to put a human face on the history of my hometown.

Of course, I hope you’ll read them. And don’t forget the new serial, The Empress on the Corner. I hope you’ll enjoy them. But above all, thank you for being with me this far. Have a wonderful Christmas and a peaceful, prosperous and healthy 2015.