The Year of the Gun

For the last several weeks I’ve been going on about my most recent book, Modern Crimes. In part that’s because I want people to buy it, of course, but also because I love Lottie Armstrong, the main character. She’s extraordinary by being so ordinary, and she’s full of life. She fizzes – at least to me.

I liked her so much that I wasn’t ready to let her go. But the circumstances at the close of the book made that difficult (and yes, you’ll have to read it to find out). So I decided to bring her back 20 years later, not as a police constable, but in her mid-40s, as a member of the Women’s Auxiliary Police Corps in 1944, right in the middle of World War II, in a book titled The Year of the Gun, which will be published Autumn 2017 (and scroll down to the bottom for the spectacular cover).

The first few pages of that book are at the end of Modern Crimes. However, to tempt you to discover Lottie in 1924 and look forward to 1944, here’s another small episode from The Year of the Gun.

 

Right on the dot of ten Helen rang through from the switchboard.

‘There’s an American here to see your boss. A Captain Ellison.’

‘Send him up, will you?’ Lottie said.

‘He’s on his way.’ She lowered her voice to a whisper. ‘He’s very good looking. I could eat him for my tea.’

‘Get away with you,’ Lottie laughed. Never mind; she’d find out for herself in a moment.

Good looking, she wondered as he entered the room, cap under his arm and a diffident grin on his face. Maybe. At least he didn’t have that terrible cropped hair like the other Americans. His had a little style to it, dark, parted at the side, and his smile showed strong white teeth.

‘Hi. I’m Cliff Ellison, US Army CID. Looking for Detective Chief Superintendent McMillan?’ It came out as a question. Helen was right; there was something endearing about him, she decided. Lines around his eyes and mouth that showed he’d lived, but no real brashness to his manner.

‘I’m WAPC Armstrong. I’ll show you through.’

A knock on the door and she entered. ‘It’s Captain Ellison, sir.’ Her mouth twitched into a smile. ‘Here just as you requested.’

‘Could you find three cups of tea, please, then join us?’

‘Yes, sir.’

By the time she returned the men were talking earnestly. Any frostiness in the air had already vanished.

‘It’s not a trickle, Chief Superintendent, it’s a flood,’ Ellison said as he stubbed out a cigarette. ‘We’re never going to officially admit that, but it’s the truth. And before you say anything, it’s the same in your services. I’ve talked to those guys in the Special Investigation Branch and they say it’s pretty much impossible to stop. You arrest one thief and two more take his place.’

‘The only thing that concerns me right now is these hand guns,’ McMillan said. ‘One in particular and what it’s done.’ He pushed a file across the desk. ‘Take a look for yourself.’

He drank his tea and glanced at Lottie as Ellison skimmed the sheets.

‘Two common factors,’ the captain said when he’d finished. ‘Both in the service, both shot.’

‘Three. Both the bodies were at Kirkstall Abbey. It’s a ruin,’ he explained, ‘an old monastery. One was killed there, the other dumped in the grounds.’

‘Is that important, do you think?’ Ellison asked sharply.

‘I have no idea,’ McMillan told him.

‘Look, I was a cop before I joined the army. Back in Seattle. A lieutenant, detective.’ He gave a sad smile. ‘I’ve seen murders before.’

‘Anything like this?’

‘No, sir.’

He was trying, Lottie thought. And there was something about him; he seemed like a inherently decent man.

‘I have someone running round killing girls. Two of them in two days. The murderer could be anyone – British, American. I’ve got nothing to go on. Nothing at all.’ McMillan cocked his head. ‘You say were a copper. What would you do?’

‘Well…’ Ellison stroked his chin. ‘I’d be using my informers. And I guess I’d try and get someone on the American side to follow things from there.’

‘I have people talking to the snouts. Grasses, informers,’ he explained when the other man look confused.

‘I can try to help from our end,’ Ellison said.

‘I’ll take anything I can get at this stage.’

‘What would make sense is a co-ordinated operation, Chief Superintendent.’

‘John. I never liked being called by my rank.’

‘John.’ Ellison nodded and smiled. ‘I’m Cliff.’

Cliff, Lottie thought. Clifford. Why did Americans have such strange names? Bing. Clark. It sounded like they’d made them up on the spot.

‘If you can help me catch my killer, I’ll be grateful.’

‘No promises, but I’ll do what I can.’ He gestured at the file. ‘Is there any chance I can get a copy of that?’

‘I’ll have one sent to you.’

‘I saw something about a house in there. Where is it?’

‘My evidence people have gone over it.’ McMillan hesitated a moment. ‘I thought it had something to do with the murders, but it seems I was wrong.’

‘Hunch?’ He nodded. ‘We all have them. I’d still like to take a look at the place. It says in there that an American was looking at the place and there was one of our Jeeps.’

‘OK. Lottie can drive you. It’s easier than giving directions.’

She was taken by surprise. He’d never offered her services to anyone before; Ellison was honoured and he didn’t even know it.

‘Of course, sir,’ she said.

 

‘Lottie?’ he asked as she weaved through traffic on the Headrow, past the Town Hall steps where she’d heard Mr Churchill speak a couple of years before. ‘Is that short for something?’

‘Charlotte, sir.’

‘And WAPC?’ He read the letters off her shoulder flash. ‘What’s that?’

‘Women’s Auxiliary Police Corps.’ She glanced in the mirror and smiled. ‘Not a proper copper.’

‘So you’re his driver?’

‘And dogsbody. Conscience, too, if he needs one. We’ve actually known each other for years. It’s a bit of a long story.’ One she wasn’t about to spill to a complete stranger. ‘You said you’re from Seattle. Where’s that?’

‘Kind of the top left hand corner of the country.’ Ellison gazed out at the clouds and the green of Woodhouse Moor. ‘The climate’s pretty much like England, really.’

‘Is it really all cowboys out there?’

He began to laugh so hard Lottie thought she’d need to park and thump him on the back. Finally he stopped, pulling out a handkerchief and wiping his eyes.

‘Sorry, but you Brits…’ He took a breath. ‘Really, that’s all history. Seattle’s a big city.’ He looked out of the car window. ‘More modern than this. Newer.’

‘We have history,’ she said defensively. ‘A lot of it.’

By the time she parked at the end of Shire Oak Road she’d learned that he was forty-three, had a degree in history and he’d spent eighteen years in the police. Divorced with a pair of children. Americans were always so open about themselves; she’d noticed that before.

‘Have you been inside the house?’

‘With the superintendent. We did the first search.’

He looked at her more carefully. ‘You’re more than just an auxiliary, aren’t you?’

‘Not really.’ She smiled. ‘I was a real policewoman once. That’s all.’

Ellison gave her a curious look.

‘OK. So show me round.’

There really was nothing to see. Everything had been taken for examination, fingerprint dust over most of the surfaces. She pointed out where things had been as he listened attentively, then left him to poke around the place. Maybe he’d spot something they’d missed.

‘The old guy next door?’ Ellison asked when he’d finished.

‘You’ll need to talk to the Chief Super about him.’ She repeated the man’s claim.

‘Definitely an American star on the Jeep?’

‘That’s what he said.’

‘Hmm.’ He looked at his watch. ‘It’s nearly lunchtime. Is there somewhere we can eat?’

‘I think we can find a place,’ Lottie told him with a grin. ‘Come with me.’

Charlie Brett’s had been on North Lane for years, so long that the grease must have soaked into the walls. Fish and chips, about the only food that wasn’t rationed these days. And they did them well here. She and Geoff would cycle to Headingley to eat. Lean against the wall outside, enjoy the meal with a bottle of Tizer while they watched people go past.

‘You know,’ he said as she led him along the path to the old cottage that housed Brett’s, ‘I’ve been here six months and I’ve never eaten this stuff. We had a place back home selling fish and chips for a while but it closed down. Ivar’s’

‘Then it’s time you found out what the real thing is like.’

 

‘That’s not too bad.’ He sounded surprised. At least he’d been chivalrous enough to pay.

‘Well, if you want to understand the English, you’d better enjoy it,’ she said. ‘This is more or less our national dish. With lots of salt and vinegar.’

‘I can’t see it going over big in our mess, but it’s tasty,’ Ellison said. ‘What’s your take on these killings?’

‘Me?’ Lottie was astonished he wanted her opinion.

‘Yes, you.’ He grinned, showing those white teeth again. ‘Come on, you’re more than a driver, you’ve said that. You must have an opinion.’

She allowed herself a smile for a second, then her face turned serious.

‘Honestly, I don’t know.’ Lottie sighed. ‘And I’ve no idea if the Shire Oak Road house is even involved in anything. The boss thinks it is but there’s no real evidence.’

‘Hunches are important to cops.’

‘But they’re not infallible.’

‘No,’ he agreed. ‘But if he feels it that strongly…’

‘We’ll see.’ This conversation would just take them in a circle. Time to change the subject. ‘What’s Seattle like?’

‘Pretty,’ he told her after a moment. ‘There’s water on one side and mountains on the other.’ He scrambled in his pocket, brought out a wallet and dug through for photographs. ‘That’s my house.’

She’d never known anyone who carried a picture of his house. It seemed such a strange thing. People, event pets. But never a house. Still, he was far from home, divorced. Maybe it gave him a kind of anchor. It looked to be a pleasant enough place, a wooden bungalow, a large car sitting next to it in the drive.

‘I don’t live in Seattle itself,’ he explained. ‘I’m across Elliott Bay in West Seattle. Long drive round, but it’s nice and peaceful.’

But Lottie was looking at the two other photos that had come out.

‘Are those your children?’

He laid them out on the table and his voice softened. ‘Yeah. Jimmy’s in eighth grade. I’m just hoping all this is over before he’s old enough to be drafted.’

‘It will be,’ she said with certainty. ‘What’s your daughter’s name?’

‘Karen. After my mom. She’s in sixth grade. I get letters from them but it’s not the same. How about you, you have kids?’

‘No. My husband was wounded in the last war. We couldn’t.’

‘I’m sorry.’ He narrowed his eyes a little. ‘What does he do?’

‘He died five years ago. Heart attack.’ It didn’t feel so painful to say these days. Not when so many others had lost family to much worse.

‘That’s terrible.’

‘It happens.’ She pushed the empty plate away and drank the rest of her tea. ‘Come on, I’d better get back or he’ll have me before a firing squad.’

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Vibrant, Alive, and Out Today

For the last week I’ve been doing a lot of cleaning and digging. The house, the allotment. Writing, too, of course, but things like an overnight clean of the oven and recaulking the shower, because writers get to do all the glamorous jobs, you know. I even sang along to George Formby as I cleaned the inside of the windows. After all, what else would you sing, right?

Mostly, though, I’ve been waiting. Because today is when Modern Crimes is published. It’s a thrill whenever I have a book published, but this one seems a bit special. That’s because of Lottie. As a writer, you want the character to take over a book, and she did that. She’s alive, vibrant, and extraordinary by being quite ordinary.

It feels like it’s been a long waiting building up to publication day, and finally it’s here, and now Lottie gets the chance to be a proper 1920s Leeds copper.

The paperback is out in the UK (North American in December of January) and the ebook – which is available everywhere – is dead cheap.

If you’d like to help me welcome Lottie into the world, the real launch is on September 22 at Waterstones in Leeds. 7pm, and there will be wine. Lottie’s nervous about it, but she really hopes you can come along. All the details are right here.

Getting to this point has brought me into contact with some remarkable people I might never have met otherwise. Wonderful, supportive authors and publishers, books clubs, bloggers, for instance. Councillors and MPs. Or the woman whose father was an enquiry agent in 1950s Leeds. The man who played piano in the house band at Studio 20. The fellow who conducts tours at Beckett St. Cemetery and guide me to a grave belong to some ancestors. I don’t know who was happier when I turned over the fallen stone and saw the Nickson names there – him or me. That’s simply the tip of the iceberg. Writing books takes you into some odd places. It’s simply the most fun you can have, or that I can imagine. And I’ve had the privilege to tell the stories of people like Richard Nottingham, Tom and Annabelle Harper, Dan Markham, John the Carpenter, Laura Benton, and now Lottie Armstrong. They’re all every bit as alive to me as those I talk to regularly (in fact I do talk to them regularly…).

So, to those who read any of these books, thank you. I hope you like Lottie. She’s pretty special.

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Just Over A Week…

Yesterday I did something I’ve never done before: started reading one of my own books. By the time they’ve been written, revised, edited and proofed, I’m usually heartily sick of them. I’ll pick out sections to read at appearances, but usually that’s as far as it goes.

But not yesterday.

I took my copy of Modern Crimes, spine still uncreased, off the shelf and began to read. I liked it. I got caught up in it, in Lottie and how she navigates all the uncertainty.

It’s not even out for just over a week but I believe in this book. I believe in them all, of course I do; each one has a certain quality. But somehow, this one has a certain intangible magic. I can’t describe that, only feel it. Maybe you will, too…here’s a little bit more.

 

The space behind the Royal Hotel stank. The bins overflowed and there was a strong stench of urine from somewhere. Lottie paced around, waiting and trying to be patient. The sound of traffic was muffled and distant. A train went by on the embankment, the second in ten minutes, making the earth under her shoes shake as it passed.

Finally the door at the back of the building squeaked open on rusty hinges and a heavyset woman emerged. She was dressed in a man’s double-breasted suit, correct down to the collar and tie, shoes polished to a high gloss, short hair in a brutal shingle cut and pomaded down. Blinking in the light, she lit one of her Turkish cigarettes.

‘Hello, Auntie Betty,’ Lottie said. ‘I haven’t seen you in a while.’

 

At first McMillan refused to go in. They sat in the car on Lower Briggate and looked across the street at the place.

‘They’ll know I’m a copper as soon as I walk through the door,’ McMillan objected.

‘Well, I can’t. I’m in uniform,’ Lottie reminded him.

He pushed the brim of his hat back. ‘It’s just…’ He shook his head and a look of distaste crossed his face.

‘Because they’re different, you mean?’ She chose her words very carefully.

‘Yes. It’s wrong, inverts and mannish girls. It’s not natural.’

‘Sarge,’ she began patiently. ‘John.’ What was the best way to put it? ‘This is the quickest way to get the information. Betty’s lived up on Blackman Lane for years. She knows the place inside and out. Two minutes and she can tell me where we can find Walker.’

‘How do you know her, anyway?’

‘Her niece had a few problems. WPC Taylor and I helped sort them out. Betty came to see us out on patrol and said how grateful she was.’

He glanced at the entrance to the Royal Hotel. ‘All right,’ he agreed reluctantly. ‘We’ll do it like this: you go to the ginnel at the back and wait. I’ll pop in, have a word with her, say you need to talk to her. Be as quick as you can. We’ll meet back here.’

 

‘You’re looking well, Lottie.’ Betty smiled. Everyone called her Auntie, a strangely sexless figure, more man than woman and ending up neither. She was a fixture behind the bar, serving drinks for the homosexuals and lesbians who spent their money there, always ready to advise them on their problems but never finding answers to her own.

‘So are you.’

‘That poor man you sent in looked terrified.’ She gave a chuckle. ‘Kept looking around like someone might eat him.’

‘He’s harmless, Auntie. Just scared, that’s all. Did he tell you I need your help?’

‘Yes.’ She stared at the cigarette as she turned it in her thick fingers. ‘Something about Blackman Lane.’

‘We’re looking for someone who has a place there,’ Lottie said. ‘I don’t know if it’s a flat or a room.’

‘What’s his name?’

‘Ronnie Walker. He’s in his early twenties.’

‘Doesn’t ring a bell,’ the woman answered slowly. ‘They come and go so fast these days.’

‘He drives a Standard sedan.’

‘Oh, him.’ Her face brightened. ‘Number seventeen. He has the attic. What’s he done? Why are you after him?’

‘I can’t tell you, Auntie. And please don’t say a word.’

‘Lips locked,’ she promised. ‘And I’ll throw away the key.’

‘Thank you. For everything.’ She leaned forward and gave Betty a quick peck on the cheek, seeing the glimmer of loneliness in the woman’s eyes.

‘Number seventeen,’ Lottie announced with a smile as she closed the door of the Peugeot. ‘I told you Betty would know.’

‘God, she’s an odd creature. Gave me the creeps, dressed like that.’

‘She’s lovely.’ Lottie turned on the seat to look at him. ‘Without her we’d be hunting around and trying to find Walker’s address. I hope you won’t forget that.’

‘I know,’ he said quietly as he wove through the traffic on the Headrow and Woodhouse Lane. ‘I know. It’s just… well, it doesn’t matter.’ He gave her a tight smile.

‘Isn’t that a Standard?’ She pointed at a parked car on Blackman Lane. There were no more than a handful of vehicles, along with a Matthias Robinson’s delivery lorry.

‘That’s the one,’ McMillan agreed. ‘Right outside the house, too. The attic, you said?’

‘That’s what Betty told me.’ She wanted to remind him who’d given them the information.

‘Let’s take a gander. If we’re lucky, your Miss Hill will be here and we can finish this right now.’

The front door of the house was unlocked. They climbed the stairs slowly, one flight, then pausing on the landing before taking the second. At the top, the door stood ajar.

Something felt very wrong.

‘Let me go first,’ the sergeant whispered. He trod carefully, barely making a sound. He hesitated for a fraction of a second before grabbing the door handle and easing it up. Lottie had barely started the climb when she heard him shout, ‘Get in here now.’

 

You can get both paperback (in the UK) and ebook (everywhere, and very cheap) from September 6. Or simply order it now. And I hope it has magic for you, too.

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