The Iron Water

the iron water 4 blue legsLeeds. October, 1893. Detective Inspector Tom Harper is witnessing the demonstration of a devastating new naval weapon, the torpedo, at Roundhay Park. The explosion brings up a body in the lake, a rope lashed tightly around its waist.

At the same time, dredging operations in the River Aire are disrupted when a woman’s severed leg floats to the water’s surface, still wearing a stocking and boot. Could the two macabre discoveries be connected?

Harper’s investigations will lead him right to the heart of the criminal underworld that underpins the city – and into the path of a merciless killer.

From Publishers Weekly:

“At the outset of British author Nickson’s gritty fourth whodunit set in late 19th-century Leeds (after 2015’s Skin like Silver), the trial run of an experimental torpedo in Waterloo Lake cuts the rope tying the corpse of a man to a weight…Fans of Anne Perry’s Thomas and Charlotte Pitt series should enjoy the significant role in the case played by Harper’s able wife, Annabelle…”

From Booklist:

“Set in 1893 in Leeds, England, this historical procedural brings back DI Tom Harper in another baffling case. This one begins at the demonstration of a naval torpedo on the lake in Roundhay Park. When the torpedo goes off, there’s an unexpected result: a body surfaces from the depths of the lake. Shortly afterward, a woman’s leg is found in the canal, with no body attached. When two more bodies are found, Harper is worried there may be a serial killer on the loose. But then he discovers that there could be a link to the city’s two most notorious criminal gangs and, worse, that another, even-more-powerful gang may be moving into Leeds in a takeover bid. Dead ends proliferate, and even when Tom’s superintendent is convinced the case has been cracked, Tom is still unsure. Outstanding period detail, complex characters, a twisty plot, plenty of surprises, and a likable protagonist make for an engaging and intriguing read. Recommend this one to fans of Anne Perry’s Charlotte and Thomas Pitt series.”

From the Historical Novel Society:

“The latest in the Inspector Tom Harper series is another expertly written Victorian police procedural. An interesting scrap of history – the 1893 test of a torpedo on Waterloo Lake in Leeds – is turned into a murder mystery when the resulting explosion raises a body sunk in the lake. When a severed leg is dredged from the River Aire and another body discovered during an arson investigation, Harper and his trusty sergeant, Ash, must navigate the dangerous territory of Leeds’ rival gang bosses to find the perpetrators.

Like all of Nickson’s mysteries, the procedural aspects are leavened by the detective’s personal life, and the interactions between Harper and those he cares about are manifestly appealing. The atmosphere is spot-on; Nickson knows Leeds, which we see in all its bustle and dirt, having just been incorporated as an official “city,” as well as the varied social strata that make it up and the issues faced by that society. All characters, primary and secondary, are realistically constructed. Start with the first in this series and read them all; then go back and read Nickson’s equally excellent Richard Nottingham series – same city, different time period. In this genre, it doesn’t get much better than Nickson.”

This is from the Fully Booked blog:

I am not suggesting that it is a good idea, but were you to cut Chris Nickson open, you would probably find – after the fashion of Queen Mary – the word ‘Leeds’engraved on his heart. He is clearly passionate and protective about the city of his birth, and this shines like a beacon from every page of The Iron Water, another case for the Leeds copper Tom Harper. Set in the summer of 1893 it is, on one level, a straightforward Victorian police procedural, but it is more. Much more.

 Nickson wears his social justice heart very much on his sleeve, and he doesn’t shrink from describing the vile conditions still experienced by poor families at the time. There is nothing of the cosy period piece about the book, but Nickson doesn’t make the mistake of allowing his fervour to turn the story into a collection of protest pamphlets, in spite of Annabelle, Harper’s lovely wife, taking a position within a campaigning Suffragist movement in the city.

Harper, all of a sudden, has bodies on his hands. There’s the corpse which floats up from the depths of a local lake after a demonstration of a new water-borne weapon, the torpedo. Then there’s the girl. Well, at least her leg, which is recovered from the canal. And what’s to be made of the body of a minder usually employed by one of the city’s criminal gangs? Being garrotted is definitely not the usual fate of Leeds murder victims.

iron-waterTwo gang bosses, one of Irish heritage and the other local, are engaged in a tense truce. They will hold off attacking each other while Harper and his fellow officers track down the mysterious copper-headed man who appears to be connected to the deaths. Time is running out, however, and there is an even more calamitous threat hanging over the heads of the police. The powers-that-be want answers, and as Harper runs around in ever decreasing circles, he is told that if he doesn’t find the killer, then men from Scotland Yard will travel north and take over the case. This, for Harper and his boss Superintendent Kendall, will be the ultimate disgrace.

The descriptions of the city as it swelters in the summer heat, are masterly. You can almost taste the sweat, sense the baking hot cobbles under your feet as you walk, smell the dray horses and feel your throat burning from the chemical tang produced by the factories which have made Leeds a grand place to make money – for the privileged few. There’s a terrific paragraph which goes:

“The July heat showed no sign of breaking. All the faces he passed on the pavement looked on edge. Thoughts of violence hung over their heads. Another day or two and there’d be fights. Men would beat their wives over nothing at all. There’d be woundings and killings in the pubs and beershops.”

That has echoes of Raymond Chandler’s lines from Red Wind (1938) which begin:

“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch..”

But Nickson’s version fits just as beautifully into the cauldron of industrial Leeds as Chandler’s did into the hot California night.

Eventually, almost as the Scotland Yard men are about to board their train at King’s Cross, a flurry of violence and revenge seems to tie up the case, but Nickson is much too good to allow it to rest there, and the unease Harper feels about the closing of the case proves justified when he has one more terrifying ordeal to face.

This from the Crime Fiction Lover blog:

The author Chris Nickson has made his name synonymous with the city of Leeds, and has set various novels and series there but during different historical eras. The Tom Harper books have a late Victorian backdrop, and began with Gods of Gold in 2014. The fourth book, The Iron Water, came out in November.

It’s now 1893 and Leeds has just gained city status. Superintendent Kendall and his men are keen to show the London boys that the detectives at Millgarth Police Station are just as good at solving the hardest of cases, if not better. It’s October, and Tom Harper has been called to watch the torpedo testing on Waterloo Lake, one of two in the recently opened Roundhay Park. However, once the torpedo is released a body surfaces in the lake, kickstarting Harper and DS Ash’s latest investigation. At the same time, a woman’s leg is found in the River Aire. Are the two deaths connected?

While the latter case is assigned to the new DC Wharton, a Chinese Wall is erected around the Roundhay Park investigation when the postmortem reveals it was murder. There’s a mole in the station, and Kendall is keen to ensure that only he, Harper and Ash are privy to the facts. Two gangs operate in the city and if one of them were responsible it could spark an all-out war. The victim, Leonard Tench, was a former colleague of Ash’s during his factory worker days, and was known to have fallen in with a bad crowd.

Superintendent Kendall believes Tench’s death is gang-related, particularly as a witness saw the body being dumped within view of the plush home of one of the gang bosses. With witnesses scared to talk to the police, the investigation seems to be moving along at a snail’s pace, much to Harper’s frustration. The body count and tensions are rising on both sides. Harper finds himself in a race against time to solve the case before Scotland Yard sends one of its best men to take over, or one of the crime bosses decides to take matters into his own hands.

Leeds has a history that Nickson isn’t just proud of, he’s put an awful lot of time and effort into becoming the city’s historical crime expert, and it shows throughout his prose. His books aren’t just historical crime fiction, they’re guidebooks to the city with all its little nooks and crannies. This particular series might just do for Leeds what Morse did for Oxford and create a Tom Harper tourist trail.

Late Victorian Leeds is a period Nickson clearly enjoys writing about. The novel flows effortlessly along, so much so that you’re quickly absorbed into the storytelling. The writing has a much stronger feel to it than Modern Crimes, which is about early policewomen in the 1920s. This may be because Tom Harper is a more developed character, but you can also tell Nickson is very fond of him. He’s a family man who is devoted to his wife and young daughter, and consciously makes an effort not to allow his work to take precedence over his home life, unless he has to. Harper is similar to Anne Perry’s Inspector William Pitt and Harper’s wife, Annabelle, plays an unofficial but strong role in assisting her husband, much like Charlotte Pitt. He’s proud of his wife and her achievements, and he accepts her help when she offers it.

The Iron Water could quite easily be read on its own as there’s enough detail about Harper’s back story to get you up to speed. Having said that, once you’ve read it, you’ll probably want to read the rest of the series anyway, though £12 for a Kindle book is expensive. You may also want to dip into Nickson’s Richard Nottingham series set in 18th century Leeds.


From Promoting Crime Fiction:

“The atmosphere of Leeds in the late 19th century really comes through in this book.  The evocation of the sights and sounds of the city and , in particular,  the smells  gives us a superb evocation of the grime of a Northern industrial city then.   The harsh smells permeate the clothes of the workers in a chemical factory and the hopeless odour of poverty surrounds the woman who has been forced by the death of her husband to take her family into the workhouse.”