When the sad time comes for Chris Nickson to shuffle off this mortal coil you will probably find the word ‘Leeds’ engraved on his heart. His knowledge of the city encompasses every nook and cranny, every church, chapel and graveyard, every legend, every tall tale, every dark hour and every moment of joy. Give him a battered bowler hat, steel shod boots and a rough woollen suit and transport him back to the 1890s. No-one would spare him a second glance. Fans of his books telling the story a determined Leeds copper, Tom Harper, will know this already. In previous novels in the series, Harper’s common sense, decency and compassion have shone through to highlight one of the more original creations in historical crime fiction.
On Copper Street opens in grim fashion, with death and disfigurement. The dead pass in contrasting fashion. Socialist activist Tom Maguire dies in private misery, stricken by pneumonia and unattended by any of the working people whose status and condition he championed. The death of petty crook Henry White is more sudden, extremely violent, but equally final. Having only just been released from the forbidding depths of Armley Gaol, he is found on his bed with a fatal stab wound. If all this isn’t bad enough, two children working in a city bakery have been attacked by a man who threw acid in their faces. The girl will be marked for life, but at least she still has her sight. The last thing the poor lad saw – or ever will see – is the momentary horror of a man throwing acid at him. His sight is irreparably damaged.
As Inspector Tom Harper and his colleagues throw themselves into the search for the killer of White and the brute who maimed the two children, there is a dramatic twist in Harper’s professional life. As he draws a much deserved breath from his energetic pursuit of the villains, he realises that his boss, Superintendent Bob Kendall is not a well man. The much respected Kendall confides in him that he is grievously ill, and will be relinquishing the position so that he can go home and await death. Harper is shocked and saddened by the revelation, but even more taken aback when he learns that he is lined up to be Kendall’s successor.
Death continues to stalk the streets of Leeds, and the killings all seem related to the original death of Henry White. A mysterious man known only as JD seems central to the hunt for the killer, but things take a calamitous turn for the worse when an ambitious and popular policeman is shot dead on the street, seemingly because he was close to identifying the mysterious JD.
Sadly, there seems to be an unwritten crime fiction rule that states British policemen of Inspector rank must tick at least two of the following boxes: misanthropic; alcoholic; divorced; obsessed by obscure music; loathes superior officers; superior officers loathe them; have a tortuous family history; carry an iceberg-sized chip on their shoulder. Thankfully for us, Inspector – soon to be Superintendent – Tom Harper fails in all aspects of this grim curriculum vitae. The narrative of this book, like those before it, is grounded in the warm family life Harper enjoys with his political activist wife Annabelle, and their delightful daughter Mary.
Nickson is a master story teller. There are no pretensions, no gloomy psychological subtext, no frills, bows, fancies or furbelows. We are not required to wrestle with moral ambiguities, nor are we presented with any philosophical conundrums. This is not to say that the book doesn’t have an edge. I would imagine that Nickson (right) is a good old-fashioned socialist, and he pulls no punches when he describes the appalling way in which workers are treated in late Victorian England, and he makes it abundantly clear what he thinks of the chasm between the haves and the have nots. Don’t be put off by this. Nickson doesn’t preach and neither does he bang the table and browbeat. He recognises that the Leeds of 1895 is what it is – loud, smelly, bustling, full of stark contrasts, yet vibrant and fascinating. Follow this link to read our review of the previous Tom Harper novel, The Iron Water. Online buying options for On Copper Street are here.