Charlotte ‘Lottie’ Armstrong would not be everyone’s choice as a crime-fighting heroine. She is a widow, not in the first flush of youth, and a promising career as a woman police officer was terminated as a result of her own bloody-mindedness and the misogynistic jealousy of senior officers. But needs must when the devil drives, and in 1944, like all other cities across Britain, Leeds has been drained of men. As in previous centuries, Johnny Has Gone For A Soldier, and the local police force is struggling. Crime doesn’t stop because there’s a war on. Quite the reverse in fact, as the blackout, shortages of almost any consumer goods worth having and a thinning of police ranks have combined to create numerous temptations which are proving irresistible to the criminals of West Yorkshire.
So, Lottie is back in uniform again, but this time as a lowly member of the Women’s Auxiliary Police Corps. Her main job is to drive her boss, Detective Superintendent McMillan, to wherever he needs to go. McMillan, a veteran of The Great War, certainly needs his transport as a killer seems to be stalking vulnerable young women across the city. Kate Patterson, a Private in The Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) is found dead in the sombre ruins of the medieval Kirkstall Abbey. She is the first victim, but others follow, and Lottie and McMillan are soon convinced that the killer is a member of the American forces based in the city.
Nickson paints a vivid contrast between the drabness and general sense of privation in the lives of ordinary British people with the freshness, optimism and overflowing abundance of consumer items prevalent among the Americans. As part of the investigation, Lottie comes across a typically clean-cut and bright-eyed American officer, Captain Cliff Ellison of the US Army CID. He is divorced – and available – and, despite herself, Lottie is entranced and flattered by his attention.
Romance may be in the air for Lottie and “her American” – as her mates call him – but the murders continue and blind alleys become even blinder for McMillan who, begrudgingly, becomes more reliant on the insights provided by his driver. Eventually, a suspect is identified and he is, as suspected, one of the visitors. He is, however, apparently untouchable because of his links with the Intelligence Agencies, and his importance in forthcoming vital operations.
You will note the date – spring 1944 – and will not need a degree in military history to work out what those ‘vital operations’ might be. Invasion or no invasion, McMillan still has a job to do, and the murderer is eventually cornered. Don’t anticipate a comfortable outcome, however. Nickson (right) doesn’t do cosy, and the conclusion of this fine novel is as dark as a blacked out city street.
The story ends on a sombre note, but one of the many qualities of Chris Nickson’s Leeds novels is that he has established a quartet of characters who walk the same streets, breathe the same air and gaze at the same distant hills – but centuries apart. If the ghosts of Richard Nottingham, Tom Harper, Lottie Armstrong and Dan Markham were all to meet, they would walk together along streets which would be mutually familiar. Millgarth, Kirkstall Road, The Headrow, Castle Grove, Kirkgate, Lower Briggate – all witness to countless decades of life, death, loss, salvation and hope and, of course, generations of murderers, fraudsters, thieves and deceivers. There is a lovely poem by Geoffrey Winthrop Young which sums up the brilliant sense of history and continuity which Chris Nickson creates:
“There will be voices whispering down these ways,
The while one wanderer is left to hear,
And the young life and laughter of old days,
Shall make undying echoes”
Chris Nickson’s Amazon page is here.
You can read our review of a Tom Harper novel, On Copper Street, by clicking the link.
Click the link to learn more about real life murders by American servicemen in wartime Britain.