Leeds, Yorkshire. 1936. The once thunderous clatter of its mills and factories is now a hesitant stutter. Although the Great Depression is over, like the plague passing over biblical Egypt it has left many victims. Work is scarce, and men live in fear of being unable to put bread on the table for their wives and children. There is state relief, but it is a grudging pittance. When a widely disliked Means Test Inspector – a man paid to snoop around people’s houses rooting out efforts to cheat the system – is found garotted, there are few to mourn him. But murder is murder, and police detective Urban Raven must find the killer.
It appears the dead man is a would-be follower of Sir Oswald Mosley, charismatic leader of the British Union of Fascists and, after an appearance in Leeds by Mosley and his Blackshirts turns into a riot, it is tempting for the police to think that the murder is politically inspired. As Raven tries to make sense of the killing, he has his own demons to face. Like many other Yorkshiremen, Raven is a Great War veteran, even though his war was brief and horrific. Only able to see active service in the dog-days of the conflict, he was unlucky enough to be close to a fuel dump which was hit by a stray shell. There’s a line from a song about that war, which goes,
“Never knew there was worse things than dying..”
Those words might be an extreme take on the scars of war, but Urban Raven’s face is a shiny and distorted mass of scar tissue, and he has become adept at ignoring the fascinated horror on people’s faces when they see him for the first time. His disfigurement might do him no favours with ordinary people, but has learned that it gives him an extra edge when dealing with criminals.
Against a fascinating background of the attempts by British fascists to emulate their German and Italian counterparts, and the ongoing saga of a member of the royal family who wants to marry an American divorcee (plus ça change?) Raven’s problems become deeper and wider as he falls foul of the secretive Special Branch, begins to suspect his wife’s fidelity and then – as if his problems weren’t serious enough – finds himself mired in a a political and criminal conspiracy.
As in every other Chris Nickson novel I have read, the city of Leeds is the central character. Whether it’s Richard Nottingham, Tom Harper, Lottie Armstrong or, now, Urban Raven treading its grand thoroughfares and mean ginnels, Leeds remains gritty, grimy, home to all manner of beauty and bestiality, but always vibrant. There is a wonderful feeling of continuity running through the books; it’s as if each police officer is carrying the baton handed on by a predecessor; Nottingham to Harper, Harper to Raven, Raven to Armstrong. The characters inhabit the same city, though; The Headrow is ever present, as are Briggate and Kirkgate, their suffixes names testifying to their antiquity.
The Dead On Leave is very bleak in places. Hope is in short supply among the working people in Leeds, and men have no qualms about building a wooden platform for Moseley to rant from, because a job is a job; consciences are a luxury way beyond the reach of folk whose families have empty bellies. Nickson (right) is a writer, with social justice at the front of his mind and he wears his heart on his sleeve. I doubt that he and I agree on much in today’s political world, but I can think of no modern British author who writes with such passion and fluency about historical social issues.
Make no mistake, though. The Dead On Leave is not a sermon, and it does not wag a finger in admonition. It is an excellent crime novel, a perfect example of a police-procedural and it ushers on stage another compelling character in Nickson’s Leeds Dramatis Personnae. The book is published by Endeavour Quill and is available now in Kindle and as a paperback.