I am delighted to say that my first review for 2021 is a new book by the reliably excellent story-teller, Chris Nickson. For those new to his books, he is a widely travelled former music journalist, who has rubbed shoulders with some of the big names in rock, but now pursues a rather more sedentary lifestyle in the Yorkshire city of Leeds. When he is not tending his treasured allotment, he writes historical novels, based around crime-solvers across the centuries, most of them based in Leeds.
You can click the link to check out his late 19th century novels featuring the Leeds copper Tom Harper, but his latest book takes us back a little further, to Georgian times. Leeds is undergoing a violent transformation from being a bustling, but still largely bucolic centre of the wool trade, to a smoky, clattering child of the Industrial Revolution.
There are fortunes to be made in Leeds, but crime is still crime, and Simon Westow is known as a thief-taker. Remember, this is before the emergence of a regular police force, and what law there is is enforced by (usually incompetent) town constables, and men like Westow who will recover stolen property – for a fee.
Westow is a man who has survived a brutal upbringing as an institutionalised orphan, and there is not a Leeds back alley, courtyard or row of shoddily-built cottages that he doesn’t know. He doesn’t work alone. He has an unusual ally. We know her only as Jane. Like Westow, this young woman has survived an abusive childhood, but unlike Westow – who isn’t afraid to use his fists, but is largely peaceable – Jane is a killer. She carries a razor sharp knife, and uses it completely without conscience if she is threatened by men who remind her of the degradation she suffered when younger.
When a petty criminal is found dead in a drift of frozen snow, Westow frets that he will be linked with the murder as, only a week or so earlier, he had completed a lucrative assignment that involved returning to their owner stolen goods that had come into the hands of the dead man. Instead of being harassed by the lazy and vindictive town constable, Westow is asked to try to solve the crime. It seems that two aristocratic officers from the town’s cavalry barracks might be involved with the killing, and this sets Westow a formidable challenge, as the soldiers are very much a law unto themselves. Meanwhile a notebook has been found which is connected to one of murdered criminal’s associates, but it reveals little, as it is mostly in code. Someone cracks the cipher for Westow, but he is little the wiser, especially when the text contains the enigmatic phrase ‘To The Dark.’
The discovery of a stolen handwritten Book of Hours, potentially worth thousands of gold sovereigns, further complicates the issue for Westow, and when the seemingly invincible Jane suffers a crippling injury, his eyes and ears on the Leeds streets are severely diminished. Still, the significance of ‘To The Dark’ escapes him, and when his life and those of his wife and children are threatened he is forced to face the fact that this seemingly intractable mystery may be beyond his powers to solve.
As ever with Chris Nickson’s novels we smell the streets and ginnels of Leeds and breathe in its heady mixture of soot, sweat and violence. In one ear is the deafening and relentless collision of iron and steel in the factories, but in the other is the still, small voice of the countryside, just a short walk from the bustle of the town. Nickson is a saner version of The Ancient Mariner. He has a tale to tell, and he will not let go of your sleeve until it is told. To The Dark is published by Severn House and is out now.