Chris Nickson’s long running saga about Leeds copper Tom Harper continues with our man now Deputy Chief Constable. We are in January 1917 and, like in other major cities, patrols are on the look out for the silent peril of Zeppelins, while Harper has a possible act of sabotage to investigate after a pile of newspaper and kindling is found inside a warehouse used for storing military clothing. The book begins, however, a month earlier with a true historical incident.
In nearby Barnbow, a huge munitions factory had been established from scratch in 1915. Its prime function was the filling of shells. With the constant drain of manpower to the armed forces, the workforce at Barnbow became over 90% female. On the night of 5th December 1916 a massive explosion occurred in Hut 42, killing 35 women outright, maiming and injuring dozens more. In some cases identification was only possible by the identity disks worn around the necks of the workers. It is believed that the explosion was triggered by a shell being packed with double the required amount of explosives. The dead women, at last, have their own memorial.
With the Barnbow investigation ongoing, Harper has more problems on his hands when a sentry outside a barracks in the city is shot dead with, it turns out, a SMLE (Short Magazine Lee Enfield) .303 rifle, adapted for sniping, which was stolen from the barracks own armoury.
There are so many things to admire about this series, not least being the meticulous historical research carried out by the author. One example is the development of police investigative techniques. Back at the beginning, in Gods of Gold (2014), the idea that people could be identified by their fingerprints would have been seen as pure fantasy but, as we see in this novel, it was an essential tool for the police by 1917.
Back to Tom Harper’s current case. As he and his detectives sift what little evidence there is, they seem to be chasing their own tails. Harper’s worries don’t end as he closes his office door each evening. In an earlier book, we learned the grim news that his vivacious and beautiful wife Annabelle, a tireless campaigner for female equality, has developed early-onset dementia. Harper has employed a Belgian refugee couple to run Annabelle’s pub, and keep a close eye on his wife, but he never knows from one day to the next what state she will be in. If he is lucky, she will show glimpses of her old self; when she is having a bad day, she inhabits a totally imaginary world and slips from all the anchors of reality. The most painful moments for Harper come when Annabelle believes that he is her late first husband, Harry.
Eventually the case breaks. Harper and his team are astonished to find they are facing not just one killer, but a partnership. Two former soldiers, Gordon Gibson and James Openshaw were virtually buried alive when a shell exploded near them on the Western Front. Openshaw was a sniper and Gibson, not much of a shot but with superb eyesight, was his spotter. Both men were invalided out, but Openshaw, after a spell at the famous Edinburgh hospital, Craiglockhart, remains under constant medical care at Gledhow Hall, a Leeds stately home used as a hospital for the duration of the war. It seems that for whatever motive, Gibson smuggled Openshaw and the rifle out of the hospital to commit the murder of the sentry. Now, Gibson is at large with the rifle and, despite his poor marksmanship, has shot at Tom Harper’s official car, and badly wounded a policeman.
The endgame takes place as Gibson uses all his fieldcraft to find his way into a heavily guarded Gledhow Hall to liberate Openshaw and resume their killing spree. The finale is breathtaking, powerfully written – and deeply moving. A Dark Steel Death is published by Severn House and is available now.
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