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Chris Nickson

THE DEAD ON LEAVE . . . Between the covers

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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.

TDOLIt 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.

NicksonThe 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.

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THE TIN GOD . . . Between the covers

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“And the guardians and their ladies,
Although the wind is east,
Have come in their furs and wrappers,
To watch their charges feast;
To smile and be condescending,
Put pudding on pauper plates.
To be hosts at the workhouse banquet
They’ve paid for — with the rates.”

Verse two of the celebrated – and often parodied – ballad poem by the Victorian campaigning journalist George R Sims, In The Workhouse, Christmas Day. Most of us older folk know the poem and its melancholy message. An old man is sitting down to his Christmas dinner in the workhouse, but one memory is too much for him, and he angrily relates the tale of his late wife, who was forced to die of hunger on the streets because of the harshness of the workhouse regulations. The relevance of this to Chris Nickson’s The Tin God lies in the first line of the verse above, because the heroine of the story is the wife of Leeds copper Tom Harper, and she is standing for election to the workhouse Board of Guardians.

So? This Leeds in October 1897, and women simply did not stand for office of any kind, and when Annabelle Harper, along with several colleagues from the fledgling Suffrage movement decide to enter the election, it is a controversial decision, because the concept of women migrating from their proper places, be they the bedroom, the withdrawing room or the kitchen, is anathema to most of the ‘gentlemen’ in Leeds society.

TTG coverOutraged leading articles appear in local newspapers, but someone believes that the sword – or something equally violent – is mightier than the pen, and a homemade bomb destroys a church hall just before Annabelle Harper is due to speak to her supporters. The caretaker is tragically killed by the explosion, and matters go from bad to worse when more bombs are found, and several of the women candidates are threatened.

Superintendent Tom Harper is already involved in investigating the criminal aspects of the case, but when the husband of one of the women is murdered while sitting at his own kitchen table, the affair becomes a hunt for a murderer. The killer leaves a few tantalising clues, and Harper becomes conflicted between devoting every hour that God sends to tracking down the killer – and keeping his wife from becoming the next victim.

Nickson drops us straight onto the streets of his beloved Leeds. We smell the stench of the factories, hear the clatter of iron-shod hooves on the cobbles, curse when the soot from the chimneys blackens the garments on our washing lines and – most tellingly – we feel the pangs of hunger gnawing at the bellies of the impoverished. We have an intriguing sub-plot involving a smuggling gang importing illegal spirits into Leeds, authentic dialogue, matchless historical background and, best of all, a few hours under the spell of one of the best story tellers in modern fiction.

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You want more? Well, it’s there. Nickson is a fine musician and a distinguished music journalist, and he cunningly works into the plot one of the more notable musical names associated with Leeds and West Yorkshire, the folksong collector Frank Kidson (above). The killer shares Kidson’s passion for the old songs – if not his humanity and feelings for his fellow human beings – and he leaves handwritten fragments of English songs at the scenes of his attacks.

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The Tin God is published by Severn House and is available now. It will be obvious that I am a great admirer of Chris Nickson’s writing, and if you click the images below, you can read the reviews for some of his other excellent novels.

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BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2017 … Best historical crime novel

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I was delighted that John Lawton’s Friends and Traitors showcased a return for his charismatic copper, Fred Troy, and even more pleased that the beautiful and enigmatic Meret Voytek featured once again, after her ordeals in A Lily of The Field. Norman Russell certainly brought Victorian Oxford to life with An Oxford Scandal, and his consumptive Inspector Antrobus was an intriguing fellow, finishing the novel trying to avoid the sight of his bloodstained handkerchief. In Dangerous Crossing, Rachel Rhys captured beautifully the potent cocktail of snobbery, suspicion and political uncertainty among passengers on an ocean liner on the eve of World War II. In The Well Of The Dead, Clive Allan skilfully wove together two stories, the first being an account of the calamitous events surrounding The Battle of Culloden in 1746, and the second an assured modern police procedural plot.

My winner this year, in spite of the fierce competition, is On Copper Street, by Chris Nickson. I have grown to love the stories featuring Inspector Tom Harper, a brave and determined copper treading the cobblestones of Victorian Leeds. Here, Harper investigates the death of a petty crook, and the horribly modern-sounding attack on two children who have acid thrown at them. Against the background of the lonely and impoverished death of a pioneering political activist, Harper pursues the villains in his usual implacable way, supported at every turn by his admirable – and very bonny – wife. I wrote:

“I would imagine that Nickson 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.”

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FREE FROM ALL DANGER … Between the covers

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Chris-Nickson-300x251I have become a huge admirer of the writing of Chris Nickson (left) . He says on his website:

I’ve written since I was a boy growing up in Leeds. It all really began with a three-paragraph school essay telling a tale of bomb disposal when I was 11. Like a lightbulb switching on, it brought the revelation that I enjoyed telling stories. Along the way came  diversions into teenage poetry, and my other great love, music, as both a bassist and then a singer-songwriter-guitarist. At 21, I moved to the US, and spent the next 30 years there, returning to England in 2005, and finally full circle to Leeds.”

I first read – and thoroughly enjoyed – his books featuring Detective Inspector Tom Harper, and relished his recreation of the smoky, noisy and turbulent city of Leeds in the 1890s. Next, for me, came his Leeds during WWII, as seen through the eyes of Womens’ Auxiliary Police Constable Lottie Armstrong. I had not, until now, gone back to the eighteenth century to investigate Nickson’s tales of the town’s Constable, Richard Nottingham. It seems that Nickson had ushered Nottingham into a well-deserved retirement but, rather like the resurrection, by popular demand, of Sherlock Holmes after his apparent demise at the Reichenbach Falls, Nottingham has returned to duty in Free From All Danger.

free-from-all-danger-1You will be pushed to find better opening words to a novel even were you to search all year:

“Sometimes he felt like a ghost in his own life. The past had become his country, so familiar that its lanes and byways were printed on his heart.”

Thus we learn that Richard Nottingham has his best years behind him. With stiffened limbs and diminished vigour he has withdrawn to his home and family – although that family has been diminished by tragedy. When Simon Kirkstall, his successor as town Constable dies, he is persuaded by The Mayor to return to his old job, at least temporarily, while a suitable successor is found.

We are in the year of Our Lord 1736, November, and winter seems to have come early. As Nottingham dusts off his old working clothes he is immediately called into action when a body is pulled from the river. This is no drowning, as the savage slash wounds on the man’s throat testify all too readily. It is as if someone out there in the cobbled lanes, dank ginnels and misty river banks of the rapidly expanding wool town has learned of Nottingham’s return and is determined to challenge him. Murder follows murder, but despite their best efforts neither Nottingham nor his deputy Rob Lister are coming anywhere near to identifying either the assailants or their motives.

As the November 5th celebration approaches, with huge bonfires being assembled across the town, Nottingham is convinced that the killers – who have been identified as a man and his two sons – are going to target a significant victim while the fires blaze and the mill apprentices drink themselves stupid and taunt the forces of law and order.

In Nickson’s writing you will find neither false flourishes nor furbelows. He doesn’t show off, nor does he have time for tricks and verbal trinkets. Bear in mind that he is a songwriter, and you will understand that he knows how to tell a story with the minimum of fuss. Free From All Danger is a straightforward – but impressive –  police procedural, albeit one set in a time when the procedures were based on the wisdom and intuition of the coppers, rather than a two-hundred page manual.

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If you have any appreciation of good storytelling, you will enjoy this book. You will, however, need fingerless gloves, warm socks and a good woollen vest, preferably woven in Yorkshire. This November in Leeds is cold. It is a cold that gnaws at men’s bones, chills their souls, and has them heading for the hearths of home, or the fireside of a crowded inn. The cobbles glint with frost, and the mist from the rivers and becks conceals a multitude of dark deeds. Free From All Danger is historical crime fiction right out of the top drawer. It is published by Severn House, and is available here. Please take the time to read Fully Booked reviews of more Chris Nickson novels. Just click on the images below.

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THE YEAR OF THE GUN … Between the covers

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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.

TYOTGSo, 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.

 NicksonmaxresdefaultYou 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.

 

THE POSTMAN DELIVERS … Hanna, McNab & Nickson

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Hanna074HIRAMIC BROTHERHOOD, Ezekiel’s Temple Prophecy – written by William Hanna
An earlier novel by Hanna, (left) also called Hiramic Brotherhood, but with the subtitle Of The Third Temple was published in 2014. Hanna’s theme is that the modern state of Israel is guilty of a massive cover-up of racism and ethnic cleansing. His character, a journalist and documentary maker called Conrad Banner, is determined to expose what he sees as Israel’s successful attempts to hoodwink the world over its attitudes towards the Palestinian people, and to foster the negative portrayal of Arabs across the Middle East.
HIRAMIC BROTHERHOOD, Ezekiel’s Temple Prophecy is published by Matador, and you can find further information by following this link.

In Cold BloodCOLD BLOOD – written by Andy McNab
The much decorated former SAS sergeant ( CBE, DCM & MM) has yet to emerge from the shadows which have shrouded him since his earlier publications. Wikipedia says his real name is Steven Billy Mitchell, but he denies this. Bravo Two Zero was published in 1993 and is still the best-selling military history book of all time. With the help of his wife – who was in publishing when they married 17 years ago – McNab moved on from memoirs to fiction, and Cold Blood is the 18th in the series featuring former soldier Nick Stone. Stone is recruited to act as minder and mentor to a group of traumatised former soldiers who are making a therapeutic (yes, really!) trip to The North Pole in an effort to rediscover their self-belief and rebuild their shattered minds. Inevitably, things go wrong, and Stone realises that the bitter cold, and predatory polar bears are the least of his problems. Cold Blood is published by Bantam Press, and will be out in October.

NicksonmaxresdefaultTHE YEAR OF THE GUN – written by Chris Nickson
I have to declare an interest here. Chris Nickson (left) is one of my favourite authors. Not only is he a connoisseur of the magical effect that good popular music can have on our humdrum lives, he is a bloody good writer. There. I’ve said it. I am addicted to his ongoing series featuring Tom Harper, a copper in Victorian Leeds. and I reviewed On Copper Street, but have yet to branch out and sample his other two characters. Richard Nottingham is another Leeds copper, but this time in the early 18th century. Showing his historical virtuosity, Nickson has also created a 20th century policewoman. Lottie Armstrong was a former Leeds copper, but she was sacked. We pick up her story in 1944, and with tens of thousands of men away fighting Hitler, the Women’s Auxiliary Police Corps has been formed to fill the vacuum, and Lottie has joined. With a brutal murderer taking advantage of the city blackout, Lottie must swallow her bitterness at being sacked as a policewoman, and help Detective Chief Superintendent McMillan catch the killer. The Year Of The Gun is published by The History Press and will be out in September.

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ON COPPER STREET … Between the covers

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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.

32970425On 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.

maxresdefaultNickson 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.

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THE IRON WATER … Between the covers

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I am not suggesting that it is a good idea
, but were you to cut Chris Nickson open, you would probably find – after the fashion of Queen Mary – the word ‘Leeds’ engraved on his heart. He is clearly passionate and protective about the city of his birth, and this shines like a beacon from every page of The Iron Water, another case for the Leeds copper Tom Harper. Set in the summer of 1893 it is, on one level, a straightforward Victorian police procedural, but it is more. Much more.

 Nickson wears his social justice heart very much on his sleeve, and he doesn’t shrink from describing the vile conditions still experienced by poor families at the time. There is nothing of the cosy period piece about the book, but Nickson doesn’t make the mistake of allowing his fervour to turn the story into a collection of protest pamphlets, in spite of Annabelle, Harper’s lovely wife, taking a position within a campaigning Suffragist movement in the city.

Harper, all of a sudden, has bodies on his hands. There’s the corpse which floats up from the depths of a local lake after a demonstration of a new water-borne weapon, the torpedo. Then there’s the girl. Well, at least her leg, which is recovered from the canal. And what’s to be made of the body of a minder usually employed by one of the city’s criminal gangs? Being garrotted is definitely not the usual fate of Leeds murder victims.

iron-waterTwo gang bosses, one of Irish heritage and the other local, are engaged in a tense truce. They will hold off attacking each other while Harper and his fellow officers track down the mysterious copper-headed man who appears to be connected to the deaths. Time is running out, however, and there is an even more calamitous threat hanging over the heads of the police. The powers-that-be want answers, and as Harper runs around in ever decreasing circles, he is told that if he doesn’t find the killer, then men from Scotland Yard will travel north and take over the case. This, for Harper and his boss Superintendent Kendall, will be the ultimate disgrace.

The descriptions of the city as it swelters in the summer heat, are masterly. You can almost taste the sweat, sense the baking hot cobbles under your feet as you walk, smell the dray horses and feel your throat burning from the chemical tang produced by the factories which have made Leeds a grand place to make money – for the privileged few. There’s a terrific paragraph which goes:

“The July heat showed no sign of breaking. All the faces he passed on the pavement looked on edge. Thoughts of violence hung over their heads. Another day or two and there’d be fights. Men would beat their wives over nothing at all. There’d be woundings and killings in the pubs and beershops.”

That has echoes of Raymond Chandler’s lines from Red Wind (1938) which begin:

“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch..”

But Nickson’s version fits just as beautifully into the cauldron of industrial Leeds as Chandler’s did into the hot California night.

Eventually, almost as the Scotland Yard men are about to board their train at King’s Cross, a flurry of violence and revenge seems to tie up the case, but Nickson is much too good to allow it to rest there, and the unease Harper feels about the closing of the case proves justified when he has one more terrifying ordeal to face.

The Iron Water is published by Severn House, and is available both in hardback and as a Kindle.

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