Chris Nickson is a former music journalist, and has rubbed shoulders with the Great and The Good across the history of rock music, but in these latter days he has earned a considerable reputation as a historical novelist. His books are mostly centred on Leeds, and they cover different historical periods from the 1730s to the 1950s. His latest book features Georgian thief-taker Simon Westow. Back then, there was no organised police force; the only legal officials were parish constables, who tended to be elderly, infirm and incompetent. Westow is more like the 20th century concept of a Private Eye; he recovers stolen property and catches criminals – for a fee.
Here, he has an unusual assignment; Local factory boss Joseph Clark asks him to find the men who stole the buried corpse of Gwendolyn Jordan, the daughter of Harmony Jordan, one of his employees. The crime of body snatching is unique in that it involved acts of criminality carried out in the name – some might argue – of a greater good, that being anatomical and medical research. Westow wastes no time on moral philosophy, and with his assistant Jane he sets out to find the Resurrection Men.
Jane is, for me, the most compelling character in any of Nickson’s novels. Raped by her father, disowned by her mother, the teenager has made her living on the streets. Not in the conventional sense by selling her body, but by employing preternatural skills of awareness of danger, cunning and speed of thought; most fearsome of all is the fact that she will use her knife without a moment of compassion or hesitation. She is a stone-cold killer, as many men – now dead and buried – would testify, were they still able to.
Westow’s case load becomes more complex when he and Jane are summoned to the elegant mansion of the infamous Mrs Parker – infamous because she is renowned in Leeds for marrying a series of wealthy men, who then die, leaving her with an ever expanding fortune. Just for once, she has been bested. A lover has swindled her out of £50 – over £5000 in today’s money – and she wants recompense.
When the usually invulnerable Jane is bested by one of the thugs involved in the corpse trade, and is hurled from a bridge, she is lucky to escape with cuts and bruises. Her pride is hurt more, though, and she vows vengeance. Eventually the elusive Resurrection Men are tracked down, but Westow and his wife Rosie are convinced that there is one big player in the racket left to catch, and this leads to a thrilling – and unexpected – end to the case,
Nickson’s narrative voice is totally authentic: Simon Westow, his family, and others in his world live and breathe as if they are they were standing with us in the same room. He makes the Leeds of April 1824 as real and vivid as if we had just stepped down from the York stagecoach. The Dead Will Rise is published by Severn House and is out now.