One of my sons was at Leeds University, and my impression of the city during visits either to move house or to bring food and supplies, was of a place very much sure of itself, embracing the past while relishing a vibrant future. But this was largely Headingly, the university quarter, full of bookshops, trendy cafes and largely peopled by the offspring of comfortable middle class people like me and my wife.
Chris Nickson’s Leeds is a very different place. In the Tom Harper novels (click link) and in this, the latest account of the career of Simon Westow, thief-taker, things are very, very different. This is Georgian England (1823, in this case) and Westow – in an age before a regular police force – earns his living recovering stolen property, for a percentage of its value. He has no judicial authority, save that of his quick wits, his fists and- occasionally – his knife. Recovering from a debilitating illness, Westow is back on the streets, and is juggling with several different investigations. A man has been hauled out of the river. His throat has been fatally slashed, and one of his hands has been hacked off. His brother hires Westow to answer ‘who?’ and ‘why?’.
A rich and powerful Leeds entrepreneur called Arden sets Westow the task of recovering a pair of valuable candlesticks, stolen from his son. But when the investigation is concluded, all too easily, Westow is forced to wonder if he is not being used as a dupe in some larger scheme. To add to his workload, Westow sets out to avenge the deaths of two lads, apparently starved then beaten to death by brutal overseers at a Leeds factory owned by a mysterious man named Seaton.
Westow’s assistant is a deceptively fragile young woman called Jane. Raped by her father and then thrown out on the street by her mother, she has learned to survive by cunning – and a fatal ability to use a knife, without a second thought, or her dreams being haunted by her victims. She has, to some extent, ‘come in from the cold’ as she no longer lives on the street, but with an elderly lady of infinite kindness.
As Leeds is cut off from the rest of the world by deep snow, there are more deaths, but few answers. The only thing that is clear in Westow’s mind is that there is that – for whatever reason – a blood covenant exists between Arden and Seaton. Two rich and powerful men who have the rudimentary criminal justice system within Leeds at their beck and call. Two men who want ruin – and death – to come to Westow and those he loves.
Before we reach a terrifying finale at a remote farm in the hills beyond Leeds, Nickson demonstrates why he is such a good – and impassioned – novelist. He burns with an anger at the decades of of injustice, hardship and misery inflicted on working people by the men who built industrial Leeds, and made their fortunes on the broken bodies of the poor strugglers who lived such dark lives in the insanitary terraces that clustered around the mills and foundries. In terms of modern politics, Chris Nickson and I are worlds apart and there is, of course, a separate debate to be had about the long term effects of the industrial revolution, but it would be a callous person who could remain unmoved by the accounts of the human wreckage caused by the huge technological upheavals of the 18th and 19th centuries.
There is. of course, a noble tradition of writers who exposed social injustice nearer to their own times – Charles Dickens, Charles Kingsley, Robert Tressell and John Steinbeck, to name but a few, but we shouldn’t dismiss Nickson’s anger because of the distance between his books and the events he describes. As he walks the streets of modern Leeds, he clearly feels every pang of hunger, every indignity, every broken bone and every hopeless dawn experienced by the people whose blood and sweat made the city what it is today. That he can express this while also writing a bloody good crime novel is the reason why he is, in my opinion, one of our finest contemporary writers. The Blood Covenant is published by Severn House and is out now.