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Tom Harper

THE LEADEN HEART . . . Between the covers

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England, 1899. We are in the city of Leeds and the hottest summer in living memory is taxing the patience of even the most placid citizens. The heavy industry which has transformed the quietly prosperous Yorkshire town continues to clatter and roar, while the smoke from its thousand chimneys coats everything in grime, and the air is thick with soot. Superintendent Tom Harper of the city’s police force has mixed feelings about his recent promotion. The pile of paperwork on his desk adds to the tedium, and he wishes he could be out there on the busy streets doing what he believes to be a copper’s real job.

TLHHarper lives above a city pub, the Victoria. His wife, Annabelle, is the landlady, but she is also a fiercely determined advocate of women’s rights, and she has made waves by being elected to the local Board of Guardians, a largely male-dominated organisation which is tasked with administering what, in the dying years of Queen Victoria’s reign, passed for social care. When the brother of Harper’s one-time colleague, Billy Reed, commits suicide the death is dismissed, albeit sadly, as commonplace, but Reed believes that his brother’s death is due to something more sinister, and he asks Harper to investigate.

Charlie Reed was a small time shop-keeper, but his shop was in an area where large scale commercial developments are being planned, and his premises – along with many others – have been targeted by thugs who are possibly in the pay of two wealthy – but utterly corrupt and ruthless – city councillors. Like a dog with a bone, Harper chews and gnaws away at the shrouds of secrecy with which these men have surrounded themselves, but Charlie Reed’s tragic suicide is eclipsed by a string of savage killings committed by a deranged pair of brothers who are clearly acting at the behest of the two councillors and their lawyer.

Against a background of heartbreaking poverty, where needless deaths and bureaucracy trump common humanity at every turn, Harper eventually gets to come face to face with the killers and their suave masters, but not before his family is put in peril, and his own life comes to hang from a thread.

The most chilling aspect of The Leaden Heart is that it is brutally contemporary. Town and City councillors might, these days, be seen as bumbling and pompous local jobsworths, full of piss and wind, but relatively harmless. Nothing could be further from the truth. Now, as in 1899, such people have huge power over planning applications and budgets which are in the millions. Now, as then, the corrupt and venal live among us and will, no doubt, be putting themselves up for re-election in May 2019.

The author’s empathy with the downtrodden and exploited, and his disgust at crooked councillors and unfeeling public guardians burns like an angry flame. The most haunting image in the book is of two drowned children killed, yes, by their drunken father, but also failed by their helpless mother and the rigid workhouse system. Nickson is a writer, however, whose passionate desire for social justice never impedes his ability to tell a great story and weave a dazzling crime mystery. What is more, he does the job with minimal fuss; there’s never a wasted word, a redundant adjective or an overblown description. His prose is pared down to the bone, but always sharp and vivid. I often think Nickson would have found lasting kinship with the great campaigning journalist and author GR Simms, (incidentally an almost exact contemporary of Tom Harper) whose most celebrated work is echoed in some aspects of The Leaden Heart. The book is published by Severn House and will be out on 29th March.

Regular visitors to Fully Booked will know that I am an unashamed fan of everything Chris Nickson writes. If you click on the image of the man himself, you can read other reviews and features on his work.

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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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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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