On My Mind: Wolves, Magda Digby


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Why do we so fear wolves? They are predators, yes, but so are cats, and many of us live with cats, indeed sleep with them curled into our warm bodies. Eagles, hawks, and owls are also predators, yet most people I know, though in awe of them, don’t fear them, don’t see them as threats. Granted, domestic cats and birds of prey cannot knock over an adult human, but they can do serious harm. Yet it’s the wolves…

I’m thinking about this not only because of my work in progress, but also because the battle between farmers/ranchers and wolves is a thing in my state, and it breaks my heart.

Here’s a thoughtful piece of writing about that fear by James Roberts in the ezine Zoomorphic: http://zoomorphic.net/2017/10/in-the-eyes-of-a-wolf/
“Wolves mourn their dead. Some wolf mates return over and over to the place where their partners were trapped or killed. Others leave the pack and spend the rest of their days wandering in a state of growing starvation before they too die. Some wolves, when relocated by helicopter in an effort to shrink pack numbers, travel many hundreds of miles back to their home territory, risking being killed by other packs or by starvation. Some have even been caught again, then again relocated and this time have simply given up and died in their transport cages. Wolves create their own cultures. There is much we humans have forgotten we share with them. There is much we still have to learn from them.”

I tend to agree with Farley Mowat: “We have doomed the wolf not for what it is, but for what we deliberately and mistakenly perceive it to be –the mythologized epitome of a savage ruthless killer – which is, in reality, no more than a reflected image of ourself.”

And this: “…in the wolf we have not so much an animal that we have always known as one that we have consistently imagined.” –Barry Lopez, Of Wolves and Men

They are exquisitely beautiful beings, loyal to the pack, mating for life.

In medieval England the wolf was considered an enemy of foresters (i.e., the king’s hunting grounds) and the wool trade (monasteries grew rich on the wool their flocks produced), so the goal of wolf hunts was to rid the realm of their presence. In Aleksander Pluskowsky’s book, Wolves and the Wilderness in the Middle Ages (Boydell Press 2006) he notes that “the last reliable reference to wolf trapping in England is dated to 1394-6, from Whitby Abbey in East Yorkshire, where the monks paid 10s 9d for tawing fourteen wolf skins” (30).

So… there might have been wolves up on the moors in the late 14th century…

Also much on my mind: John Thoresby suggested to Magda Digby in A Vigil of Spies that she might cease referring to herself in third person, that she had surely done sufficient penance for her youthful errors. Would she attempt to change her speech pattern in honor of his memory? I’ve been debating this with myself ad nauseam. I’d be curious to know what you think.




The Gift of a Talented Narrator


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Both The Apothecary Rose and The Lady Chapel are now available from Tantor Audio in the US, with The Nun’s Tale coming in December!

When Tantor Audio offered an audiobook contract for the first three Owen Archer mysteries, I scoured their list of narrators for the one I thought might be the best match for the series, and proposed the award-winning Derek Perkins. I am so pleased with the results. Derek not only creates distinct voices for each character, but he gives a deeply nuanced reading that never strays from my intention. What a gift!

Publisher’s Weekly reviewed the recording of The Apothecary Rose: “Set in the 14th century, Robb’s historical detective stories about Owen Archer, a spy working for the influential John Thoresby, Lord Chancellor of England and Archbishop of York, currently runs to 10 volumes. This new audio edition of the first in the series is the obvious starting place for both curious newcomers and a treat for fans of the shrewd one-eyed Archer and his beautiful pharmacist wife Lucie, who may appreciate a reminder of how the two first met: over a pair of corpses possibly killed by a concoction mixed by Lucie’s first husband, master apothecary Nicholas Wilton. Reader Perkins gives Archer a confident-sounding British voice, with the requisite uncertainty about his trial employment by the demanding archbishop and feelings for a married woman. Perkins also presents thoughtful interpretations of the series’ continuing characters, like the warm-hearted midwife, Magda Digby; the rowdy, humorous tavern proprietress Bess Merchet; and the enigmatic Thoresby, whose voice changes according to the situation. His clerical delivery is sharper, higher pitched, while his personal conversation, which Archer prefers, is more relaxed, down-to-earth, and uncritical. Adeptly capturing the voices of the series’ recurring characters, Perkins delivers a promising start to the audio edition of this beloved series.”

Perfect for holiday gifts! And downloadable on Audible.


Toronto Bouchercon & a Long Answer to a Question


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I’ve returned from a delightful sojourn in Toronto, attending Bouchercon (the World Mystery Convention), but also playing tourist. It’s a beautiful city with distinct neighborhoods, many museums (loved the kimono collection in the Museum of Textiles), a lively theater district, a peace garden (photo on the right), a never-ending labyrinth of underground shops, all filled with the friendliest, most courteous people. What a treat!

Note to Canadian readers–The Sleuth of Baker Street, Toronto’s great mystery bookshop, has freshly signed copies of both Kate Clifford books as well as a number of Owen Archers and Margaret Kerrs!


I had so much fun on the panel Creative Histories. It might have been 8:30 on a Saturday morning, but we were lively: Sylvia Warsh (moderator), A.G. Wong (my companion to the kimono collection), Ovidia Yu, and in the photo below, you see me between Wendi Corsi Staub and Emily Carpenter.

At the convention, a reader asked, “Which characters in your books are your favorites?” I thought about it for a few minutes and then asked, “Favorite in what way?”

Because characters endear themselves to me for many reasons. Some are easy to write–Kate Clifford’s ward Marie Neville–she naturally inserts herself into scenes; Brother Wulfstan and Archbishop Thoresby in the Owen Archers, so clear in my mind that I was immediately in their heads. Some are fun because I never know what will come out of their mouths–Kate’s mother Eleanor is my current favorite in that regard, and Bess Merchet as well. Some touch me deeply, such as Brother Michaelo, the archbishop’s secretary, a character who has gone through such a sea change, a man who yearns for redemption; two young females who lost everything–Alisoun Ffulford and Petra Clifford. Some puzzle me–Sir Elric, Kate’s nemesis–or is he? Maggie Kerr’s friend Hal–does he have a special gift with animals or does he simply pay close attention to them? Some are just dear to me–Owen, Lucie, Bess, Kate, Petra, Berend, Maggie…   And some inspire me–Magda Digby is at the top of that list. How can I choose which character is my favorite?

Can you choose just one favorite character?


Writing as a Journey of Discovery


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I’m happily absorbed in rearranging and polishing the third Kate Clifford novel. The first draft of a novel is always a journey of discovery for me: only after I’ve followed the characters through the story do I see the patterns, the connections, the emotional journeys. Then I dive back in, reading it with curiosity, making notes toward the next draft, what to rearrange, what to rewrite, how to polish it. I love this part.

Clearly this process is shared by many, if not most, writers. Here are  two examples that I came across this week.

  • In the last paragraph of Marilynne Robinson’s essay “On Finding the Right Word” in Friday’s NYT she warns against forcing the topic:
    “Writing should always be exploratory. There shouldn’t be the assumption that you know ahead of time what you want to express. When you enter into the dance with language, you’ll begin to find that there’s something before, or behind, or more absolute than the thing you thought you wanted to express. And as you work, other kinds of meaning emerge than what you might have expected. It’s like wrestling with the angel: On the one hand you feel the constraints of what can be said, but on the other hand you feel the infinite potential. There’s nothing more interesting than language and the problem of trying to bend it to your will, which you can never quite do. You can only find what it contains, which is always a surprise.”
    Exploratory, a dance, always a surprised. Exactly!
  • This reminded me of a short video I discovered a few days ago, George Saunders on Story. in which he “deconstructs what makes for an effective story, and describes his personal strategies for writing, revealing the importance of conversing with your characters, the pitfalls of fixing your intentions in place, and why good storytelling is a bit like being in love.”
    Conversing with your characters–I find that essential. I’ve learned to let go of my intentions as soon as a character balks. Instead, I follow their idea and see where it takes me. Sometimes it’s a dead end and I abandon it, but even then I’ve learned something in the process, and I know the story is better for having listened.



Medieval York, Again?!


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As promised, here is the third post I wrote for the Kate Clifford series blog tour in July. Enjoy!

The What that’s begged the Why: I set my popular Owen Archer crime series in medieval York, the first book beginning just past the middle of the 14th century, and now I’ve set the Kate Clifford crime series in the same city at the beginning of the 15th century. Why late medieval York again? Well might you ask. As Kate would say, it’s complicated.

Answer #1:  I have loved York from the moment I set foot in the city years ago while I was a grad student studying medieval literature. I felt the ghosts of the middle ages in the narrow streets and snickleways, and atop the medieval walls that still largely enclose the central part of the city. There is so much to explore there, and researchers are always digging up (literally and figuratively) more historical data. It was an important city in the late middle ages, with a powerful archbishop and a wealthy merchant population, so although some of the city archives for the 14th century were lost, events in York appear in other archives. Every time I visit I learn more. I never tire of it. It’s a joy to write about both York and Yorkshire.

Louise Hampson giving me a tour of Lady Peckett’s Yard (York)

Fair enough, but why not just keep going with one series? Answer #2:  When I set the first Owen Archer mystery (The Apothecary Rose) in the early 1360s, I was not aware of York’s involvement in the Lancastrian seizure of the Plantagenet crown in 1399 and the early years of Henry IV’s reign. Later, I groaned when I realized what opportunities for political skullduggery I’d missed. I didn’t like the idea of skipping ahead so many years to get to that period. There’s still so much in between to explore. And, to be honest, although Owen Archer could still be actively sleuthing in his 70s, it felt like a stretch.

But as I just couldn’t let go of the opportunity to write about Henry’s haunted reign, I chose to start afresh with a new sleuth in 1399. The first Kate Clifford mystery (The Service of the Dead) takes place just as King Richard II refuses to life his cousin Henry of Lancaster’s exile upon the death of his father, and, in fact, declares that he has forfeited his inheritance of the duchy of Lancaster. No one expects Henry to ignore this challenge. Kate Clifford’s connection to this? It’s possible that a man murdered in Kate’s guesthouse was a political spy. In the second book, A Twisted Vengeance, as Henry lands in Yorkshire, in defiance of his cousin, the city of York prepares for a siege. Kate Clifford is not directly involved in the fighting, but her mother’s sudden return from the continent and an attack on one of the religious women who accompanied her brings suspicion on her family. And in the third book, Murdered Peace, Henry wears the crown, but he is far from secure.

In King’s Square near the Shambles, taking notes as Louise (just off camera) tells me about the church that once stood there

Has York changed in the gap between the two series?  Answer #3:  Enough has changed in York, including the structure of its government, that it feels fresh to me. And I’ve learned so much more from recent publications about medieval York that I can vary locations. For instance, I placed Kate’s home in the first two books in an area of medieval York that new information transformed for me. I had not known that the wealthy Thomas Holme had gardens extending from his home on Castlegate to the River Foss. He referred to it as his “urban manor.” Kate lives next door.

Answer #4:  To answer the “late medieval” part of the question, the first response would be, it’s the period I’ve studied in depth and want to write about. But another reason arose as I began to work on the second Kate Clifford book. The gap in time between the most recent Owen Archer (1373) and the first Kate Clifford (1399) is short enough that the two series could share characters. Now Owen Archer characters are popping up in casting calls for the Kate Clifford novels. Only one was cast in the second book, but two more, with meatier roles, grace the third. Connected series. Why not?

Thanks for asking.

[Photos are by Charlie Robb, taken in June 2017]

Casting a Female Sleuth in a Historical Crime Series


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As promised, I’m sharing with you the three guest posts I wrote for the recent Kate Clifford blog tour, knowing that many of you would not have seen them. Here is the second, which first appeared here.

I remember the day my new sleuth, Kate Clifford, auditioned for the role. I’d stepped away from the crime genre to write two novels about women in the court of King Edward III, Alice Perrers and Joan of Kent (The King’s Mistress, A Triple Knot). They’d first appeared as secondary characters in my crime novels, and I’d been so taken by them that I wanted to get to know them better. My research for their books took me down paths I had not yet explored, and I came away with a deep admiration for both women. But great frustration as well. I’d grown accustomed to writing about the women who surround and support Owen Archer, the sleuth in my original crime series. They were women of the merchant class—tradeswomen, innkeepers, apothecaries, and midwives, independent, pragmatic, wise. The women of the court did not lack wisdom or strength of character, but they were anything but independent—such is the nature of life in a royal court. I found myself wanting to shake them and point to the door—especially Alice, who had been brought up in the merchant community. Go back! Step out of the shackles! But I was not writing that sort of book—I was filling in the blanks in their biographies, not revising history.

For my next project, I wanted to return to fictional characters whose circumstances might be derived from the archives, but whose stories, whose fates were in my hands. Kate Clifford answered the casting call. She came striding down Stonegate in York, flanked by Irish wolfhounds, her step bold, her gown craftily hiding the small battle axe she wore for protection. She rounded the corner into High Petergate and entered a well-appointed house, received by an elderly couple with the respect due an employer. Curious, I invited her to stay awhile, tell me her story. Once I knew more about her, I couldn’t imagine anyone else in the role. Kate was my new sleuth.

Someone interviewing me about the new series commented that there would seem to be more scope in historical novels for male characters rather than female, and then asked, “do you prefer to write one sex or the other?” I answered that a male sleuth has a potentially wider range of activities in 14th-15th century England than a female sleuth, which is why I crafted Kate Clifford’s background with an eye toward making plausible the ways in which she seems unconventional. And strong. Kate’s background is a combination of women I’ve found in the records, women who took control of their lives and overcame adversity. They are there in the archives if you look; strong women aren’t a modern phenomenon. They took charge of manors and farms when their men went off to war, took over businesses when widowed, or when their husbands were imprisoned, away, incapacitated. Taking charge included defending those manors and businesses as well as managing them. Women knew how to use weapons; I’ve given Kate a childhood on the border with Scotland where that would have been a given.

So Kate’s responsibilities give her a wide scope in the city of York and beyond, where she and her family own property. That doesn’t mean she can plausibly ride off on adventures far afield, as my sleuth Owen Archer does on occasion. She’s more like Owen’s wife, Lucie Wilton, who remains in York when Owen rides off on adventures. She’s an apothecary with a clientele who count on her, and the mother of young children. So, yes, a male character has more geographic scope than a female character. But what I might lose in a variety of locations I gain in the richness of women’s social networks—which in the late middle ages meant humans communicating face to face. Where there’s a community, there’s plenty of material for a mystery writer. So which sex do I prefer writing? Depends on the story. At the moment, I’m enjoying Kate. And even in the Owen Archer mysteries, some of the most dynamic characters are the women in his life.


I must share this amazing statue in Beauvais because–well, she could be Kate, couldn’t she? According to Wikipedia: Jeanne Laisné (born 1456) was a French heroine known as Jeanne Fourquet and nicknamed Jeanne Hachette (‘Joan the Hatchet’). She was the daughter of a peasant. She is currently known for an act of heroism on 27 June 1472, when she prevented the capture of Beauvais by the troops of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. The town was defended by only 300 men-at-arms, commanded by Louis de Balagny. The Burgundians were making an assault, and one of their number had actually planted a flag upon the battlements, when Jeanne, axe in hand, flung herself upon him, hurled him into the moat, tore down the flag, and revived the drooping courage of the garrison. In gratitude for this heroic deed, Louis XI instituted a procession in Beauvais called the “Procession of the Assault”, and married Jeanne to her chosen lover Colin Pilon, loading them with favours. As of 1907, there was still an annual religious procession on 27 June through the streets of Beauvais to commemorate Jeanne’s deed. A statue of her was unveiled on July 6th, 1851.

Series vs Standalone


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As a reader, if you asked whether I favor books in series or standalone books I’d say I have no preference. However, as a writer I much prefer working on books in series. The following is a glimpse into what I’ve learned about myself in this regard.*

The Pleasures of Writing a Series

Working on a novel is a long process, consuming my days and nights for months of work and worry. I live with the characters, coax them, argue with them. They wake me in the night with suggestions for plot twists, secrets about their pasts, reminders of threads I’ve dropped. On long walks I eavesdrop on arguments among them. And then, one day, the book is ready to send off to my editor. Such a rush of relief—I’ve done it again! I’ve completed another novel.

And then… I don’t know what to do with myself. I could tackle all the things that fell through the cracks while I rushed toward the deadline, but busywork isn’t satisfying. I’m lonely. I miss the characters.

The only cure is to dive into the next book, which is easy when writing a series. I go for a walk or go out to work in the garden while imagining what might be going on in Owen’s, Maggie’s, or Kate’s life, continuing a thread that began in an earlier book, something not quite tied up. It might be a blooming relationship, a potential conflict, a long-awaited opportunity, the unexpected return of a character from an earlier episode. This might not necessarily be the central plotline, but it primes the pump, puts my characters in play.

I lost this continuity when I stepped away from writing mysteries to work on two standalones (The King’s Mistress and A Triple Knot, by “Emma Campion”). Once completed, I had no easy entrance into the next story. With these, once each book was finished,  that was that. There was no “and then” to play with.

Only by stepping away did I appreciate how much I enjoy writing crime series. In a standalone, everything is wrapped up in one book. In a series, my characters are on stage across a variety of adventures and through time. In the Kate Clifford series, I’ve burdened my main character with her late husband’s debts, his bastard children, an unfriendly clause in his will, a violent past, and a difficult mother. Kate’s issues are presented in book 1, The Service of the Dead, but, as in life, not all are resolved by the end of the first episode. Kate will cope with the hand I’ve dealt her over time, while investigating the crime that propels each book.

Having the leisure of following all the recurring characters over time is a perk of writing a series. Their characters deepen as they face new challenges. In The Service of the Dead, Kate’s uncle Richard Clifford, dean of York Minster, is someone whom she trusts, someone who is there for her when she needs a safe place for her ward, Phillip. But in A Twisted Vengeance he steps back, looking to his own interests as the conflict between the royal cousins, King Richard and Henry Bolingbroke, the heir to the duchy of Lancaster, comes to a head. Because I’ve already established the warm niece/uncle relationship in book 1, this estrangement is all the more disturbing and disappointing—and signals just how dangerous the politics have become.

Or take Kate’s mother, Eleanor Clifford, who arrives at the end of Service, giving Kate an outlet for her pent up anger. In book 2, A Twisted Vengeance, Kate realizes that her mother holds a secret that is endangering her own and Kate’s households. The challenge for Kate is to put her resentment aside and find a way to break down the barriers between them.

The children in Kate’s household are certain to change the most through the series, as they move from childhood to adolescence and beyond. I look forward to exploring how Kate’s headstrong ward, Marie, will adjust to the new member of the household, Petra. And it will be fun to show Marie’s brother, Phillip, finding his way as an apprentice stonemason in the minster yard.

And what of Kate’s heart? She has two intriguing men in her life, Berend (her cook, a former assassin), and Sir Elric, a knight in the service of Ralph Neville, the Earl of Westmoreland. With the country split apart by the warring royal cousins, the two men might very well find themselves on opposite sides. What of Kate? Whose side will she favor?

Stay tuned!

*I am aware that many of you who read this blog don’t follow along on blog tours, so in the next few weeks I’ll share the posts I wrote for my recent tour. This is the first, which appeared at http://booksofallkinds.weebly.com/:

Kate Clifford Series Blog Tour 3-21 July!


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What is a blog tour, you might ask. Think of it as a virtual book tour–instead of hopping around the country appearing at bookstores and being interviewed on radio and TV, I’m touring around book blogs, where the first two Kate Clifford books will be reviewed. I’ll also be interviewed on one (4 July), and I’m writing guest posts for three. You can follow them from this link! AND, for readers in the US, you can enter a giveaway for both books.

Huge thanks to Amy Bruno of Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for setting it up!

The Subject Is Roses


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First, an exciting announcement for readers in the US who have wished for Owen Archer audiobooks: The Apothecary Rose is available now, in a new Tantor audiobook narrated by the award winning Derek Perkins. (The Lady Chapel will be available in November, The Nun’s Tale in December.)



The second rose is this gorgeous one, which Jane Hibbert brought me, fresh from her garden, as she arrived for my talk in the Festival of Ideas in York last month. Called Minster Rose, it has the most exquisite scent. Thank you, Jane!

I believe this is the York Minster Rose bred especially for a minster fundraiser, or so I was told by Richard Shephard as I set it out on his kitchen table. Perfect!

I just wish I might have brought it home. But I’m going to hunt it down. It will look beautiful beside my apothecary rose and in front of my climbing City of York, a white rose (of course!).

The third rose is a rosewood fountain pen made from the remnants of some old rosewood furniture by Bob Newman, a thank you for the Owen Archer books, particularly The Apothecary Rose. This will have pride of place on my desk. Isn’t it beautiful?!

Thank you, Bob!

More about my trip coming soon…

Meet Chris Nickson, Chronicler of Leeds


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In several weeks (8 June) I’ll be sitting down at the historic Leeds Library (7 pm) with my friend Chris Nickson, engaging in a conversation about our work and our friendship. I’m grateful for this opportunity to share the stage with a friend whose work I so admire. We share a love for the north of England, past and present, and for talking shop. Our almost daily email exchanges are chronicles of our work and inspiration.

We both explore the political landscape of the past in our writing and how it mirrors our contemporary concerns. I might seem more overt in my politics because I include the politics of the realm in my books, but we both aim to show how the wider issues affected the people far from Westminster. Trust me, we’ll entertain you with our chatter.

You’re not familiar with Chris’s book? Most of Chris’s crime series are set in different eras in Leeds, although he’s also set short series in Seattle and Chesterfield. Let me just say, I highly recommend all of his books. You are in for a treat.

His most recent published book is the fifth book in his Tom Harper series, On Copper Street, which was named by Booklist as one of the best crime novels in the past twelve months. Congratulations, Chris! (Yes, it is that good.) The Tom Harper books are set in Victorian Leeds. Although Tom is a great character, I am always eager for scenes with his wife Annabelle. You’ll know why when you read the books. Begin with the first, Gods of Gold.

Three years ago I introduced Chris on this blog, talking about how we’d lived in so many of the same places, but never at the same time. Though we’ve since discovered that’s not quite true, we were in Seattle at the same time for a short stretch–we just didn’t know it! It wasn’t until he had returned to the UK that he contacted me. And we haven’t shut up since.

If you haven’t yet discovered Chris’s books, let me entice you with some samples of his writing.

Chris is a music journalist as well as a crime writer–I mention this because he brings a rhythm and a lyricism, to his writing that enriches his crime novels. The streets his sleuths walk are alive with sound. And he can write about music in a way that teases me into thinking I’m actually hearing it. Here’s a passage from Dark Briggate Blues, the first Dan Markham mystery (1950s Leeds): “The music began just as he walked down the stairs, piano, bass, drums and a young tenor player he’d never seen before. He barely looked old enough to shave and dressed awkwardly in something that could have been his father’s demob suit. But he could play, twisting a world of ache and pain through the melody of ‘Someone To Watch Over Me’ with a heartbreak that went beyond his years. Markham waited in the doorway until the tune ended in a slow flurry of notes that rose like smoke.”

Chris doesn’t stop at one sense, he works them all:
“An early mist had come down as the Constable walked into Leeds, giving a cobweb light to the land. Somewhere off in the trees crows were cawing and he could hear the soft smack of hooves on the earth, but he couldn’t see them.” (Come the Fear, a Richard Nottingham mystery)
“Leadenhall Carcass Market stood behind an arch next to Smith’s Tailors and Outfitters, on one of the thin lanes that ran between Vicar Lane and Briggate. It was late in the day but they were still at work, oil lamps glowing everywhere. The flagstones were slippery with frozen blood but the men working under the overhangs walked around easily, laughing, joking and shouting as they wielded their knives and carelessly hauled around sides of beef. There was a sharp tang to the air, and the flesh steamed as men sliced it open to gut and joint the carcasses that hung from iron hooks. Harper felt himself starting to gag as the bile rose in his throat. He stood still for a moment, hardly daring to breathe until the feeling passed.” (from Two Bronze Pennies, a Tom Harper mystery)

He encapsulates Leeds history in his descriptions. “Rob knew about the bell pits; everyone in Leeds did. They were holds that extended just a few feet into the ground, opening into chambers ten or twelve feet across and shaped like the bells that gave them their names; places where folk gathered scraps of coal for their fires. They’d existed for generations, all over the city, for so long that no one really knew who’d first dug them.” (from At the Dying of the Year, a Richard Nottingham mystery)

Now that I think of it, his books beg to be read aloud.

Chris does far more than simply choose a time and place in which to set a mystery, he recreates that time, researching the cultural history as well as the political history, walking the streets. He has a knack for knowing just when to add words common at the time, yet avoids the danger of slowing down the action with dialect. He has an ear for what will bring the scene to life.

You can see why I’m looking forward to our conversation at the historic Leeds Library on 8 June. Come join us! Ticket info here.  Thank you, Leeds Big Bookend and The Leeds Library for sponsoring this event!