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!