Written by Chris Nickson — In the Yorkshire city of Leeds, there is a massive gulf between the rich and the poor. It is 1890, and the rich industrialists are getting richer beyond their wildest dreams. The chimneys belch out smoke but the grime turns to gold for the factory owners. The workers who keep the lathes turning and the looms clattering are, by and large, in abject poverty. They work long hours for scant reward, live in cramped and insanitary houses, and can expect death to come early. When the workers in the gas works are threatened with pay cuts, they go on strike. The management plans to bring in ‘blackleg’ replacements, and the police are put on standby to keep the peace. Inspector Tom Harper is told to put his active cases to one side.
Harper is uneasy at this instruction because he is investigating the suspicious death by hanging of a local petty criminal, Col Parkinson. He is even more disturbed by the mysterious disappearance of the dead man’s young daughter. Parkinson had been telling everyone that young Martha was staying with her aunt in Bradford, but when Harper questions Parkinson’s wife – currently serving a term in Armley Prison for receiving stolen goods – she says her husband never had a sister.
The search for the missing little girl is temporarily shelved, but when one of the ‘blacklegs’ is stabbed to death on the steps of the town hall, Harper realises that a hulking prizefighter and his menacing companion are common to both investigations. Who are they? More importantly, who is their paymaster? As he prepares for his forthcoming wedding and his assistant, Sergeant Billy Reed, tries to shake off the demons of his war service, we become immersed in their search for Martha Parkinson.
The Leeds background is vivid and convincing. To a modern visitor, the author’s city of 1890 has changed out of all recognition, but Nickson allows us to smell the smoke and the foul sanitation of the terraced houses where the poorer folk live, while occasionally letting us breathe the cleaner air in the spacious suburbs inhabited by the factory owners and businessmen.
This is an intriguing novel. The old saying ‘there’s nothing new under the sun’ has never been more clearly demonstrated. We have loan sharks preying on the gullible and impoverished; we have the veteran of an Afghan war suffering from what we now call PTSD and relying on drink to keep him sane; we have workers being squeezed by bosses who care more about their shareholders than they do about the men and women whose efforts create their profits; and we even have a 19th century version of child abuse – albeit one which doesn’t involve male TV stars of the 70s.
Nickson wears his heart on his sleeve. It is clear where his sympathies lie, but the political polemic doesn’t get in the way of a great story. There are one or two matters which go unresolved by the end of the book, but as Harper and his admirable fiancée are characters who could well go on to be permanent fixtures in the calendar of period crime fiction, I expect that the loose ends will be tidied up in a future story.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars