So19 talks with CHRIS NICKSON

As someone who loves to read and write about place, I was immediately struck by the strength of the setting in British author Chris Nickson’s first Tom Harper novel, Gods of Gold. In truth, the word “setting” seems less than apt, both for that book and its successor, Two Bronze Pennies. The books’ 1890s Leeds feels more vital, more dynamic than that; from its smallest details to its sweep and moods, it becomes a player in the story rather than a mere backdrop, as important to the novels as their nuanced characters, beautifully paced plots and resonant themes. The city of his birth and also, now, his residence, Leeds appears in other work by the prolific fiction writer and music journalist as well: the Richard Nottingham crime novels, beginning with The Broken Token, which are set in Leeds in the 1730s; the noir Dark Briggate Blues, which takes place there in 1954; and Leeds, The Biography: A History of Leeds in Short Stories, which appears this month. In addition, he is the author of the Seattle novels Emerald City and West Seattle Blues, as well as a series set in 14th century Chesterfield, introduced with The Crooked Spire. You can find out more about the author and his work on his website, Facebook page, and Twitter feed. All that said, So19 is delighted to talk with Chris Nickson about Leeds, his process, Two Bronze Pennies (out in the UK and appearing stateside this August), his other work and, of course, the 19th century. —SF

So19: As I note in my introduction to this interview, the city of Leeds is such a strong presence in the Tom Harper novels, and it features in your other writing and in your personal odyssey as well. Can you talk a bit about the city, its role in your life, and its appeal to you as a setting for a variety of fictions?

CN: My first series of crime books, the Richard Nottingham series, was set in Leeds in the 1730s. The Tom Harper novels take place there in the 1890s, and I have a book out where everything happens in 1954. As you say, I’m also publishing a collection called Leeds, The Biography: A History of Leeds in Short Stories, which runs from 360 AD to 1963.

So yes, Leeds is important to me. I try to make it a vital character in all my books. It’s alive, and it changes hugely from era to era.

The irony is that when I was 18 I couldn’t wait to leave the place. I was ready to go elsewhere – pretty much anywhere else - and experience other things. I did. I lived in the US for 30 years. I returned regularly to visit my parents, and when books on local Leeds history began appearing, I’d buy them on my trips and became fascinated—I’d always been a history buff anyway. Once eBay began I was able to get hold of older books quite cheaply, although the postage was a killer. I learned more and more.

In 2005 I moved back to England, and two years ago to Leeds (ironically just a mile from where I grew up). I’d come to realize that I knew Leeds in a way I could never know anywhere else. It was in my bones, in my cells. My ancestors had come here in the 1820s from North Yorkshire, probably to seek a better life. From the census returns I know where they lived and how they moved around, which was largely in a small area. I’ve walked those streets, a deliberate pilgrimage. A few of the houses are still standing. So my own personality, my family history, is entwined with this place. I owe it a debt, not just for myself, but for the generations gone before me. It’s a vital living place, no matter the era. And now I have shelves of books on Leeds and reproductions of old maps.

In the 1730s, when the Richard Nottingham novels take place, Leeds was just beginning to grow wealthy from the wool trade. A few were very rich, most were desperately poor. The place was a force to be reckoned with economically—but it probably only had a population of 7,000. Geographically it was still very small. There’s not a great deal written about the Leeds of that time, so I had more freedom to impose my imagination on the place, to build on what was known.

By the 1890s there were about 300,000 living here. It was a city of empire, full of industry and those dark Satanic mills of Blake. It was dirty in ways we can’t even imagine now, and the poor lived terrible lives. But Richard Nottingham, my character from the first series, could have walked in the city center and known the streets; they’d kept their names and shapes.

Place is, and was, important to people. It shaped them and their characters. Accent and dialect varied subtly in different parts of Leeds. By the 1890s everything was well-documented and I try hard to be accurate.

I want to makes readers feel they’ve experienced Leeds, whatever the era, for it to be immersive, with the sights, the sounds, and the smells (because history really did stink). The streets were crowded and filthy. If people read one of my books and feel like they’ve experienced Leeds, I’ve succeeded. I try to make it real. That’s important to me. Leeds is as vital to my books as Tom Harper or Richard Nottingham. These books couldn’t have taken place anywhere else.

So19: The impact of the cold, the time and effort expended in getting from place to place, the stink and clamor of businesses like the Leadenhall Carcass Market…one of the things that emerges vividly in the novel is what might be called the physicality of both 19th century Leeds, and life in the 19th century more generally. How do you research the experiential side of the books…how things feel to your characters?

CN: There were plenty of commissions set up during the 19th century to hear evidence from workers about conditions in factories, mills, and other businesses. As a writer they’re ideal for research, as are all the pieces on the housing. Newspapers conducted their own investigations—there was an 1896 magazine piece called The White Slaves of Leeds, about the conditions the mill girls had to endure. From those it’s easy to learn what things were like for the people.

We also have plenty of photographs from the period, of houses, of faces where you can see the suffering under the surface. Life wasn’t sanitized. It was bloody, brutal, back-breaking. Wages were low. Although the Industrial Revolution was in full swing and things were mechanized, there was still a huge need for labor in industry. People were a cheap resource (and we have echoes of that now). All I try to do is put across how back-breaking and soulless much of that work was. The rewards gave Leeds all the grand Victorian buildings that still stand, ones I admire and love, but they were built on blood and poverty. Only a very few got rich. I try never to forget that.

The rest largely disappeared without trace, many into unmarked graves. In Beckett Street cemetery, which was run by the corporation, there’s a section of what’s known as “guinea graves.” They’re a cross between a mass grave and a private burial. People paid a guinea; for that they shared a grave with a few others, but had their names carved on the headstone. Both side of the stone were used, burials on either side to maximize space. You seem them, dozens and dozens of them, and you realize just how important it was for these people to leave some reminder of their existence. I suppose that in a way I’m trying to do that for all the ones who couldn’t afford even the guinea graves: trying to make the idea of them live on. That’s why they’re important to me, even the minor characters. I want to bring them to life, how they felt and lived, even if it’s just a few lines. To me, at least, they all lived, they were all important.

So19: In both installments of the series thus far, there’s a fascinating tension between the law and justice—and as characters including Tom Harper in Two Bronze Pennies note, the two things are definitely not the same. Was that tension in your mind as you began the series, or did it emerge as you wrote?

CN: That grey area between law and justice started to really fascinate me while I was working on the Richard Nottingham series. Richard was very much a straight arrow at first, akin to the myth of the sheriff of the Westerns, in many ways. That didn’t last too long. It started to become more blurred, and that’s where it becomes really interesting for a crime writer. The absolutes of black and white rarely exist. It’s the degrees of guilt, and what do you do to convict someone you know to be guilty, even if you can’t prove it.

It definitely makes for tension. Crime novels are really just novels with a moral frame superimposed on them. I like poking through the gaps in that framework. Very few people live their lives in absolutes. I think of my books as novels which have murders in them, and hope that’s not too pompous. People who are so full of certainties worry me. You have to question things. White lies, the odd dodgy bit of this and that, whether it’s speeding and not being caught, not tell all the truth on your tax return—we’re all guilty of something. And for those who live much of their lives wading in the murky waters of crime, the barriers between good and bad are more permeable. Hopefully it makes for better, more realistic fiction…

So19: The main plot in Two Bronze Pennies focuses on 1891 Leeds’ Jewish population and its persecution by those who consider the Jews un-English, unclean, and/or just unacceptable. The story is specific to the book’s era, of course, but it also builds on the oppression of the Jewish people throughout history. What inspired this storyline?

CN: With the immigration in the later 19th and early 20th centuries, Leeds acquired a sizeable Jewish population. They mostly lived in the Leylands, an area just north of the city center, very poor and cramped. After they made some money, they moved farther out, into the northern suburbs of the city. Growing up in Leeds, I took in many things by osmosis; my school was about half-Jewish, and my son is Jewish too, as the religion is passed on through the mother.

In the period of my novel there was plenty of ill-feeling to the Jews. They were different, they spoke this strange language, they had a different religion, different customs. The reaction of some people was fear of the unknown. Signs on business that really read “No Jews need apply” or “Jews not wanted”—that’s not something invented for my novel. It had been much the same 50 years before when the Irish arrived, and it would repeat in the 1950s with the West Indians. It’s simply people being scared, never thinking the new arrivals are even more terrified. The only direct action, though, was a riot in 1917 that lasted a couple of nights as gangs of men invaded the Leylands, smashing windows, daubing slogans, beating people up. Sound familiar from 1930s Germany? The difference was that the Jews fought back.

The direct inspiration for this storyline, though, was the rise of Islamophobia. Reading about it, seeing pictures, hearing the hatred, I had a sense that we’d been here before. Too many times. This was my way of speaking out about it. But even as I was writing the novel, there were articles about the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, and a sense that those on the Right wanted to pull up the drawbridge on immigrants.

So19: Were there any particular sources that helped you develop this element of the book?

CN: There’s not a huge amount written on the early Jewish experience in Leeds, sadly. But there were a couple of good books, and one that’s just come out on the Jewish diaspora within Leeds. You can’t even walk round the Leylands now and see how it once was. Every house has gone, replaced by light industry. There’s one old pub, the Eagle, and just that fragile sense of memory in the air.

So19: Suspicion and even hatred of the “other,” vigilante groups, the gap between rich and poor, even the pressure on police to deliver fast results: despite the differences between Tom Harper’s time and our own, so many of the story’s issues remain part of our lives today.

CN: The Tom Harper books are political. That was a deliberate choice on my part. There are so many resonances of the 1890s in today’s world—really, we’re only separated by 120 years, which is nothing in the grander scheme. I wanted to emphasize those echoes, but only if people wanted to see them. They had to be part of a good mystery story.

Like the history, I try to keep the politics of its time. It happened, it’s important to the story, but I do my best to keep a light touch with it. I’m not preaching. The parallels between then and now are there, but people can see them or not as they choose. I want the novels to be an immersive experience, for readers to feel they’ve been there in Leeds at the time, to feel what the characters have felt. That’s what I really aim for. I’m a crime novelist, not a lecturer.

So19: The crime-solving processes in the novel are so different than procedures today, especially of course in the lack of the forensic technology we take for granted. Yet not all the changes time has wrought are losses; the best of the book’s beat cops, for example, seem like walking databases of information on the neighborhoods they patrol.

CN: Detection itself was still relatively new in 1890. It was an art, not a science. Policemen (there were no policewomen in Leeds until the 1920s, although there were a couple of female volunteers during WWI) came up through the ranks, they all started on the beat. They knew their manors, all the people, the relationships, who was a bad lad, who could be trusted. The bobbies on the beat were more than the frontline of policing then; they were the backbone. And it was a pretty poorly-paid job, even by the standards of the day. It didn’t always attract the best candidates. Drinking on duty, consorting with prostitutes, turning a blind eye in exchange for a little favor—look at the punishments and it’s apparent it was all quite rife. But each man knew his area like the back of his hand. He had contacts and sources. He was trusted there—to many people in the poor areas he was the city, and people came to him for advice on all manner of things.

So19: There’s a fun subplot in which Thomas Edison features as a possible murder suspect. Is that based on historical fact?

CN: To a degree, it is. The subplot involves the disappearance of Louis Le Prince, a Frenchman who lived in Leeds and married a Leeds woman. He invented the first moving picture camera. He’d been visiting family in Dijon and was heading to the US to patent his new single lens camera. Got on the train but never got off again, and no one saw him leave. No luggage was found. Several people were working on the same thing, Edison being one of them. A number of theories have been put forward as to what happened, but it remains one of the great mysteries—no body, no evidence. I used that as a springboard, let’s put it like that. It’s a wonderful tale, and the timing happened to fit perfectly with the book.

So19: The vigorous entrepreneurship of the series’ Annabelle Atkinson, now Annabelle Harper, helps refute the conception of Victorian women (beyond the servant class, at least) as swooning maidens who could barely flutter a fan. Can you talk a bit about her character and what’s in store for her?

CN: Annabelle came to me before the Tom Harper books. I wrote a short story called Annabelle Atkinson and Mr. Grimshaw that was inspired by one of Atkinson Grimshaw’s paintings. He was a 19th century Leeds artist and had a remarkable way with moonlight. If anyone Googles the story’s title they’ll be able to find it. That character was a proto-Annabelle, really. But she wouldn’t leave me. I think she’d had a taste of the spotlight and she wanted more.

When I began thinking about the series, and the Leeds Gas Strike that was the backdrop to Gods of Gold, she just sat down next to me and said, “I was there, luv. I can tell you all about it. My fella was involved.” From the first time she came to me she’s been a very strong presence. In a way she’s almost a tribute to my father. He was a writer who had a couple of TV plays produced. He wrote a novel about an Annabelle-like character that was never published.

There’s also a family connection. Annabelle runs the Victoria pub. For a few decades in the early part of the 20th century my maternal great-grandfather ran the place. My dad loved going over there because there was a piano upstairs that he could play for as long as he liked. The pub’s closed but the building is still there; you can still see the shadow of Queen Victoria’s head on the outside where a sign used to be. I went in once, about 20 years ago. It was a very 19th century boozer, spare with flagstone floors, not a gin palace at all.

As a character Annabelle keeps growing stronger. She’s the emotional linchpin of the books, I think. A girl from a very poor background, she starts out as a servant and gets her break by marrying the owner of the pub where she works. But she has a very good brain, and once she has the chance to use it, she seizes the opportunity. Her husband dies and she really spreads her wings. Instead of selling up, she makes the business prosper and opens a couple of bakeries.

There’s a long tradition of strong Northern women and I was following that. Most didn’t have the luxury of swooning; they had to get one with things. Annabelle is just emblematic of that. By the time the Tom Harper series begins she’s become quite a wealthy woman, influential and respected in her own little area, but there’s no side on her, as we say. She’s happy with who she is. In my own ancestry (which definitely plays a part in these books) a woman named Charlotte was widowed. Her husband ran a painting and decorating business with his sons. She took it over and a few years later she had six employees. Their yard was in the city center, a place called Rockley Yard. I passed it just yesterday. As I say, the personal connections are very palpable.

So what’s coming for Annabelle? The third book has more of her (she insisted) as she becomes involved in the early Suffragist movement in Leeds; it started quite a few years before the suffragettes who are famous, and Leeds was one of the hotbeds. It’s a natural extension for her.

So19: What about Tom Harper himself? How did you go about conceiving his character, including the hearing problem that puts his future as a police detective in jeopardy?

CN: Annabelle gave me Tom. He sprang fully formed from her words in my ear, as if he’d really lived. And maybe he did. It was natural to me for him to be working class, to have been promoted on merit.

One problem I’ve had with many historical crime novels is that the main characters come from money, or somehow have connections to power. That’s simply not true for the vast majority of people, and that’s something I’ve tried to reflect. Tom’s world is Leeds, and even that is larger than for many folk, who lived their lives and died in one area of the city.

Trade might have been global even then, but for most, lives were incredibly parochial.
For me, the process of writing a book is like typing out the movie that’s playing in my head. He’s there, and when I come back to them for another book, it’s like visiting family in so many ways—family you actually like and want to spend time with. The characters have changed and grown, and I delight in that. Tom Harper’s hearing problems, though, do mirror my own, so it’s very easy to empathize.

So19: What’s next for you in terms of publications and projects? Is a third Tom Harper novel in the works?

CN: There is indeed a third Tom Harper novel, called Skin Like Silver. It’s coming out in November in the UK, so probably March or early April 2016 in the US. Quite honestly, I feel it’s the most complete book I’ve ever written, and I still feel that way several months after finishing it. It’s as if I’m finally starting to get the hang of this writing thing. Maybe— but I can’t be the ultimate judge of that. It stands and falls on what the readers think of it.

I’m now working on the fourth book in the series, The Iron Water. There’s still a distance to go on that, and once it’s complete, cross my fingers and hope the publisher wants it…

Horse-Drawn Fire Engine, Leeds, 1893, courtesy of Leodis

Hirst's Yard, Leeds, courtesy of Chris Nickson

Town Hall, Leeds, courtesy of Chris Nickson

Lowerhead Row, Leeds, 1891, courtesy of Leodis