My copy of Gentleman Jack has arrived at last! I am, as always, delighted with Chris Hamilton-Emery’s brilliant jacket design and distinguished typesetting. ‘Jack’ is officially published today, 15th October 2018. It’s my first novel about a serial killer. I’ve thought for a long time about the best way to tackle this type of criminal in my fiction. Indirectly, it draws on my own experiences of living in Leeds as a young woman when the Yorkshire Ripper conducted his reign of terror, but, like all my novels, it is much more concerned with portraying the psychology of the killer than the ‘blood and guts’ of the crimes themselves. It’s also about the organised theft of agricultural vehicles, a scourge which periodically afflicts farmers in Lincolnshire and other rural areas.
I know that many of my regular readers – across the world – have been looking forward to reading it. I’d like to take the opportunity to thank you all for your support and your continuing enthusiasm for my books. Ipso facto, one can’t really be an author without readers; words cannot express how much I value the time you spend on reading my books. I offer you my profoundest thanks. And I do hope you will enjoy Gentleman Jack!
Also published today is The Book of Alexander, the debut novel of Mark Carew, a fellow Salt author. I was privileged to read this book in draft form and I heartily recommend it. It’s not exactly a crime novel, although there are some relevant features: Alexander, the protagonist – stalker or not? No spoilers!
The Book of Alexander follows the time-honoured and exciting literary tradition which explores different versions of the self. Who is Alexander? Who is his mysterious grandfather, ‘Mr Travis’? Who is Melanie, Alexander’s down-to-earth girlfriend, and is she really competing with rivals for Alexander’s affection? Above all, who is the dullish private detective who tells the story – and is he really so dull?
The second half of the novel is episodic. Alexander embarks upon a journey, not to distant lands – although I suspect he may do that in a future novel – but through the city of Cambridge and around the River Cam and its environs. This journey is by turns sinister, comical and exasperating.
The Book of Alexander contains a rich cast of characters, including: Mick and Yin, who run the garage where the private detective roosts when spying; a bevy of girlfriends (real or imagined?); and Alexander’s eccentric but lovable parents, who perhaps hold the key to Alexander’s whimsical character. Or then again, perhaps they don’t!
Have I hooked you yet?
I’m writing this on the train to Glasgow, where I’m about to attend a conference. It’s a Cross Country train. Though I haven’t had a duff experience on Cross Country trains before, on this occasion I’m finding the service a little less than up to snuff. I’ve got a first class ticket (cheap weekend deal) and have been looking forward to being pampered in the way I have enjoyed so much on GNER / East Coast trains. The last time I travelled first class on one of the latter (cheap weekday deal, unsociable hours), I was regaled with tea, biscuits, vodka and tonic, sparkling water, pasta arrabbiata with salad garnish, a packet of crisps, fruit, some date and walnut cake, a glass of wine and coffee. And a free copy of The Times. All included in the price of the ticket! By the time I staggered off that train, some two hours after I had boarded it, I’d have been happy to phone the Prime Minister and tell him how wonderful the experience was, if any of the crew had asked me to.
The standards on the present train are a little different. When I boarded, First Class was jammed with people, including one occupying my reserved seat. To add insult to injury, he was wearing a purple jumper. I was told that there were no seat reservations operative on the train, ‘as the system is down, but we have some boffins trying to fix it’. I was advised to grab or fight for a seat, on a may-the-best-woman-win type of basis. I decided to keep close watch on a man who hadn’t taken off his coat – a tell-tale sign that he wasn’t planning a long journey (I’m not a crime writer for nothing; I can read clues!). Sure enough, he ‘alighted’ (I’ve no idea why all train guards use this poncy term – perhaps they have a vision of the gossamer-winged traveller, wand in hand, floating like a dandelion seed from train to platform) at the next station, possibly relieved that I didn’t try to follow him, as he might have thought I was a stalker, and I hopped into his seat sharpish before another crowd of people with worthless seat reservations got on.
If I’m sounding like a grumpy old woman so far, that’s probably because by this time I’ve had a glimpse of the at-seat menu. The ‘complimentary’ food available consists of tea, coffee, water, fruit cake, biscuits and crisps. And there are lots of ‘ors’ on the menu, implying that two choices maximum would be seemly. I haven’t got to my age without knowing how to push the envelope, so I have demanded tea, water, fruit cake (which turns out to be one inch square and plastic-wrapped) and crisps in short order, in a very firm, dowager sort of voice. To this I’ve added an egg-and-cress sandwich and a tiny bottle of Pinot Grigio from the ‘paying’ menu (no hot food available – that will be £7.95 to you, Madam). There is not a newspaper in sight, although I have seen that a lady seated nearby is doing the crossword in Woman’s Weekly. I doubt if this has been supplied by Management. (I’ve also seen Management – he hides in the still room, guarding his supply of complaints forms, and twitches if anyone barges through to ask him about seat reservations.)
However, now I have eaten my sandwich and drunk my Pinot Grigio, water and tea and inspected the sell-by dates on the cake and crisps to see if they are fit for human consumption, I have to admit that I am quite enjoying myself. For a start, one of my fellow travellers is a man with two collies – I thought there was only one at first, but another peeped round from the seat behind mine and fixed me with her liquid eyes – and he has demanded not one, two or three, but four bottles of still water to put in their water bowl. And he wants free cake, crisps and coffee as well. So he has busted my temporary record of four free items by a margin of three… but I’ve been able to stroke his two lovely dogs to console myself for the disappointment!
And then there’s the journey itself. Of all the journeys I undertake, this one wins hands-down for interest and enjoyment. Already, from this train today, I have seen the innermost secrets of Victorian Leeds and the architectural wonder of York Station and I’m looking forward to the dour but unique crumbling red brick of the station at Darlington, Newcastle’s panoramic kaleidoscope of aesthetically gob-smacking, state-of the-art bridges, stupendous river, industrial buildings and purposeful roads, Alnmouth’s deceptive sleepiness (it lies between the buzzing commuter town of Alnwick and the lovely village of Alnmouth itself, on the gloriously beautiful Northumberland coast) and, best of all, the sight of the majestic, historic, sandstone bridge at Berwick-on-Tweed with the huge sweep of sea beyond it. And after Dunbar (another favourite place, with its Braveheart-style castle) and venerable, stately Edinburgh, I shall eventually arrive in vibrant Glasgow. Not to mention the fact that I’ve had time to map out the next few chapters of The Crossing (D.I. Yates 4).
So what’s not to like? Well, if Arriva’s UK rail Managing Director Chris Burchell is reading this, I have a message for him. At a push, he might get away with this service on the basis that it’s the weekend and the destination is magical, mystical Scotland, but he should know that I’m very glad that it’s Virgin, and not Arriva, which has won the East Coast franchise, because, on the basis of my experience today, the prospect of an Arriva standard for my regular, working week, London-and-return journey would fill me with despair. Next time I board the train at King’s Cross, I’ll be looking forward to what I’ve missed this time: tea, biscuits, vodka and tonic, sparkling water, pasta arrabbiata with salad garnish (or similar), a packet of crisps, fruit, some date and walnut cake (or similar), a glass of wine and coffee. And a free copy of The Times. All included in the price of the ticket. I understand that Arriva’s Cross-Country franchise has been extended to 2019 from the original 2016; that’s a pity, but perhaps Virgin will win it next time around…
I’ve always had a strong affection for the very heart of Leeds and first knew it when the buildings were still black with soot and vehicles could go everywhere in what is now a huge pedestrian precinct. I particularly remember shopping here before Christmas in the early seventies and finding it almost impossible to make my way along the pavements, which were packed with shoppers because the roads were likewise thronged with cars. It is much more pleasant now, with space for pedestrians as well as pavement cafés (one in a street completely covered with a glass roof that seals it from the weather and gives it the feel of the various Victorian arcades that lead off Briggate) and talented buskers; the several covered shopping centres (the latest, Trinity Leeds, adjoining Boar Lane) are a magnet to thousands of visitors from across Yorkshire and beyond.
The casual visitor, however, will probably miss the ‘ginnels’ (passageways) and ‘yards’ that preserve the history of Victorian Leeds and that thread their way through the buildings a breath away from the main shopping streets. The entrance to the far-famed ‘City Varieties’ theatre is in one such, though it has been considerably changed and modernised. And in one of these, leading off Briggate and cheek by jowl with the Trinity Centre, is the oldest pub in the city, Whitelocks. I suppose that I, too, should have missed it, but my husband, who seemed as a student to manage to find his way to most of the hostelries in town, took me there many years ago. I went back with him to enjoy lunch there on my return from China.
Here, indeed, is local Leeds. Sitting alongside us were a grandfather (his accent marking him out as a Leeds man) and his two grand-daughters, both of them students, who bought him lunch and beer, put him in the picture about their mother, his daughter, and bid him a merry farewell as they headed off to afternoon lectures; to my left, during the time we were there, a succession of elderly Horsforth (I asked!) couple, a market trader I recognised from many years’ enjoyable shopping in Vicar Lane’s Leeds City Market and a younger man who came in to sup his pint and put the working day aside for a while. The long bar was crowded with suits on lunchbreak and large groups of city workers of one kind or another.
Whitelocks has to be seen and experienced first-hand: it is a jewel of Victorian/Edwardian décor, replete with brass and copper and marble and coloured tile and mirrors and stained glass and ironwork. It gleams with a sociable splendour that makes ‘having a drink’ into an occasion of moment. For the contemporary cognoscenti, the range of real ales is special, the food traditional and beautifully prepared. Here is an inn which cherishes its guests and makes them feel warm inside.
It opened as an inn in 1715, serving local traders and customers in what was then a Briggate market; its original name, The Turk’s Head, lives on as the name of the yard, but the inn was rebuilt and (as its blue plaque confirms) extended to absorb a row of Georgian working men’s dwellings by the first of the Whitelock family, who took over the licence in 1867 and transformed it. Fortunately, it has been preserved for future generations of Leeds folk to enjoy.
My imagination was caught by my first visit there, on a foggy November evening; there may not have been gas lamps, but there was gloom in the ginnel and a warmth of welcome within. The past reached out and drew me in, to think of the divide between the relatively wealthy Victorian and Edwardian customers of ‘Whitelocks First City Luncheon Bar’ and the vagabonds and urchins and footpads outside in the sooty darkness, who no doubt relieved some of them of their wallets and purses. For a crime writer, pubs with character and a powerful history have huge potential. I’m sure that Whitelocks could very easily find its way into a story and may very well already have done.
Visiting friends just before Christmas, we came to talk about how buildings change and the feeling of dislocation that this sometimes brings. The building we were actually discussing was a special case: my husband had worked there for most of his career before it was knocked down and rebuilt. Responding to local pressure, however, the organisation that owned it was constrained to preserve carefully the original early twentieth-century façade (which I’d always thought was very second empire, but was certainly more imposing than any modern constrained-by-budget counterpart would have been), even as it created an entirely new structure behind. Therefore, the new building is quite different from its predecessor in every respect except one: to enter it you have to climb the same flight of steps and pass through the same solid door, flanked by two storeys of massive man-sized sash windows, that gave access to the old one. Beyond, if you remember the old building as clearly as I do, and aren’t very familiar with the new one, you encounter a true Alice-through-the-looking-glass experience.
As I’ve said, this rebuilt building presents a special case, but talking about it has made me think about all the buildings I’ve lived in during my life: the three houses in Spalding that were my family homes until I was respectively nine, sixteen and eighteen; my hall of residence at Leeds University and the run-down student flat in Leeds that I subsequently shared with my closest friend; the rather grand flat where my husband and I lived during the first few months of our marriage, before we were ousted by a greedy estate agent who wanted to triple the rent; and the subsequent three houses that became our own family homes – the humble two-up, two-down 1939 brick box in Chapel Allerton, the much more substantial Edwardian semi in Halton and our present house that is tucked away in a picturesque Pennine village.
All of these buildings are still standing. Some will have known many owners or tenants since I lived in them; some have been refurbished; others have sunk yet further into dilapidation. As far as I know, none except my present home still contains any imprint or vestige of myself. I have revisited most of them at long intervals, but I haven’t been inside a single one of them since they ceased to be ‘mine’. Recently, after I began to write the Tim Yates stories, I deliberately went back to the site of the shop in Westlode Street, Spalding, where my great uncle David worked for his whole life (it is now a café, run by eastern European immigrants) and also parked for a few minutes outside the mid-nineteenth century house in Sutterton where my grandmother lived and worked as a paid companion when I was a child and where most of the third novel in the Tim Yates series – the one I am still writing – takes place. I didn’t go into the café for a coffee because I wanted to remember the shop as it was. I almost (but not quite) plucked up courage to ring the doorbell of the house in Sutterton (it was, after all, more than forty years since I was last inside it), but again I decided not to, and not only because I realised that the present occupants might not appreciate having to entertain an eccentric woman brimming with nostalgia on their doorstep. It was also because I’m still writing about this house and I want to remember it exactly as it was.
I don’t subscribe to theories that represent time as anything other than a linear continuum (though I know that serious scientists have begun to argue otherwise); nor do I have conclusive proof that buildings have memories (though I could be persuaded to believe this: I’m certainly convinced that some buildings exude a powerful sense of atmosphere). Yet still I am intrigued by the fact that all of these buildings have continued to lead parallel lives to mine: they have grown older as I have grown older; like me, they have made friends, good, bad and indifferent, who have treated them with kindness, indifference or malice along the way. If I could return to them now – really return, to be given the opportunity to explore every room, every cupboard, every fireplace – or, in some instances, either to wonder or lament at ‘improvements’ that have meant that the rooms and cupboards and fireplaces that I knew are no more – that would be a looking-glass experience much more fundamental to what has shaped me as a person than my occasional, albeit eerie, walking beyond the façade of the building that became my husband’s new workplace. As I’ve said before, place is important to me… and one of the lynchpins of my writing. I remember the places I’ve lived at, stayed at and passed through very clearly. If I could have alternative, updated views of what, for me, have been the most significant of these, I wonder if I would find it an unsettling or an enriching experience, or both of these things? And, even more, I wonder what effect it might have on the store of memories on which I rely when I am writing.
A book that I dip into occasionally is Murderous Leeds, by John J. Eddleston. Subtitled The executed of the Twentieth Century, it is a volume of short case studies, sourced from newspapers and court reports, of the trials of people convicted of murder in the first half of the twentieth century in Leeds.
Some of the murders were horrifically brutal; some were pathetic. The extreme poverty of most of those convicted was usually one of the most significant factors in their turning to crime. Many of these people – most were men, but some of the stories are about women – were of no fixed abode and drifted from one tawdry lodging-house to another or picked up women – or men – who were prepared to take them home. Some of the women paid for their generosity with their lives. Yet most of the convicted had jobs of some kind. It is hard to believe that, just two generations ago, many working men could not earn enough money to pay for a roof over their heads.
The saddest of all the stories is the first. It tells how, in 1900, a man called Thomas Mellor, aged 29, killed his two small daughters because he no longer had the means to support them. The jury that found him guilty commended him for his kindness in rescuing them from destitution in this way. He still paid for the crime with his life.
Among the most horrific tales is that of William Horsely Wardell, who persuaded a woman called Elizabeth Reaney to give him shelter and then brutally battered her to death. Attracted by the small reward on offer, her neighbours fell over themselves to ‘shop’ him.
Some of the accounts are bizarre, some are almost funny and a few exhibit a certain amount of intelligence on the part of the perpetrator. Most, however, portray a depressing picture of the grubby chaos and casual brutality of everyday urban working-class life. Many of the murders were not planned, but the result of drunken arguments, some of them ‘domestics’. The banality of these stories is one of the two reasons why I only dip into the book; I still have not read it all the way through. The other reason is that the author has decided to rely on verbatim accounts given by witnesses and judges’ summings-up. Whilst this is in many ways commendable – a treasure trove of fact of this kind is invaluable to a crime fiction writer – it has the drawback of resulting in a certain sameness if more than two or three of the stories are read in one go.
I do plan to tackle the book in one sitting at some point, though, because, as it spans the period 1900 – 1961, I know that a careful reading of it will show me how police methods improved during that time. It strikes me that, in 1900, real villains (as opposed to the desperate and probably mentally ill Thomas Mellor) could get away with almost anything; on the other hand, the forensic evidence produced in court in 1961 in order to convict Zsiga Pankotia, a Hungarian, of the murder of prosperous market trader Eli Myers was very sophisticated indeed.
When I’m walking through the streets of Leeds, especially in the market area, it often strikes me that the people I see may be the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of some of the victims whose fates are described in this book. Some may even be the descendants of their murderers. Sixty-seven people were hanged in Armley Gaol in the sixty-one years that the book covers. Apart from the exotically-named Pankotia and one Wilhelm Lubina (executed in 1954), almost all of them had good, sturdy Yorkshire names. I do hope that their descendants enjoy a more privileged existence than they did.
Some time ago I wrote about Moon, the chef in the Chinese restaurant where I worked as a student, and how I was convinced that he had it in him to be a latter-day Jack the Ripper.
The summer when Moon and I worked together preceded the so-called ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ era, though there is some evidence that Peter Sutcliffe may already have begun his attacks by then. By the time that I was married and living in a semi-detached house in Leeds, at least twenty women had been injured or murdered by what was believed to be a single perpetrator, and the Ripper investigation was in full swing. During the last few years before Sutcliffe was caught, some of his victims were no longer prostitutes and all women living in Yorkshire were warned not to be out alone in the streets during the evening or in the early hours of the morning. We were even advised not to take the rubbish out after dark. Naturally, this both terrified us and had a substantial effect on the way that we organised our lives. For example, my husband drove me fourteen miles to work every day and came to pick me up in the evening so that I should not have to linger at bus stops or railway stations by myself.
After ‘Wearside Jack’ had played his silly pranks (He sent tapes to the police claiming to be the Ripper, speaking in a strong Geordie accent; it was not until 2006 that he was finally brought to justice.), members of the public were advised to be especially vigilant if they saw anyone acting suspiciously who also spoke Geordie. Our next-door neighbour worked for the Ministry of Defence at Barnbow in Leeds. He was a very shy man in early middle age who hardly ever spoke. He had a large family, but seemed to spend very little time with them. Most evenings and weekends he would hide himself away in a large shed that had been erected between his house and ours. And, when he did speak, it was with a Geordie accent.
My husband and I, who, like almost everyone else we knew, were obsessed with the Ripper case, discussed this neighbour energetically on several occasions and, before too long, had convinced ourselves that he was a likely Ripper candidate. We dithered about what to do about this: after all, we had no evidence to go on besides his accent and his general shiftiness. The police would probably laugh at us and, in any case, we didn’t want to cause trouble for him if he was innocent. Consequently – and fortunately, as it turned out – we had taken no action at all when Sutcliffe was finally apprehended. (Despite having ourselves read and listened to all the Ripper news bulletins for years, it was a friend who lived in King’s Lynn and had seen it on the TV news who rang to tell us that he had been caught.)
Our neighbour continued with his mysterious shed-based life. One day, after our son was old enough to play outside, he was invited into the shed. He told us that the neighbour had built an elaborate radio station in there and was in touch with people all over the world. He had let our son listen to some conversations that he’d had with his contacts in Russia and China.
He was still living next door, still devoting himself to life in the shed, when we moved away from the area. Obviously he turned out not to have been the Yorkshire Ripper. Nevertheless, with hindsight and perhaps a touch of imagination, I wonder if he was just an innocent radio ham, or whether his ‘hobby’ concealed a more sinister purpose. He was, after all, an MOD engineer…
At the Dying of the Year
I was not unhappy to be asked to review this, the fifth Richard Nottingham novel by writer Chris Nickson, as I had not read him before and as I knew that the stories are set in eighteenth century Leeds, a place I know in its modern form very well indeed. Having no preconceived ideas whatsoever about the book, I didn’t really know what to expect, though Chris had provided, earlier this year via Twitter, a taster from his text.
The challenge for any historical novelist is to convince the reader of the authenticity of the story within its context; Nickson has researched his period well and gives physical location prominence in his approach. Leeds is depicted in its glories as the rich mercantile centre of the woollen trade and in its seamier squalor and this book focuses on the theme of corruption so precisely summed up by King Lear:
Thorough tatter’d clothes small vices do appear;
Robes and furr’d gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold,
And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks;
Arm it in rags, a pigmy’s straw does pierce it. [King Lear IV vi 166-9]
By a plot which reminds readers of media accounts of the contemporary abuse of children by adults, we are made vividly aware of the truth of Karr’s well-known epigram “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” Indeed, as I read, I noted how Nickson also achieves a sense of timelessness in the choice of language, both in dialogue and description, by using colloquial expressions still to be heard in Leeds; there is a feeling of familiarity about it that I am sure reflects the author’s personal Leeds background and ‘feel’ for the place and its people. However, the book has its own historical realism, where the central character, Constable Nottingham, moves in his family and professional worlds with the assurance of a man well created by his maker; indeed, the author establishes a convincing sense of personal emotion and single-minded devotion to his job, in spite of the dreadful clashes that occur between the two. What ultimately comes across to us are the fragility of people’s existences and the uncertain morality of those on both sides of the law; it is not a comfortable world and Nickson doesn’t flinch from demonstrating that there is no fictional control over real life. Yet there are strong signs of goodness and hope, friendship and fellow-feeling, so that the prevailing sombreness of the title and the events is somewhat modified.
The narrative allows for the separate perspectives of Richard Nottingham, his deputy, John Sedgwick, and a young police officer, Rob Lister, who loves the Constable’s daughter, to reveal their inter-related lives and to provide a greater ‘reach’ than a single viewpoint. They provide a formidable triumvirate in their knowledge and understanding of their patch, but they have their vulnerabilities and sensitivities and are not invincible in their work; they are sufficiently well-drawn to generate our sympathy and interest. The character of Leeds itself is strong and breathes into the tale a life of pubs, warehouses, corporation piles, stream and river and street and ginnel. Timble Bridge, over which Nottingham must go from home to work and back again, is a regularly repeated motif, associated with the Constable’s moods and feelings as well as his geographical place in the Leeds landscape.
All in all, I found At the Dying of the Year an engaging if somewhat melancholy read and I anticipate that Nickson’s existing appreciative audience will by swelled by this new novel. Congratulations to Chris on his publication day!