I am not suggesting that it is a good idea, but were you to cut Chris Nickson open, you would probably find – after the fashion of Queen Mary – the word ‘Leeds’ engraved on his heart. He is clearly passionate and protective about the city of his birth, and this shines like a beacon from every page of The Iron Water, another case for the Leeds copper Tom Harper. Set in the summer of 1893 it is, on one level, a straightforward Victorian police procedural, but it is more. Much more.
Nickson wears his social justice heart very much on his sleeve, and he doesn’t shrink from describing the vile conditions still experienced by poor families at the time. There is nothing of the cosy period piece about the book, but Nickson doesn’t make the mistake of allowing his fervour to turn the story into a collection of protest pamphlets, in spite of Annabelle, Harper’s lovely wife, taking a position within a campaigning Suffragist movement in the city.
Harper, all of a sudden, has bodies on his hands. There’s the corpse which floats up from the depths of a local lake after a demonstration of a new water-borne weapon, the torpedo. Then there’s the girl. Well, at least her leg, which is recovered from the canal. And what’s to be made of the body of a minder usually employed by one of the city’s criminal gangs? Being garrotted is definitely not the usual fate of Leeds murder victims.
Two gang bosses, one of Irish heritage and the other local, are engaged in a tense truce. They will hold off attacking each other while Harper and his fellow officers track down the mysterious copper-headed man who appears to be connected to the deaths. Time is running out, however, and there is an even more calamitous threat hanging over the heads of the police. The powers-that-be want answers, and as Harper runs around in ever decreasing circles, he is told that if he doesn’t find the killer, then men from Scotland Yard will travel north and take over the case. This, for Harper and his boss Superintendent Kendall, will be the ultimate disgrace.
The descriptions of the city as it swelters in the summer heat, are masterly. You can almost taste the sweat, sense the baking hot cobbles under your feet as you walk, smell the dray horses and feel your throat burning from the chemical tang produced by the factories which have made Leeds a grand place to make money – for the privileged few. There’s a terrific paragraph which goes:
“The July heat showed no sign of breaking. All the faces he passed on the pavement looked on edge. Thoughts of violence hung over their heads. Another day or two and there’d be fights. Men would beat their wives over nothing at all. There’d be woundings and killings in the pubs and beershops.”
That has echoes of Raymond Chandler’s lines from Red Wind (1938) which begin:
“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch..”
But Nickson’s version fits just as beautifully into the cauldron of industrial Leeds as Chandler’s did into the hot California night.
Eventually, almost as the Scotland Yard men are about to board their train at King’s Cross, a flurry of violence and revenge seems to tie up the case, but Nickson is much too good to allow it to rest there, and the unease Harper feels about the closing of the case proves justified when he has one more terrifying ordeal to face.
The Iron Water is published by Severn House, and is available both in hardback and as a Kindle.