Q&A with Chris Nickson | Sponsored

Chris Nickson

Chris Nickson, an author from Leeds, England, has been writing since he was a boy. Besides telling stories, Nickson also expanded his creativity to music, as both a bassist and then a singer-songwriter-guitarist. He spent 30 years living in the United States, playing in bands and writing, and has made his living as a writer since 1994. Much of Nickson’s work has been in music journalism, and he is also the author of The NPR Casual Listener’s Guide to World Music.

NOTE: This interview was sponsored by Severn House, and produced and published by LJ. Severn House is giving away free digital copies of GODS of GOLD by Chris Nickson to 10 randomly selected librarians. Visit their entry form to enter for a chance to win.

Nickson has also published 28 other non-fiction books and has had a pair of one-act plays staged in Seattle. He is the author of two Laura Benton books, set in Seattle, along with six Richard Nottingham titles, set in Leeds, beginning with The Broken Token. His newest book, Gods of Gold (Dec.: Severn House), takes readers back to 1890 Leeds and introduces Inspector Tom Harper. He recently answered some emailed questions about his books.

What made you decide to start a new series, especially one that is set in the same town about 160 years ahead of your Richard Nottingham books?
I needed to step back from Richard for a little while. He feels like family, but even families need a little time apart. But Leeds is where I was born and raised, a place I love. I know it in my bones. I finally moved back here last year, after a long time elsewhere—30 years in America and eight years elsewhere in England, although I’ve been back here often, and it feels as if I’ve done exactly the right thing. This is home.

The Leeds of Tom Harper’s day is very different to Richard Nottingham’s—back in the 1730s it was a pre-industrial age. But it contains the seed of the flower that will bloom with those dark Satanic mills, and it’s not necessarily a pretty bloom. But Leeds’s great days were definitely in Victorian times. It might have been dirty and dank, but it was rich. Many of the city’s great buildings from that period remain, with all their grandeur and solidity. So do some of the back-to-back houses where the poor lived. Those times are a past you can literally reach out and touch. They’re still very recognizable. And the way things seem to be now, with the vast economic gulf between the have and have-nots, it almost feels as if we’ve returned to something akin to Victorian times, with the poor doing their best to survive as the rich get richer. For all I’d sworn I’d never write a Victorian crime novel, the parallels were irresistible. And by setting the books in the 1890s, at the end of that period, we’re on the cusp of the modern age. It’s a time that’s instantly understandable to readers.

Gods of GoldWhy do you think the Leeds Gas Strike of 1890 is important to highlight now?
When I was reading about the Leeds Gas Strike it instantly struck a chord with me. The workers were being fired in the summer, when demand for gas was low, and rehired at much lower wages. There are echoes of this today. The very same tactic is being used, as are things like zero-hours contracts, which don’t guarantee any set amount of work. In the mills back then, they had exactly the same thing, even if it didn’t have a name. But the strikers won the Gas Strike, and in just three days. They had massive support among the working people. That’s the kind of thing that gives hope, it’s a beacon. It’s something that should be celebrated, and it forms the backdrop for mystery in the book.

It isn’t just the gas strike that is the focus of this book; there is a missing child to find.
The missing girl, Martha Parkinson, is where it all begins. The beat constable tells Detective Inspector Tom Harper that she’s gone, and that he has doubts about the explanation Col Parkinson gives—that the girl has gone to stay with his sister. It’s Harper’s old beat, in the poor courts and yards—the slums—in the middle of Leeds. He knows the people and the area. Then Col is found dead, hanging at home…Without giving anything away, it develops into something that also has strong and very sad resonances today, although the book was written long before the recent revelations broke. Perhaps it goes to show that there’s little new in crime—or in human nature.

Tell us about Inspector Tom Harper.
Tom’s a working-class man and he follows the path so many have trodden before him. He leaves school at nine [years old], the same way everyone without money did, and his father finds him a job rolling barrels in a brewery a few streets from home, working the best part of 70 hours a week. But from a young age he’s always wanted to be a copper. In his free time he borrows books from the public library, which was still a new institution then. He educates himself, reads everything, and once he’s old enough, he applies to the police force. The proudest day of his life is when he puts on that blue uniform. But he’s smart and ambitious. Once he knows the ropes, he sets his goals higher, to become a detective and get out of uniform. To him, being a detective is the heart of police work, and he’s good at it, rising from constable to sergeant to detective inspector by the time he’s 30.

But his heart is still with the working classes. He might have moved up a little, but he’s still one of them inside. He knows exactly what their lives are like; he’s lived it himself.

You have some great secondary characters in Gods of Gold, namely Sergeant Billy Reed and Harper’s fiancee, Annabelle Atkinson. Each has a unique back story, especially Annabelle.
Detective Sergeant Billy Reed is a few years older than Tom Harper. He’s served in the West Yorkshire Regiment, and spent two years in Kabul during the Second Afghan War. He’s good at his job, but he’s a bit of a loner, drinks quite a bit and has a knife-edge temper—what we’d now call PTSD, although it had no name then, and certainly no treatment beyond “snap out of it.” There’s that gaze where he’s sometimes seeing ghosts. All he really wants is some kind of redemption, but it’s not easy to find.

Annabelle is from the tradition of strong Northern women. She started out as a servant in the Victoria public house and married the owner, then inherited it when he died. But instead of selling up, she decided to run the place, then opened a pair of bakeries. She’s a successful, wealthy woman. But she still lives above the pub, and her feet are firmly on the ground. She’s a very independent woman, in charge of her own life. Really, she picks Tom as much as he chooses her. In many ways, she’s the real emotional center of the book. She first appeared in a short story I wrote a couple of years ago, and she’s refused to leave me be ever since. When I was researching the gas strike, she’s the one who nudged me and said, “Look, luv, I was there when it happened. Why don’t you sit down and I’ll tell you all about it…” How could I resist an offer like that? There’s also a personal connection of sorts—my great-grandparents ran the Victoria, albeit a few decades later. My father spent a lot of time in the place when he was young.

What can we expect from Tom Harper next?
Tom’s going to be back next year, a married man by that time, in a book called Two Bronze Pennies. The trigger for that was the reaction I’ve seen to immigrants here, the fear of them and the prejudice some people have against them. From about 1880–1900, there was a wave of Jewish immigration in England (and America, of course), and many settled in Leeds. The Leylands—a poor area just outside the city centre where Tom grew up—became their home. There were signs around town reading “No Jews Wanted,” and they huddled together in what was really a ghetto. The story begins with the ritualistic murder of a young Jewish man at Christmas…and I’m not going to say anything more.

Kristi Chadwick is Advisor for Small Libraries for the Massachusetts Library System, where she provides training, continuing education, and advisory services across the state. Kristi was named a Library Journal 2013 Reviewer of the Year and a 2014 Mover & Shaker. 

Severn House is a vibrant independent publishing house that produces a broad range of titles, from crime and mystery, thrillers and romance, to Sagas, General and Historical fiction. Founded in 1974 as a publisher of hardback fiction, Severn House now produces titles in all formats, including eBooks and large print. Home to an impressive list of respected British and American authors, titles from Severn House are guaranteed to entertain, enlighten and occasionally mystify you, right to the last page.

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Comments

  1. Margaret Clarke says:

    I really enjoyed this book. It is centred around the story of the Leeds gas strike of 1890, but it is also a detective story about a missing child.
    The characters are developed well and the main couple, Tom Harper and his fiancee, are vividly described and engaging. I felt that I wanted to hear more about them when the story ended, because they had taken on a life of their own outside of the story.
    There is a description of post-traumatic stress disorder in a soldier returning to civilian life, which is sensitively and acutely observed. It has particular relevance in the present day, as we see again many people returning from military service, hearts and souls and minds damaged by the horrors of war.
    I read this book cover to cover in one day. I was born in Leeds and in the pages of this book, walked again those old streets of my childhood, where I lived for many years. Highly recommended.

    Margaret.