Thankfully, there does seem to be one vital element of life that this blasted COVID-19 can’t completely disrupt and that’s books and all things bookish. While I’m excelling at becoming a social outcast in my little patch of North Yorkshire, I’ve amassed a life-saving collection of reads to see me through until I can start on the Easter Eggs. One title is Madeline Bunting’s The Plot, a complicated and beautiful work which connects her relationship with her father (among many other things) with iron age history and D-Day, all told through the lens of a one-acre piece of land just across the Vale of York from where I live.
Another is The Pianist of Yarmouk, Aeham Ahmad’s true story about life and defiance under Isis in Syria. If ever confirmation that music and love will always defeat misery and tyranny was needed, Ahmad’s testimony delivers it in the humblest and most moving way. And then there’s Beverley Hills Book Award-winner Janet Roger’s Shamus Dust which transports the reader back to post-war London for an enthralling murder story with a Cold War and colder winter backdrop.
Author Chris Nickson describes Roger’s debut as “like a dirty, noir dream that thrashes in the small hours” and it’s Nickson’s book The Molten City that has spearheaded my lockdown escapism through the written word.
The Molten City was released at the end of March and marked a huge milestone for Nickson. It’s ten years since his first foray into crime fiction was given a wider audience. His first novel, The Broken Token, is set in Leeds in the 1730s and intelligently weaves actual individuals and events with an imagined narrative.
It’s clear that Nickson does his homework – forensic research feeds into all of his work and suggests that, like many before him, he is copper turned writer. Not so. Nickson is a dyed-in-the-wool writer. In his 20s he headed for the US where he worked as a successful music journalist; biographies on Ozzy Osbourne and Mariah Carey feature among some of his notable releases.
Then, in 2005, the pull of West Yorkshire became too strong to resist and, back in Leeds, the groundwork for Nickson’s change in direction began. Over the past ten years, Nickson has produced 22 books, all set in Leeds. “The people are the heart of things in the books. But I try to make Leeds itself a character, the way it changes and grows over time. I was born and bred here. The place is in my soul.”
He adds: “I’ve covered Leeds in every decade from the 1890s to the 1950s as well as a couple of others. Yes, I write crime novels but, for me, it’s always the people who make any book.”
The Molten City centres on the professional and personal life of Detective Superintendent Tom Harper and his wife Annabelle. This is the eighth book to feature Harper as his career and life develop. I’ll admit that, before I chatted to Nickson, I wasn’t aware of this West Yorkshire bobby. Now I’m hooked and I’ve have gone back to the start with Gods of Gold, Harper’s first outing.
In his latest book, Nickson has meticulously studied the growing sense of social unease that was prevalent in Britain in the early 1900s. Carefully crafting a multi-layered story around a visit to the then Prime Minster, HH Asquith, and the subsequent riot that took place is captivating. Nickson writes in a way that sets him apart as a leader of the genre. While his appeal is surely universal, it’s perhaps a fellow Northerner more than any other who will be warmed by references such as “a right bobby-dazzler”.
Together, Detective Superintendent Harper and Nickson pick their way through the often-upsetting norms of life in the early 20th century and leave the reader clamouring for more.
Nickson says: “All I can do is try to make each book better than the one that went before. Someone once said that if you cut me open, Leeds would run through me like a stick of rock. It’s true. I’m proud of this place. If I can keep writing stories set here that people want to read, I’ll feel that I’ve accomplished something worthwhile.”
Also, Nickson has been installed as the first Writer-in-Residence at Abbey House Museum in Leeds. The Kirkstall museum looks at social history in Victorian-era Leeds and, with this latest appointment, it’s even more enticing. When normal service resumes, that is.
The Molten City is published by Severn House and available to buy now.