Chris Nickson: Tales of the city

LEEDS STORIES: Leeds railway station in times past.
LEEDS STORIES: Leeds railway station in times past.
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Leeds always plays a significant role in the novels of author Chris Nickson. He spoke to Yvette Huddleston about his latest book Skin Like Silver.

Leeds-based author Chris Nickson is not a man to rest on his laurels – his latest book Skin Like Silver, a historical crime novel published last month, is one of six he has written this year and he is already planning the next.

Skin Like Silver is the third book in Nickson’s Detective Inspector Tom Harper series, all set in Leeds in the 1890s. In the autumn of 1891 the discovery of the decomposing body of a baby boy in an unclaimed parcel at the city’s central post office gives Harper one of his most gruesome cases but then a fire during the night that destroys the railway station leads to another. The body of a woman is found in the rubble but she didn’t die in the conflagration, she was stabbed to death and Harper has to find the murderer. The fact that the woman was a member of the Leeds Suffragist Society could mean that the crime was politically motivated.

“I think the real starting point for me with this book was the Suffragists who came before the Suffragettes in Leeds in the 1870s,” says Nickson.

“I had been thinking about what women still have to go through today with everyday sexism and then there was the big fire that happened at Leeds station in early 1892 in which the dark arches were pretty much destroyed – I just moved the date of that slightly. Then finally the first electric trams were starting up in Leeds too, running from Sheepscar up to Roundhay Park, so it was a time of great change and development too. These were my markers. To me it is the most complete book I have ever written because the crime element is just one strand but it also deals with the politics of the time and explores the personal relationship between Tom and his wife Annabelle.”

Annabelle is a key character in the book – she has just become the speaker of the Suffragist Society and so could well be in danger herself – and is also very significant for the whole Tom Harper series.

“To be honest it is Annabelle who is the real lynchpin of the stories,” says Nickson. “I had written a short story featuring her and it was through Annabelle that I found Tom which led to the first novel in the series Gods of Gold. I have noticed that I have a lot of strong female characters in my books.”

Leeds is also very much a character in all Nickson’s work – two other novel series are set in the city. His Richard Nottingham books, about a constable of the city of Leeds, take place there in the 1730s and the Dan Markam private investigator books play out against the backdrop of Leeds in the 1950s and 1960s. “I try and capture the sense of the city and also the people,” he says. “To me it makes the books feel grounded. I think I have tried to bring that to all the writing I have done about Leeds no matter what the era.” With Skin Like Silver the social historical context is also a feature of the novel. “By the 1890s you have the stark contrast between the poor who live in the slums that still existed at the time in the centre of town and the rich who have migrated out to the suburbs.”

Nickson says that he always swore he wouldn’t write a Victorian crime novel – but here he is with the third just out and a fourth on its way next year. “Hopefully I am putting a new slant on it because a lot of that genre takes place in London or sometimes Edinburgh, so setting the action in a provincial city gives it a different feel,” he says. “Also if you are dealing with a city like London, because of its size, you can only really focus on a part of it. With Leeds I think you can capture the place as a whole.”

It is obviously a source of great inspiration for him. He was born and brought up in Leeds and after working as a music journalist in America for thirty years moved back to the city in 2005, publishing his first novel in 2010. “There used to be that TV show that ended with the line ‘there are 8 million stories in the Naked City’ – I think there are enough stories to keep me going for the rest of my life,” he says. “I sit down and write every day – and the words just keep wanting to come.”

Skin Like Silver by Chris Nickson is published by The Mystery Press, £19.99.