Chris Nickson: Leeds novelist offers glimpse into city's murky past

Chris Nickson's debut novel offers a tantalising glimpse into Leeds's murky, macabre past.

Grant Woodward meets him

Murder stalks streets littered with pickpockets, pimps and prostitutes.

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And the job of keeping a lid on it all rests with a hard-pressed constable called Richard Nottingham.

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Welcome to Leeds in 1731. Or at least the version conjured up by novelist Chris Nickson.

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The 55-year-old, born and raised in Chapel Allerton, has chosen the city as the setting for his debut novel.

A riveting thriller, The Broken Token reads like an 18th century Red Riding, full of shadowy figures and dark deeds.

"Having been born and bred in Leeds there was really only one place I could set it," says Chris. "The city is in my blood."

But why did he choose the Leeds of the 1700s?

"I just think it was a fascinating time in the city's history," he explains. "Leeds was starting to become a major power thanks to wool.

But it's pre-industrialisation, this is an era of cottage industries, when people were still weavers in their cottages, bringing cloth into the market twice a week.

"You had this huge disparity between the merchants, who were very rich, ran the corporation and effectively controlled the city, and the majority of people who were desperately poor.

"That gave me an interesting socialist framework, because this is a very socially-conscious book. The disparity between the way people live is important."

Crucially, it was also a time when Leeds was teetering on the brink of lawlessness. The gulf between rich and poor creating an atmosphere ripe with tension and turbulence.

"Prostitution was rife, there was a lot of gambling," says Chris. "They were accepted facts of life. Although prostitution was illegal it still went on rampantly because these women had to make a living.

"The city's Constable (chief police officer) Richard Nottingham is very much a family man, he's a straight arrow who has suffered because of the laws at the time.

"His father, a merchant, discovered his wife was having an affair so he

kicked her out with nothing, which was perfectly acceptable then, along with his son, Richard, thinking he might not be his son. "Richard's mother then had no alternative but to become a prostitute. So he's seen both sides of the coin."

Chris carried out extensive research in order to create a sense of what it was like living in Leeds at the time. He paints a vivid picture of the bustling streets and the cramped, dirty dwellings.

"The layout of the streets in Leeds now is much as it was then. I did a lot of research, reading about what Leeds was like at the time. To be fair there isn't a huge amount but also reading about other cities in that period gives an overall flavour.

"It's more about giving the feel of the way people lived, ate and survived at the time. Most people lived crowded in rooms, you had entire families in a single room.

"Where you go off Briggate into Turk's Head Yard by Whitelocks, that whole yard would have been made up of small dwellings and you would have that replicated all the way up and down Briggate.

"It's just a shame that we've lost so much of Leeds's history, because

so few of the buildings from this period have survived."

Chris recently moved back to England after upping sticks to America when he was 21.

"I married an American and we lived in Headingley for a while, I was a clerical worker at St James's Hospital. But she got a bit homesick and compared to England in the mid-1970s America seemed pretty much like paradise.

"I moved back for a mixture of reasons. I was divorced, my mother was older and on her own, so I thought it would be good to be nearer her and I suppose I fancied a change.

"Even though I came back regularly it's still a major culture shock, just in terms of the way things are done here. To an extent I'm still getting used to it."

During his time living in Seattle, Chris worked as a freelance music journalist and penned a string of pop star biographies. But he always wanted to write fiction.

"The Broken Token is my first published novel. There are another five that remain un-published, for which everyone is probably very thankful.

"A fair amount of the research was done while I was still in Seattle.

I came back every year, picked up whatever books on Leeds I could get and visited the Thoresby Society.

"The Thoresby Society is named after Ralph Thoresby, the first historian of Leeds who lived from 1658 to 1725.

Since its foundation in 1889 the Society has published books about Leeds, including the transcripts of the parish registers.

"I take it as a good sign that the people at the Society, who know their stuff, liked it," says Chris.

"I've taken a lot of dramatic licence because I suspect Constable of Leeds was more of an honorary title at the time. But in a lot of ways I've tried to be as accurate as possible.

"In that period, a man named Richard Nottingham was actually constable of Leeds, Edward Kenion was the mayor and Edward Brogden was the coroner."

The first in a planned series of novels, within the next week he will have finished the first draft of the second book.

"So far the reaction to the book has been really positive. I hope people enjoy it."

* The Broken Token is published by Creme De La Crime, priced 7.99.