Leeds’s grim and distant past

DARK DEEDS: Chris Nickson has just published Come The Fear, the fourth book in his Richard Nottingham series.
DARK DEEDS: Chris Nickson has just published Come The Fear, the fourth book in his Richard Nottingham series.
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Leeds-born author Chris Nickson delves into the city’s murky and macabre past in his latest thriller. He tells Grant Woodward how he created his fascinating glimpse of how life used to be.

CHRIS Nickson’s Leeds is populated by pickpockets, prostitutes and pimps – a place where the next grisly murder is never too far away.

Before the city’s tourism chiefs start having panic attacks, the Leeds we’re talking about is that of the 1730s rather than 2012. But it turns out many of the dark deeds and figures that fill Chris’s novels are actually rooted in historical fact.

His hero, for instance, is one Richard Nottingham, the Constable of the city, who along with his deputy John Sedgwick has the uneviable task of trying to keep its unruly citizens in check.

Back then a man named Richard Nottingham was indeed Constable of Leeds, while the books also feature then coroner Edward Brogden and the relevant mayor, who in those days changed every September. The street names featured in the books are also authentic – with some still in use today.

“I’ve taken a bit of dramatic licence because I suspect Constable of Leeds was more of an honorary title at the time,” says Chris. “But in a lot of ways I’ve tried to be as accurate as possible.”

Originally from Chapel Allerton but currently living in Nottingham ahead of a planned move back to his home city next year, Chris carried out extensive research to create a sense of what it was like to be in Leeds in the first half of the 18th century.

“The books are about more than murder,” he says. “They’re about the people of Leeds and the way life was – and back then that meant grinding poverty for all but the wealthy.

“There was one law for the rich, and another, much more brutal one, for everyone else.

“My research has turned up some interesting facts. For instance, there was a pumping station right next to Leeds Bridge and a reservoir near St John’s Church, which allowed the wealthier residents to enjoy running water in their homes, although obviously it wasn’t hot.

“The area of Town End – which is essentially New Briggate now – was being redeveloped at the time the novels are set into homes for rich merchants. One of those buildings still exists today as Nash’s fish and chip restaurant, which was built in 1720 for a man named Matthew Wilson.”

His latest thriller – the fourth in the Richard Nottingham series – is entitled Come the Fear and is set in 1733. It sees the Constable of Leeds investigate a house fire which takes a disturbing turn with the discovery of the charred remains of a young woman and her baby.

Was the fire started deliberately to conceal the woman’s murder? Nottingham’s enquiries lead him from squalid alehouses, prostitutes’ haunts and thieves’ dens to the home of a wealthy wool merchant as he tackles what his creator reckons is his most disturbing case yet.

Chris says the novels are proving to be a surprise hit across the Atlantic, earning impressive write-ups from American reviewers.

The second in the series, Cold Cruel Winter, was named one of the 10 Best Mysteries of 2011 by US trade publication Library Journal.

An equally positive response from readers over here, starting with first book The Broken Token two-and-a-half years ago, means more are in the pipeline and Chris has already completed the next instalment.

He is also getting his teeth into a novel set in Leeds at the time of the English Civil War.

“That was a fascinating period in Leeds’s history, but not a good time to be here,” says Chris. “It was essentially an occupied city and the Roundheads had a garrison here. Some of the houses owned by Royalists were destroyed and the city was effectively on its knees.

“The plague then broke out in 1645, with most of the victims being those who lived in the poorer areas, which at the time was around Vicar Lane and The Calls.”

Having moved to Seattle at the age of 21, Chris became a music journalist, but he has never lost his burning interest in the story of his home city.

“It’s where I was born and raised, and that puts a place in your bones. You know it the way you can never quite know anywhere else.

“I have lived in other places for longer but I feel it in a way I don’t feel anywhere else. When you grow up somewhere you understand it. My family’s roots in Leeds can be traced back to the early 1800s and for some reason it just makes sense to me. I can’t wait to move back.”

In keeping with Chris’ eye for historical detail, his latest book will be launched at Holy Trinity Church, which featured in first novel The Broken Token. The event, which is open to all, will take place at Arts@Trinity, a centre for the arts within the church, this Friday at 7.30pm.

The launch will feature readings from the book by local actors, along with music, storytelling and artwork inspired by passages from the novel. Copies of the book will also be available to buy at the event, courtesy of Blackwell’s.

Leeds Book Club and Leeds Libraries, supporters of the series of books, will also be there, encouraging people to sign up as members.

Come the Fear is published by Creme De La Crime, priced £19.99