Gods of Gold by Chris Nickson is a historical mystery, first in a new police procedural series set in late Victorian-period Leeds, England and featuring Inspector Tom Harper (available December 1, 2014).
Chris Nickson’s interest in Leeds and its history is plain: he has a new novel coming out in January 2015 that is set there in 1954 (Dark Briggate Blues), and his Richard Nottingham mystery series is set in the same city back in the 1730s.
From the very first page, I was enthralled with the smooth integration of historical detail into the plot. Nickson depicts a wide range of social classes and professions with just as much, or perhaps more, local detail as a contemporary police procedural would include, creating an immersive effect without slowing the pace. His attention to detail means the novel feels grittily realistic, just as a procedural should be.
I would have enjoyed the book simply as a historical novel, even had the mystery not been present, because of the fascinating backdrop Nickson chose for it. 1890 was a time of intensifying disputes between laborers and their employers, and the Leeds gas-workers strike on which Nickson focuses sent angry mobs raging though the city. As gas has recently grown cheaper, the organized gas companies announce they will cut the workers’ hours for the summer and then pay them lower wages when the weather grows colder. When the workers strike, the gas companies hire strikebreakers, nicknamed “blacklegs,” and the workers’ union retaliates.
The protagonist, Inspector Harper, methodically investigates the crime of a missing child among the poorer classes, a case soon complicated by an apparent suicide. At the same time, he’s obligated by his superiors to try and keep order in the streets during the strike, which is supposed to include protecting the strikebreakers. This causes personal conflict for Harper because, raised working class himself, he sympathizes with the striking workers and their just cause. While at first the strike interferes with the search for the missing child, later he discovers a potential link, tying the plotlines together.
The story of how Tom Harper chose to become a policeman exemplifies how his life, now part of the Establishment, connects to the lives of those he investigates:
He’d wanted to be a policeman as long as he could remember. When he was a nipper, no more than a toddler, he’d often follow Constable Hardwick, the beat bobby, down their street in the Leylands, just north of the city centre, imitating the man’s waddling walk and nods at the women gathered on their doorsteps. To him, the decision to join the force was made there and then. He didn’t need to think about it again. But that certainty shattered when he was nine. Suddenly his schooldays had ended, like every other boy and girl he knew. His father found him work at Brunswick’s brewery, rolling barrels, full and empty, twelve hours a day and Saturday mornings, his pay going straight to his mam. Each evening he’d trudge home, so tired he could barely stay awake for supper…He joined the public library, wary at first in case they wouldn’t let someone like him borrow books. From there he spent his free hours reading; novels, politics, history, he’d roared through them all. Books took him away and showed him the world beyond the end of the road. The only pity was that he didn’t have time for books any longer. He’d laboured at his penmanship, practising over and over until he could manage a fair, legible hand. Then, the day he turned nineteen, he’d applied to join the force, certain they wouldn’t turn him down.
If you like historical mysteries where the background is a vital part of the story, Nickson’s work is definitely for you. I’m looking forward to reading more in this series.
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