British music journalist Chris Nickson is the author of the Richard Nottingham books, historical mysteries set in Leeds in the 1730s and featuring Nottingham, the Constable of the city, and his deputy, John Sedgwick. As Nickson has said of his series: “The books are about more than murder. They’re about the people of Leeds and the way life was – which means full of grinding poverty for all but the wealthy. They’re also about families, Nottingham and his and Sedgwick, and the way relationships grow and change, as well as the politics, when there was one law for the rich, and another, much more brutal, for everyone else.”
Nickson’s debut, The Broken Token, earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly, which called it “impressive,” and further noted: “Nottingham and Sedgwick interview whores, pimps, and procurers in an effort to catch the lunatic who slays three couples in six days. Multiple threads of the case come together at the end in an unexpected and disturbing conclusion.” Second in the series, Cold Cruel Winter, appeared in 2011 and earned another starred review from Publishers Weekly as a “superb” novel. It also was named one of the ten best mysteries of that year by Library Journal. His third, The Constant Lovers, comes out in the spring from Severn House’s Crème de la Crime imprint.
Chris, it’s great to have you with us at Scene of the Crime. Perhaps we can start things of with some remarks about your personal connection to Leeds.
I was born and raised in Leeds and my family was there for the better part of 200 years before I came on the scene. I know it in my bones, in a way I can never know anywhere else; it’s part of my DNA. Yet the Leeds in my books is from 1730, long ago now, and very few buildings from the era remain. I became interested in Leeds history when I lived in Seattle. I’d go back every year, buy more books and add to those with what I found on eBay – some great old volumes, although the shipping costs were high. I moved back to the UK, although not to Leeds, although I was there often while my mother was still alive. Even now I’m there several times a year.
What things about Leeds make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
Physically, Leeds was a small place in the 1730s, that helps when using it as a location, yet it still offered plenty of variety. The city was becoming rich off the wool trade, so there was a vast dichotomy between the merchants, who were making fortunes, and the rest, most of whom were dirt poor, living in lodging houses and awful rooms. The merchants, meanwhile, had grand houses, often new and just outside town. The physical layout of the streets in the city centre is pretty much still as it was then.
Did you consciously set out to use Leeds as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
I knew Leeds would be important, but probably not as important as it’s become. It figures as a major character in all the books in the series, it’s the heartbeat of the books. It shapes the characters in the books, and having a map in all the books grounds it, and allows people to see where things take place. I wanted readers to feel that they’d been there in that place and time, that they’d smelled life, walked on those streets, heard all the noise…
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
I pay great attention to location in every scene, whether it’s in Leeds or, when it happens, in the surrounding villages. Streets are named, often described, along with the river, the bridge. I’m always very aware of where my characters are when things are going on, and at times the location dictates what happens – the Tuesday and Saturday morning cloth markets on Briggate, for instance.
How does Richard Nottingham interact with his surroundings? Is he a native, a blow-in, a reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitant, cynical about it, a booster?
Richard Nottingham, my main character, is Constable of the City of Leeds. He grew up there, as did his wife, as did his deputy. Cut them and there’s Leeds in their blood. They love the place, although maybe not the people who run it. The ties go back generations. Richard loves Leeds, the people, the place. He’d been a street kid, he knows it in a way most people never could.
I’ve had excellent local reaction, people saying it brings the period alive, and saying they look at the place in a new way after reading the books – which is intensely gratifying.
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
Many in my drafts, although none that have made it into print, thankfully. I’ve placed a church in entirely the wrong location before and had people heading in the wrong direction to a village.
Of the Nottingham novels, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
“He headed down Briggate in firm, concentrated strides. Just before Leeds Bridge he turned on to Swinegate, walking past the King’s Mill with its wheels still loudly and busily grinding corn into flour, then along a row of cramped, dilapidated cottages and artisan dwellings that looked on the verge of toppling over. A cobbler had his goods displayed in the wide front window of a house, the sound of his hammer against the last echoing across the street as he worked. Heat escaped like a thick sheet from the blacksmith’s forge, while next door a stable reeked of horse dung as an ostler’s boy shovelled the steaming mess on to a larger pile against the wall. Servants shopped late for their mistresses, talking and laughing loudly as they passed, enjoying the brief respite from the grind of their chores. Another frontage was piled with chandlers’ good – coiled ropes, canvas duck, and all manner of items for the barges that plied the Aire. Outside the door, two women, both haggard and old before their time, chatted earnestly as their children played in the dirt, close to the puddles and mud where people had slopped the contents of the chamber pots into the street that morning. Somewhere in an upstairs room a baby was yelling, its cries going unheeded.”
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
Favourite writers? Many of them. Ian Rankin, Peter Høeg, William Boyd. Probably one of the most influential for using a city is Candace Robb with York – a place she’s never lived. But I feel I’ve been in her York in the 1360s and 70s.
If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?
I’ve lived in a number of places. Probably the one other place I’d like to live for a while is Copenhagen. It’s a gorgeous place that’s hung on to its history well. I go there quite often, have many friends there and love the city and the people.
What’s next for your protagonist?
The third book in the series, The Constant Lovers, is just out in the UK (May in the US) and the fourth – Come the Fear – will be published in July.
Chris, thanks much for talking with us at Scene of the Crime.
For more information about Chris Nickson, visit his homepage.