The Leaden Heart by Chris Nickson #BookReview


Leeds, England. July, 1899. The city is in the grip of a long, scorching summer, and the only real crime plaguing Detective Superintendent Tom Harper and his squad is a sly, daring burglar. But when his former friend and colleague, Inspector Billy Reed, comes to Leeds to bury his brother, Charlie, something much darker begins to unfold. Charlie had committed suicide and, going through his papers, Billy discovers crippling rent rises and intimidation by a new landlord. Reed asks for Tom’s help in discovering the truth. As Harper investigates, he uncovers a web of violence and corruption that leads back to the mysterious North Leeds Company. Threats quickly become cold, brutal murder as Harper pursues the men pulling the strings. But does he have the power to win?

I've had The Leaden Heart on my tbr list for a shamefully long time but I'm so glad to finally be sharing my review today. Many thanks to Chris Nickson and Severn House Publishers for my digital copy received through Netgalley.

A recent heatwave means crime is largely down across Leeds although an elusive burglar is beginning to cause problems, not least because Detective Superintendent Tom Harper has made some powerful enemies on the council who are waiting for an opportunity to have him replaced. He is soon under even more pressure when he begins to investigate a protection racket but quickly discovers that whoever is in charge of the North Leeds Company is determined to keep their identity unknown. However, the case is more personal for Tom because it's linked to the suicide of the brother of his old friend and former colleague, Inspector Billy Reed. Although a falling-out means the two aren't as close as they once were, relations between them become less strained as Tom endeavours to win justice for Billy and his family. However, the convoluted web of gangsters and charlatans he is investigating thwart him time and again. Meanwhile, back in Whitby, Billy waits for news and in our world of instant communications, it's easy to appreciate the frustrating delays between letters and occasional phone calls.
The Leaden Heart is set two years after Chris Nickson's previous Tom Harper novel, The Tin God (but can easily be enjoyed as a standalone) and finds his wife, Annabelle still in her role as one of the first female Poor Law Guardians in Leeds. The resolute pair are a well-matched couple who are a constant support for one another, and together with their spirited little daughter Mary, they are the engaging moral heart of the series.  The city was recently shocked by the murder of two little girls who were thrown into the canal by their father and Annabelle is trying to discover whether the workhouse authorities should have handled the family any differently. It's ultimately a hopeless investigation without any chance of a happy resolution but Annabelle wants steps to be taken to help prevent any further such tragedies. Her frustration is almost palpable at times, particularly when she is frequently impeded by men who take umbrage at a woman overstepping societal boundaries. Still several years before women were given the vote, it's fascinating to see an early feminist in action, and rather poignant to imagine the future Mary having been inspired by the fortitude and courage of her mother.
With the Boer War on the horizon, it's obvious that despite the stagnant weather, change is in the air on a local and national level, both for good and bad. Although Poor Law Guardians like Annabelle are the precursor to the welfare state, there are still too many unscrupulous landlords in a city which is being rebuilt without much care for those swept out of their slums. Chris Nickson adroitly highlights the inequalities of the period and the corruption of the wealthy elite who are as much of a challenge to Harper as the violent street criminals, the Smith brothers who are somehow engaging in a reign of terror without anybody seeming to know exactly who they are. Change is clearly coming for Tom and his colleagues too and his disappointment at losing men to the upcoming war is both personal and professional; he regrets the break-up of his team but more so fears that many will not come home again. Young Sissons then is a welcome addition; the new Detective Constable is sharply intelligent - he enjoys reading Latin and Greek - and endearingly ambitious. I look forward to more from him in the future. 
Victorian Leeds is brought vividly to life with the atmospheric sense of time and place superbly rendered throughout. The twists and turns of the gripping plot effectively combine a perplexing mystery about property corruption and violent organised crime with thoughtful social commentary - immersive and exciting, The Leaden Heart is first-rate historical crime fiction. Highly recommended.

The Leaden Heart is published by Severn House Publishers and can be purchased here.

About the Author

I'm a novelist and music journalist, the author of many books set between the 1730s and 1950s in Leeds, as well as others in medieval Chesterfield and 1980s Seattle.
Above all, though, its Leeds I love, the people, the sense of the place changing with time. Yes, I write mysteries, but ultimately they're books about people and their relationships, and the crime becomes a moral framework for the story.