The Blood Covenant by Chris Nickson – Review
By Sandra Callard
Chris Nickson is the acclaimed author of three sets of novels, all set in the author’s home town of Leeds, West Yorkshire. The Blood Covenant is a further book from his Simon Westow Mysteries, and is set in the early eighteen hundreds, when crime was rampant and justice was left to the injured party, or, as in this case, to the skill of thief-taker, Simon Westow, a man with a sword and a quick eye, who would retrieve stolen goods for a price.
This was quite a legitimate business then and Westow was a respected man in the community, with a house, a good wife and twin boys. However, when he hears news of two young boys being beaten to death for some mistakes in their work by an overseer in a local mill, he feels for the parents and vows vengeance on the cruel owner of the mill, named Thomas Arden. Here is a man who seems ready to allow this type of punishment to prevail – plus, Arden is rich and above the reach of the incompetent police.
The bulk of the story that follows is the interchange of situations between Westow and Arden as events seesaw in either direction, with both seeking the death of the other. The wealthy Arden uses paid killers, while Westow has only himself and just one, but very deadly, assistant, named Jane. Nickson’s visualisation of this character, Jane, is superb. She has been abused and exploited by her father as a child, and has been ignored and abandoned by him and her mother. Against all the odds she has survived, but with no trust or time for anyone except Westow. This is not love by any means, but Westow has never lied to her or hurt her, but has respected her and her skill with the knife, and she has become an essential asset to his job. Jane’s character is fascinating. She says little, moves in the dark unseen and knows the city of Leeds inside out. She fears nothing and nobody and her skill in shadowing, tracking and fighting is without equal.
Nickson’s style of story can be somewhat repetitious, and there are numerous scenes of gruesome fighting without any apparent long term resolution, and indeed sometimes having little connection to the heart of the story. There is always another danger around the corner for someone to solve by death.
I did like the ongoing story of Westow’s recent injury and his attempts to recover his previous skills. His personality is strong and the relationship between himself and the tough and flawed Jane is interesting and unusual. There is absolutely no sign of sexual attraction, but the respect and care they have for each other is beautifully played out by the author.
Nickson has a rare talent for historical reproduction, and the filth and horror of the time he writes about is conveyed loud and clear. I warmed to the main characters but felt tension was lacking overall and the story deserved characters who might offer something more than fighting, starvation and killing, who were not so enmeshed in the sad and cruel dramas of nineteenth century Leeds. Nickson is a fine writer and with a little more scope this could have been a historical crime fiction classic.
‘The Blood Covenant’ by Chris Nickson is published by Severn House