The Molten City by Chris Nickson – Review
By Sandra Callard
Leeds writer Chris Nickson, known for his detective novels set in his hometown, sets his latest book, The Molten City, in 1908. It features his regular sleuth, Detective Superintendent Tom Harper, who has had a successful career with Leeds City Police since the age of nineteen. He has a strong and happy marriage to Annabelle, who owns and runs a local pub in Sheepscar and they have a sixteen year old daughter, Mary, who has an unfortunate and worrying leaning towards the Suffragettes.
Harper is popular with his team at the station and is known to be a thorough and successful detective. He receives an anonymous letter informing him that two children were stolen from their parents and sold to a wealthy family in Leeds some fifteen years previously, in the 1890s. On checking the police files he finds that practically no investigation was carried out at the time they went missing, so he subsequently begins his own inquiries to find out the truth. Harper is blindsided each time he gets a lead, which eventually results in three murders of people he was hoping could give him a lead.
At the same time the police are preparing for an important visit to the city from the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, and know for sure that the Suffragettes and the numerous unemployed will try to make as much trouble and noise as possible as they attempt to air their diverse disputes to Asquith, and it will be up to the police to deal with this and keep the Prime Minister safe.
The expected riot happens, and the author’s descriptions of this, and of the organised steps the police take to quell the disturbance and minimise casualties is amazingly authentic. It is almost as if he were there and taking notes, and is one of the best presented and prosaic pieces of descriptive writing I have read in some time. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole chapter.
The book is almost divided into two stories as Harper and his team follow leads regarding the missing children, and also endeavour to find the murderer of an ex-copper and discover whether it has any connection to the case of the children. The two cases are investigated by the same group of detectives who work under Harper, and the dichotomy of the two cases and one detective team is occasionally difficult to follow, and requires a quick reference to back pages for a quick resume.
Alongside the gruelling detective work, which, time after time, throws up nothing in the way of clues or illumination, Harper seems to end many paragraphs on a downbeat note, such as ‘Too late now though, much too late’, ‘Now, how the hell do I prove it’, ‘Too much to do’ or ‘That’s the problem’. Harper is a pleasant and clever character. He’s tough and can stand his corner, but his lapses into despair do not lie easily with his more attractive, positive and intelligent attributes.
Where the author really comes into his own is in his descriptions of the Edwardian Leeds of 1908. His research is first class and his geography of the city is phenomenal. Because most of the streets he writes about are still there in Leeds, the reader can follow the characters around as they walk the streets and alleyways of a fictional Leeds which in many ways follows the real and existing city.
The author’s love of his city is apparent throughout the book, and although readers from other areas could certainly enjoy the book, it has a particular relevance to Leeds Loiners, whose attention can waver from the story as they spend a few pleasant moments trying to visualise the numerous streets and alleyways mentioned in the book.
The Molten City is a clever and interesting book with many attractive characters. A good and easy read on a cold winter’s night.
‘The Molten City’ by Chris Nickson is published by Seven House, £20.99 hardback – out March 30