The word prolific could have been invented for Leeds-based writer Chris Nickson. He is the author of several successful historical crime novels – all set in the city in various different eras – and last year alone he published six books.
His latest, Modern Crimes, is a gritty noir thriller which follows the fortunes of one of Leeds’ first policewomen. It is 1924 and the city, like the rest of the country, is still recovering from the effects of the Great War. Unemployment is high, poverty is rife and crime is becoming more sophisticated. It is against this troubled backdrop that we meet Nickson’s feisty heroine WPC Lottie Armstrong, who is determined to work alongside her male colleagues on an equal footing.
“I had been reading the history of Leeds police and came across the fact that the first two policewomen in Leeds had resigned within months of each other,” says Nickson. “There was no reason given but I think we can guess what might have happened.
“My suspicions are that they were given such a hard time that they gave up in frustration. I think the prejudice in the force was endemic and it was there for decades.”
Lottie, along with her colleague Cathy Taylor, is restricted to dealing with women, including prostitutes, and children. Because of this the male police officers refer to them disparagingly as ‘the tart patrol.’ But Lottie wants to do more – and she is very capable.
“When a young woman goes missing from a home for unwed mothers, Lottie sees her chance and she gets involved in the investigation,” says Nickson. “She proves to be an intuitive and natural detective, which of course offends male egos.”
Working on the case with detective sergeant McMillan, Lottie’s enquiries soon lead her into the dark underside of the city.
Her courage is tested to its limits but she rises to the challenge. She is an appealing character – and clearly one who Nickson has warmed to. He is already working on a sequel, set twenty years later in 1944.
“I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to Lottie just yet,” he says. “She is extraordinary by being very ordinary. She is married and lives in Chapeltown, which at that time was a relatively prosperous suburb. Her husband has a good job as a manager with Dunlop. She doesn’t need a job but she worked at the Barnbow munitions factory during the war and enjoyed the freedom it gave her.”
The period detail and sense of place in the book feels very authentic and is something Nickson works hard to get right. “It was interesting trying to evoke 1920s Leeds because the city is always very much a character in my books,” he says. “In my research I came across a little bit about The Royal Hotel on Lower Briggate which was one of the centres for the gay and lesbian community at the time – there was one bar for men and one for women. That interested me and it felt like a part of Leeds history that was well worth commemorating.”
Modern Crimes by Chris Nickson, £8.99, is published by The Mystery Press. The book is launched at Waterstones in Leeds – with a talk, reading and Q&A – on September 22 at 7pm.