A private eye, a shady lady and a smoky jazz club – the perfect ingredients for a crime thriller set in 1950s Leeds. Yvette Huddleston reports.
WE TEND to associate noir thrillers with American films and writers of the 1940s – think Raymond Chandler, Humphrey Bogart and various sultry femme fatales – but a new book by local author Chris Nickson places the genre firmly in 1950s Leeds.
Dark Briggate Blues is set in Leeds in 1954 and revolves around a mystery that lands on the doorstep of young private eye Dan Markham.
Divorces and fraud cases are his bread and butter – it’s all fairly straightforward and pays the bills, but then one day things get complicated. A blonde walks into Markham’s office to hire him to spy on her businessman husband who she thinks is being unfaithful.
Nothing remarkable in that – but then the man is killed, Markham is implicated in the murder and he has to prove his innocence to the police while avoiding the attentions of the real killer, a man with connections that seem to lead all the way to Whitehall.
The book is a pacy, atmospheric and entertaining page-turner with a whole host of well-rounded characters – including Markham’s feisty bohemian artist girlfriend Carla, world-weary local police officer Detective Sergeant Baker and spoilt goodtime girl, and unhappy wife, Joanna Hart who sets the plot in motion.
“I really like the American writers Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Ross Macdonald but I realised there was very little English noir and particularly noir set in the 1950s,” says Nickson.
“I wanted to examine how it would be different from American noir. I thought I’d write it in the third person and without all the wisecracks, because that’s not the English way.” Music plays a fairly major part in the narrative – Markham is a jazz fan who plays Theolonius Monk records in his flat in Chapel Allerton and frequently visits a jazz club called Studio 20 on New Briggate. This is not surprising given that Nickson was a music journalist for many years. The descriptions of Markham’s appreciation of various jazz musicians whether live or on vinyl are very eloquent and informed, but Nickson says that he wasn’t expecting jazz to be such a significant element of the storyline. “It was when I found out that Studio 20 actually existed; I realised that it was a good way of illustrating the way that Leeds was at the time and Markham’s love of jazz.”
Nickson himself was born in Leeds in 1954 and while he was too young at the time to have any reliable memories of the city in that era, he has added some personal touches.
“The building where Dan Markham has his flat was where I spent the first year of my life,” he says. “And where he has his office on Albion Place is where my father had an office.” Other authentic local detail and colour, especially satisfying for readers familiar with Leeds (particularly those of a certain age), includes descriptions of the illegal drinking clubs that were around at that time, which Nickson was told about by his father, many of them just off Chapeltown Road, and references to Quarry Hill Flats, the Khardomah Café on Briggate and the department store Marshall and Snellgrove at the junction of Bond Street and Park Row. “Something I tried to do was to make Leeds a character in the book, to make it an immersive experience,” says Nickson. “I love exploring Leeds in different eras – this is my eighth book set in Leeds. I have a series of books – all crime fiction – set in the 1730s and 1890s that all take place in the city. There is a thread of continuity but in each period Leeds is almost a different place.” A prolific writer, Nickson has three books coming out later this year – another in his Victorian-era series, a collection of short stories and a sequel to Dark Briggate Blues set in 1967.
“I am lucky that I am doing something that I love and have the chance to do it,” he says. “You can’t ask for more than that in life.”
• Dark Briggate Blues, £8.99, is published by The Mystery Press. The book launch is at Waterstones in Leeds tonight at 6.30pm.