Thursday, September 21, 2023

Chris Nickson wraps up his Tom Harper series with a tightly woven novel of post-WWI Leeds

Chris Nickson brings his Tom Harper series to a satisfying, very moving close in this 11th in the series, which has followed his protagonist, his family, and fellow policemen from late Victorian times to the post-WWI era. But even if this is your first acquaintance with the recurring cast, you won’t be lost. Everyone’s role is made clear by way of deep characterizations and sufficient backstory.

In March 1920, Harper, Chief Constable of Leeds City Police, approaches the future with guarded optimism. The Great War is over, although memories of the countless losses and suffering remain fresh. Likewise, the presence of fewer gauze masks indicates that Spanish flu cases are dropping. After a distinguished forty-year career that saw him rise to the top rank in his profession, retirement is in sight, a mere six weeks away. But getting there won’t be easy. In fact, it becomes a personal and professional mission for Harper to wrap up three brand new, unlinked cases before he exits his Town Hall office for good.

The first crime is one he needs to keep secret: Alderman Thompson, the city council head who’d recommended Harper for his current post, is in hot water after letting himself be “distracted by a lass” and getting blackmailed for the indiscreet love letters he wrote her, which were subsequently stolen. As Harper arranges to talk with Thompson’s former mistress, a new mystery lands: an elusive team of thieves holding up jewelry stores. Lastly, police in other cities are troubled by organized groups of female pickpockets wreaking havoc on local businesses, and word is that they’re heading for Leeds soon. At home, Harper’s wife, Annabelle, is sinking progressively deeper into senility; on good days, she speaks with him, and her original personality briefly surfaces. Other times, she remains silently lost in her own world.

There are multiple cases to untangle alongside the wrapping-up of character arcs, and no words are wasted in the process. The suspense revs up throughout, keeping readers guessing about what will happen next with each case. Alongside the tight plot, we get immersed in the postwar atmosphere of Leeds. Harper’s daughter, Mary, who lost her fiancé overseas, has a close bond with her father – they meet for lunch regularly – and is working through her feelings of loss, planning a visit to the battlefield while choosing to dress again in brighter colors. Nickson’s portrait of Annabelle’s dementia is entirely realistic and affecting, as is Tom’s emotional reaction to the heartbreaking changes he sees in his beloved partner.

This novel is highly recommended, though if you wish to start at the very beginning of Tom’s story, pick up volume 1, Gods of Gold.

Rusted Souls appears from Severn House this month; I reviewed it from a NetGalley copy.

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