At the Dying of the Year by Chris Nickson
Richard Nottingham, constable of 1730s Leeds, has his most distressing case to date: the bodies of some young children have been found and according to the coroner, they had been abused before death. Nottingham and his officers are motivated to find the culprit so that no other child has to suffer what these youngsters did.
In order to find out more, Nottingham goes to the streets (where he once lived himself after the death of his mother, a prostitute) and tries to gain the trust of the children forced to eke out an existence there. From one of these street urchins Nottingham discovers that a man, who dresses in grey and is known as Gabriel, has been promising paradise to the cold and hungry kids who go with him, never to be seen again.
Nottingham is hampered in his investigations by his health – he was almost killed by a knife wound the previous Spring and has only just returned to work. There is a new mayor with whom he clashes and men of power and money who seem to thwart his attempts at every turn.
Chris Nickson writes about 18th century Leeds with confidence and authority. He obviously knows his subject matter intimately, and unlike a less skilled writer, he doesn’t ram his research down the reader’s throat. I was immediately reminded of C J Sansom, one of my favourite historical authors, in the way that Nickson uses little details to bring the era to life.
Nottingham is a complex character: he is a man of honour and high morals, but he isn’t a saint and this makes him more real and likable.
The subject matter – child sexual abuse and murder – is handled very sensitively and we are never made privy to the details and so never made to feel like voyeurs.
My only criticism of the book is that I would have preferred a more ‘tied up’ ending. But perhaps it more accurately reflects life which is rarely tidy.
This was the first of Chris Nickson’s Nottingham books I have read, but it certainly won’t be the last. I’m already looking forward to the next installment and will be reading the back catalogue to catch up.