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Review: The Blood Covenant, by Chris Nickson
Severn, 2021. 212 pp. $29

Leeds, 1823. Simon Westow, a thief-taker, meaning someone who retrieves stolen goods for a fee, hears from a doctor friend about two deaths that disturb him deeply. A pair of young boys has been murdered, apparently by a factory overseer. Leeds, starting to gain a reputation for its textile mills, witnesses a great deal of industrial child abuse. That’s because children, hired to scoot below the machinery to perform certain tasks, rebel against the long hours of exhausting labor, and the foremen don’t spare the rod.

J. M. W. Turner’s 1816 watercolor, Leeds (courtesy Yale Center for British Art, via Wikimedia Commons)

Since Simon himself just managed to escape that life and has two young boys of his own, the news of the deaths causes him sleepless nights. On one such, he goes for a walk and happens on a young man, throat cut and hand severed, being pulled from the river.

Despite Simon’s curiosity and principles, none of this need have anything to do with him. Leeds mill owners are beyond the law, for this is early nineteenth-century England, and money buys many things, including constables and magistrates. And Simon, though he’s investigated murders before, prefers to stick to thief-taking, a less dangerous, better-paying proposition — not to mention he’s recovering, slowly, from an illness for which a doctor friend has no name.

But when circumstances connect the boys’ deaths and that of the man pulled from the river — none too convincingly, I might add — Simon begins to probe all these crimes, hoping to find a measure of justice in a society where the word has little meaning. Before he’s done, many bodies will fall, mostly in hand-to-hand combat, of which The Blood Covenant provides many scenes. Leeds is one rough town, and if you wish to live out your portion of natural days, you’d best keep a well-sharpened knife in your pocket and know how to use it.

Nickson, the author of the excellent mystery series featuring the Leeds policeman Tom Harper, set toward the end of the century, has once again shown the gritty side of a cruel city. How people managed to live in that place back then makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. That the disenfranchised receive no protection from the law goes without saying. Further, Nickson reminds readers about the evils of the factory system, which remain with us, if in different forms, if in sweatshops overseas.

Nevertheless, though the first three installments in this series may deserve the name mystery — I haven’t read them — this fourth volume doesn’t. Few puzzles emerge demanding solution, or, to put it another way, every question has an answer easily obtainable by putting a coin in the proper palm. Rather, the narrative offers a progression of violent confrontations, as the evildoers will stop at nothing to have their way. That requires our hero to remain vigilant, constantly looking over his shoulder, and he must dig deeply into his resolve and skill. Consequently, given that framework and the public stakes of justice for those who never receive any, The Blood Covenant feels more like a thriller.

Mystery or thriller, the chief pleasure here, aside from the historical atmosphere, is the plot, which moves rapidly. The characters, though, seem flat to me, either all good or all bad, with one crucial exception — Jane, Simon’s friend and associate, whose street smarts, surveillance skills, and knife handling put his in the shade. A nice reversal, there, and Jane’s inner conflicts offer complexity too. Raped by her father at a young age, then pushed onto the street, she has a particular view of life that stands out in even this novel of death and heartbreak.

As for the storytelling, I prefer the Harper novels, though again, I admit that The Blood Covenant may be an outlier within its series. The narrative tells far more often than it shows, sometimes to state or repeat the obvious. The descriptions have little or no emotional resonance, precise though they may be in detail, as with this one, about a mill owner’s home:

It was a room to impress guests, decorated in the finest taste that money could purchase: a wallpaper of pale, comforting blue and white stripes, an oil painting of a naval battle hanging over the mantel, long-clock ticking soft and serene in the corner. The chairs were upholstered in deep blue velvet. A plush Turkey rug covered the polished floorboards. It was all understated, a dignified announcement that Arden had arrived, that he was respectably rich these days. It was exactly what people expected from a house in Park Square.

Nickson plainly has a cause, and a worthy one, about wealth perverting the law. The pages do turn easily, as you wonder how Simon will finesse or force his way past the barriers that keep getting placed in his path. But if you read The Blood Covenant, you may find the theme and story the most rewarding aspects of the novel.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.