1908, book review, Chris Nickson, England, H. H. Asquith, historical fiction, injustice, kidnapping, Leeds, mystery, no and furthermore, paragon, privilege of wealth, series, social fragmentation, use of detail, woman suffrage movement
Review: The Molten City, by Chris Nickson
Severn, 2020. 224 pp. $29
When we last met Detective Inspector Tom Harper in these pages, in Gods of Gold, it was 1890. The young man from the Leeds slums worked a grim job in his gritty native city, splitting his energies between keeping watch over the impending violence from a gasworks strike and scrambling to search for a missing child. Harper sympathized with the strikers, but the law was the law and favored gentlemen of property, against which he was helpless; more immediately, he feared that if he didn’t find the child soon, she’d die. Not all was pain and suffering in his life, however. He worked with a devoted sergeant, Billy Reed, who became a friend. And Tom was about to marry a widow, Annabelle, of independent mind and income.
Now, it’s 1908, and Detective Superintendent Harper is the number-two man in the Leeds constabulary. Annabelle and he have a sixteen-year-old daughter, Mary, active in the woman’s suffrage movement, as is her mother. Billy Reed has died. Harper no longer hears as well as he used to, and his reflexes have slowed. But little else in his landscape has changed. Having arranged security for a royal visit — receiving a signed appreciation from His Majesty, Edward VII, no less — his reward is to protect Prime Minister Asquith when he gives a speech in Leeds.
Where few Britons would dare shout insults or complaints at their king and queen, many would jump at the chance to throw brickbats at Mr. Asquith for his broken promises. Poor workingmen and suffragists are the most likely to riot—including Mary, perhaps, or so her parents fear. Meanwhile, Harper has stumbled over evidence that, fifteen years ago, two children were snatched from their parents, perhaps “purchased” to live in a wealthy home where the mistress of the house has been unable to bear her own.
Had I read the intervening volumes since City of Gold, The Molten City might seem like yet another entry in a familiar formula, what some series can devolve into after a while. (Incidentally, all the volumes bear titles with metallic metaphors.) Yet this novel, like its progenitor, has so much going for it that you have to give it, and the author, their due.
First, there’s the atmosphere — political, social, physical, familial, you name it — which, to me, does far more than set the scene. Tom Harper, as the incorruptible, hard-working utterly dedicated police officer, with nary a social prejudice to his name and a firm belief in feminism, at times seems a little too good to be true. However, his feelings for and about Leeds, conveyed through these descriptions, show me that he loves his city and its people, and that his desire to serve is completely genuine. He stands for something.
That makes his perfection easier to swallow, and Nickson takes care not to let Harper’s halo shine among the populace, who wouldn’t see it, anyway. The rich treat him like a hireling, whom they’ll indulge with an audience if it suits them, not acknowledging that a criminal inquiry compels them to; the poor hate him on sight, because coppers are coppers. They’re none of ’em trustworthy.
Nickson uses simple language to set his scenes, with sparing economy:
The smoke and stink from the tanneries and factories rose up the hillside. Identical, anonymous streets of back-to-back houses. Away from the moor, there wasn’t a tree or a splash of colour to be seen. Someone’s washing hung from a line high across the cobbles, already turning grey from the soot in the air.
Attention to the character of Harper’s environment achieves one other storytelling goal of note. Since this is a mystery, which must live on “no — and furthermore,” many such narratives rely on plot points to deliver the obstacles, sometimes smoothly, otherwise seeming contrived. Nickson’s focus on Harper and his city means that the tension need not result from exterior forces, and that what’s within may raise the stakes. For instance, child snatching means more than a morally repugnant crime to Harper’s corps of detectives, several of whom suffered childhoods full of fear and violence that the authorities did nothing to assuage. Finding the missing children therefore becomes a personal quest, not just part of their job.
I also like how Nickson fuses the political and social issues of the day with the crime, his protagonist, and the Harper family. On every page, you see some aspect of how privilege influences or defines justice, and how each Harper works to change that, even as they remain pessimistic, to varying degrees, about the long-term outcome. And while they agree in sum about the importance of social change, the details get in the way, so that though they love one another, they don’t always get along.
As a consequence, The Molten City, despite its heroic paragon, delivers a satisfying mystery and a vivid portrait of a socially fragmented England.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.