Fair and Tender Ladies by Chris Nickson
Fair and Tender Ladies by Chris Nickson is the sixth Richard Nottingham Mystery (Severn House, 2013) and takes us back in time to 1734 with Nottingham the Constable of Leeds. Don’t worry. The slight dissonance in this naming convention diminishes through repetition. As to this use of historical Leeds, I notice little has changed in two-hundred years. There always has been a massive wealth gap between the few who advanced their own interests and the poor, many of whom were forced to live rough despite the adverse weather conditions. Although no workhouse was proposed when the clothing industry finally collapsed in the 1970s, there are some rather curious resonances on display (although the quality of the bedding in the B&Bs and hotels has improved somewhat). This may seem a rather odd way of introducing an historical mystery story but, because it’s a police procedural which requires the officers to walk around the early Leeds, the emergent city is a character in this drama. We cannot understand the progress of the investigation until we get a proper feel for the social dynamics of the people.
At the top of the local heap, we have the Mayor and Aldermen who hold their office by virtue of the wealth and status they have achieved in the local community. These are not elected offices. The current officeholders have used their power to achieve office and thence to further enrich themselves. We then have a group of merchants and traders whose business acumen is driving the development of the town/city as a trading centre. During the course of this book, one of this group is invited to become an Alderman although the motives for this particular invitation remain murky. Then there’s the mass of working men with women staying at home when married. The unmarried and less socially privileged work in the markets, the pubs and “guest houses”. Before we get to those below the poverty line, we have the servant class and the criminals not wealthy enough to become respectable. Then there’s the mass of the poor who pick up work on the local farms during the planting and harvesting seasons, or casual labour wherever it becomes available.
To run any kind of investigation, the men who work for the Constable must be social chameleons, able to move freely within the different social classes and not trip over their own feet. Richard Nottingham himself sets the tone. He reports to the Mayor although, thanks to previous strains in their relationship, they avoid contact with each other unless it’s absolutely necessary. But he can be talking with an Alderman, move to a predatory criminal, then to a woman running a shelter by the river, to a man running a pub with a reputation, and all in the space of a few pages. The essence of the book is that of a dialogue between the Constable’s men and the people of Leeds. As a result, everyone knows everyone else. For the local law, this is both a curse and a blessing. Because they are known, it’s difficult to get anyone to talk to them in public. The Leeds code of Omerta is more than two-hundred years old. But it’s also useful because they know all the villains and the merely violent when drunk. Then there are the night walkers who see more than the city expects and the socially responsible who report actual or suspected crimes. Indeed, this is how this particular “adventure” gets started. A young man appears at the “police station” to report his sister has run away from a nearby farm. He believes she’s come to Leeds in search of fame and fortune. A few days later, both are dead. He’s had his throat cut and shes a possible suicide in the local river.
On the way to the end, we have one of the Constable’s men murdered, a possible case of corporate corruption among the Aldermen, the establishment of a new brothel and trouble in a poor part of the city where the Constable’s daughter is trying to run a school for the local children. It’s a heady brew and nicely sustains itself until the largely predictable ending. This is a book you read for the journey as much as for the puzzle. Yes, the mystery plot does nicely fit together, but the real enjoyment comes from the setting and the people who come alive on the page. Fair and Tender Ladies is an ironic title because even when protected by their men, the women of all classes need to be tough to survive. Indeed, Chris Nickson does well in presenting an appropriate gender balance, showing us a good slice of life in 1734.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.