Chris Nickson writes books set in Leeds. Perhaps not that surprising given that he lives in Leeds, and he grew up in Leeds. More surprising, though, when you know he only moved back here last year – and that he has spent 30 years of his life in America.
That hasn't stopped him from writing a series of novels set in Victorian Leeds, the Inspector Tom Harper novels, and a series set in the city in the 1730s, the Richard Nottingham novels. Now he's introducing a new series of noir thrillers set in the 1950s, starting with his latest novel, Dark Briggate Blues.
'Because I grew up here it's a city that I understand on a cellular level; it makes a lot of sense to me,' Chris explains, in his distinctive Transatlantic accent. 'The way it became this very industrialised city in Victorian times – and keeps changing – is interesting. But even going back to the 1700s it remains at its core recognisable; you could plonk someone down here from the 1700s and because the layout of the very centre of town is the same and the street names are the same, they would be able to find their way round.
'The changes and the constants fascinate me,' he continues. 'I've tried to make my books immersive for each period so you come out feeling like you've actually been there.'
To this end, the novel features the sights, sounds and smells of 1950s Leeds – and in particular, the sound of jazz. Chris is personally interested in jazz, and he's also equipped to write about musicians, as he started his career as a music journalist, and spent three decades playing in bands, writing about music, and churning out what he calls 'quickie biographies' while living in Seattle.
'Publishers would get in touch with my agent and they'd toss these things at me,' he says about the biographies. 'Under a pseudonym I wrote the first book in America on the Spice Girls. It was all cut-and-paste, nothing deep in it. But there's really not the market for those books anymore. People can get better, broader, more up-to-date information online.'
On top of the biographies Chris was averaging around 70 hours a week writing, reviewing gigs in the evening and balancing it all with childcare. A rock 'n' roll lifestyle? 'To a degree,' he begins thoughtfully. 'I spent 10 years in the Mid-West before then and the end of my time there I was playing in a band and that was a decidedly rock 'n' roll lifestyle…' he drifts off enigmatically. Today his tipple of choice is tea.
Chris moved back to the UK in 2005. 'I could have stayed but I felt like I needed a big change of scene, and in part it was the politics because [George] Bush had just been elected for the second time. Also my mother was in her 80s and on her own so I felt it would be good to be closer to her. It was a different life,' he adds. 'It suited me then, but the smaller life I have now suits me now.'
Chris continues to work as a freelance journalist, but he springs out of bed at 4.30 every morning with an urge to write fiction. Some of the books are set in the States – the Laura Benton novels about a music journalist turned detective in Seattle – and he has written historical novels set in Chesterfield, Derbyshire, where he previously lived.
The new book, however, takes the reader to the mean and murky streets of post-war Leeds. Dark Briggate Blues kicks off a new series about a Private Investigator called Dan Markham. 'He's 25 and he got into jazz when he was doing his National Service in Germany and befriended an American private who had access to the PX [the Army Exchange System which provided goods like gum, candy, beer, soap and cigarettes to soldiers during the war]. So he could get all sorts of things the British troops couldn't get, and that turns him on to jazz. But living in Leeds in the 1950s is not the best place to be a jazz fan,' adds Chris. 'Although there was actually a jazz club called Studio 20, which is in the book.'
Chris was inspired by re-reading classic books by the major authors of the American noir: Raymond Chandler; Dashiell Hammett; Ross Macdonald. 'There's really nothing like that in this country. I just thought, "I don't really know any '50s English provincial noir, I wonder what it would be like?"'
The English responses to noir tend to lean towards pastiche, which Chris wants to avoid. 'This is without the wise-crack attitude,' he says. With Dan Markham he hopes to dig a little deeper than the cliché of the hardboiled Private Investigator ('The term that was used then was Enquiry Agent,' Chris points out). 'It's actually a very intense book. It starts out with a woman who wants Dan to investigate her husband and see if he's being faithful. He gets pulled into something he hasn't expected, and is in some ways not equipped for, but he's had training in military intelligence when he was doing National Service and he has to draw on that, somewhat reluctantly. I regard it as a very noir-ish novel but it's also a Leeds novel. Leeds is very much a character in it.'
Dark Briggate Blues is out now in paperback and Kindle edition. There will be an official launch at Waterstones in Leeds on February 6th, followed by events at Bramley Library on February 21st and Moor Allerton Library on April 29th. For those outside Leeds, Chris will also be appearing at this year's Carlisle Crime Writing Festival in June.
And there's also plenty more to come, and not just the next Dan Markham adventure. 'In July I've got a collection of short stories coming out called Leeds the Biography which is essentially a history of Leeds in short stories.'
So, pretty prolific then. 'People tell me I'm prolific but it never seems that way to me!' he laughs.
'I write, that's what I do. It's largely how I define myself.'
Dark Briggate Blues
The Mystery Press, £8.99