I was going to start this review with a disclaimer and say that I don’t actually read crime mysteries as that’s really not my genre. But then I realised that I’ve been making my way through Chris Nickson’s Tom Harper series for quite some time now, so I might have to adjust that claim and accept that I actually read any genre, as long as there’s a really good story in it.
And that’s the thing with Nickson, he’s so good at telling a story that you don’t really have time to think about it when you start one of his books. You turn to the first page and you’re in, you’re hooked.
A Dark Steel Death is no different. It starts in Leeds at the end of 1916, halfway through World War 1, just after the Battle of the Somme and just before the US became an ally. While conditions were tough for the millions of British soldiers in the trenches, Nickson describes life at home, which was pretty grim too: food shortages, blackouts, the constant threat of Zeppelin attacks, and conscription. The story drops the reader right into the middle of the action.
A new Tom Harper story
The book opens with a possible arson attack at a munitions factory, immediately drawing the reader in with vivid descriptions of the sounds and smells – you can almost feel the heat of the fire. This leads to a string of other crimes that suggest someone is trying to sabotage the war effort. Tom Harper is under pressure from all sides to get this case solved as soon as possible.
Harper is an interesting character whom Nickson has followed as he’s worked his way up through the ranks, from his working-class roots to his current position as deputy chief constable. He’s a flawed character, and very real, which makes him hugely relatable. The reader is led to feel his discomfort with the position he finds himself in now: he’s desperate to be out on the streets with his men while being resigned to the fact that his current role requires him to spend a lot of time behind a desk, waiting for the telephone to ring.
In a world of shiny police dramas being streamed out of our TVs on a regular basis, it’s both refreshing and frustrating to go back to a time before technology gave more or less immediate answers.
Evocative and immersive
You can almost picture yourself in the middle of Leeds at that time. Nickson has the knack of being able to sum up the feel of an era perfectly; the wet cobbles, the dirty bricks, the smog and the “smell of the wet wool from the damp overcoats”. We get a real sense of the shortages and the disillusionment, and the reality of the war hero returned home, often with life changing injuries.
I like history, especially local history. I love learning about the people who walked where I walk and felt what I feel, but non-fiction history books can be a bit tough going, so it was refreshing to have Nickson do it for me. He offers facts wrapped up in fiction so readers don’t even realise they’re learning something. It’s fascinating to have an insight into a familiar place in an unfamiliar time.
Nickson makes the reader care about each character, even the villains, and so many of the issues raised in this book are relevant now, over a hundred years after it was set. It may be a crime thriller but it’s a social commentary too; for example, the reality of the war hero returning home with shell shock. Reading this book, you get a real sense of Harper’s inner conflict, his loyalty and patriotism mixed in with cynicism and a weary acceptance of the things he can’t change. Even when the situation is resolved it feels that it never really will be.
A sensitive narrative on social change and grief
It’s also an insight into grief, particularly grief for a lost loved one, whether that’s someone who was killed in the trenches, or someone who is slowly being taken away by dementia. Nickson handles both of these topics with care and sensitivity, and it’s touching to see how Harper struggles to help his now grown-up daughter handle her grief while he navigates the changing relationship with his wife. It’s this mix of tough working-class copper and compassionate father/husband that makes him such a likeable character.
One of the things I’ve always liked about Nickson’s books is the way he writes about women. His female characters are strong and standalone, not just accessories to the male characters; from strong, proud Annabelle Harper, his suffragist wife who is struggling with her own health to his brave, sad daughter, Mary. This was a liberating time for women who were suddenly needed in offices and factories, public transport and farms to help provide food and manufacture weapons. While the world around them closed in, theirs grew bigger; they found themselves earning more money and getting a taste of independence. But not everyone found it easy to adjust to this new world.
A fast-paced, thrilling read
You don’t have to have read all the other Tom Harper books to enjoy this one, each book stands alone, but it adds to the enjoyment to see how the character has developed over the years. So I’d recommend going back to the start of the series when you get a chance.
The book is fast-paced and, even though there are a few different threads, it’s very easy to follow. It has suspense, empathy, insight and thrills so if, like me, you’re not a crime thriller fan, it’s ideal!