Imagine Life on Mars’ Sam Tyler, born in late 18th century Leeds, set in a narrative with a slight Dickensian twist. This is Chris Nickson’s Simon Westow. You get the feeling that, like Sam, Simon never really wanted to be a tough guy, but he’s landed in a culture where he has to be, and he’s making the best job of it that he can. Along the way, he is ably assisted by his enigmatic assistant, Jane, who seems far more suited to sneaking around dark streets with a knife tucked up her sleeve, and his resourceful wife Rosie.
Simon is a thief-taker; in a world without modern policing he is hired to find stolen property and return it to its owner. However, the problem is that this work keeps bringing him to the attention of despotic industrialists who are not afraid to kill anyone who stands in the way of profit, and bribe the constabulary to look the other way.
As an ex-pauper and orphan, Simon also has his own score to settle with the exploitative industrialists of Leeds and inexorably, this draws him into a web of corruption that not only endangers his own safety, but also that of his family.
The Blood Covenant is a fast-moving mystery-adventure, set in streets that everyone who lives in Leeds will recognise by name. The reader is led to contemplate how different their hometown would have been two centuries ago – dark, smoky and fetid, with death always waiting around the corner in many forms, such as typhoid, pneumonia, tuberculosis or a knife in the ribs.
The way Nickson leads the reader around these familiar yet not familiar settings, brings a subtle Dickensian flavour to the narrative; I was reminded of being a child in South London, avidly following Dickens’ characters around streets that I knew well, whilst stretching my imagination to encompass a time when they would have been very different.
Characterisation and graphic violence
Simon is a likeable if sometimes-hapless protagonist, and the way that Jane’s story slowly emerges throughout the book is a good ‘hook’ for the reader, who is drawn to empathise with her demons as her background and motivations are gradually revealed.
Some of the other characters are less well-drawn, the villains in particular. I would have liked more detail on Arden and Seaton’s backstory: were they once highway men on the York Road? Was the money that set up the mill and the farm illicitly drawn from their loot? Were they always as ruthless and wicked as they are now? But this level of character development might have slowed down the action, which is relentless: Jane stoically stepping up to the pace and Simon hanging on by his fingernails.
Sometimes I could have done with less graphic descriptions of violence and rather less blood. But the title is fair warning!
The Blood Covenant would be a good book to take on a train or plane ride; the plot is easy to follow, and the story is fast-paced. I read it from cover to cover in one three-hour sitting. Those who like fast-moving action adventure with a hint of mystery and some graphic descriptions of violence will enjoy this book. They will also be pleased to hear that Nickson has written a series of Simon Westow stories, of which this is the fourth … so maybe back up and start from the first, which is The Hanging Psalm.
The Blood Covenant
Describing his latest book, Nickson said:
“It’s not a cosy read. But factory bosses working children 12–14 hours a day, and overseers brutally punishing them isn’t comfortable reading. This isn’t the Regency of Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer. This is Regency Noir.
“Bringing them some justice … it’s bloody and hard. But worth the pain.
“What would you do if they were your kids?
“This is a book that means a lot to me. It’s stirred my anger in a way that little else has”.
The Blood Covenant by Chris Nickson, is already widely available, and will be published 30 December 2021.