Written by Chris Nickson — We first met Inspector Tom Harper in Gods of Gold. Now he returns, newly married, but still trying to keep the peace in a wintry and grimy Leeds, the industrial city in the north of England. It is Christmas 1890, and a young Jewish man has been found brutally stabbed, his corpse mockingly arranged into a crucifix, and two pennies placed on his sightless eyes. As Harper and his team investigate they find a Jewish community circling its wagons as a wave of antisemitism grips the icy cobbled streets of the city.
The contrast between the conciliatory older Rabbi, and the younger Rabbi who seeks to mobilise the younger men of the community into a vigilante group, is nicely drawn. When the younger priest becomes the second victim, the men do take to the streets and call themselves The Golem after the mythical monster created in 16th century Prague to protect the oppressed. As Christmas turns into New Year, Harper reluctantly asks his Sergeant – ex-soldier Billy Read – to infiltrate a gang of known Jew-baiters in the hope of gleaning vital clues.
A mysterious young man known only as Alfred seems to be the head of the elusive gang. He is well spoken and rich enough to pay his motley foot-soldiers well. Harper’s boss is being pressured by the local Watch Committee to find the culprit before the vigilantes commit crimes of their own, but when Read’s attempt to work undercover goes badly wrong, Harper is as far away from solving the murders as he ever was. He has a recurrent hearing problem which is the result of a beating he received as a young officer and this returns with a vengeance, making him fear for his job.
Eventually, Harper gets the names of those responsible for the killing, but he is no nearer identifying the elusive Alfred. As a vicious winter continues to grip the frozen terraces and tenements of Leeds and its surrounding villages, an unconnected tragedy diverts the attention of the public and senior police officers. One of the suspected killers is eventually found – strangled, frozen and lying on a patch of waste ground – so he is beyond justice the justice of the courts.
The historical and topographical background to the story are both immaculately recreated, and anyone who knows modern Leeds will be fascinated by the wealth of detail provided about streets and place names, which are still in use today. Nickson adds veracity by referring to real events, such as the tragic death by fire of 11 schoolgirls on New Year’s Day 1891, when their elaborate costumes caught fire while they prepared for a performance in a church hall in Wortley. Harper also becomes involved in the search for a vanished inventor who may or may not have been done to death by none other than Thomas Edison, the great American entrepreneur.
Readers who like a good police procedural will enjoy the book, but will not find anything more psychologically challenging. Although the instigator of the killings is finally brought to justice, the motivation behind the attacks, although clearly touched with antisemitism, is neither explored or explained. I found myself asking what in particular had happened to that person to make them take such extreme measures. Two Bronze Pennies could be described as a comfort read, rather than a cosy read, but it is none the worse for that. The cover looks rather nicely put together, but one final thought – it would be a shame if the steep price and current lack of a digital version prevented people from reading what is a welcome addition to an enjoyable series.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars