Written by Chris Nickson — Detective Inspector Harper makes his way toward Copper Street to see the body of Henry White, a man released from jail the just day before. White is fresh off a six-month stint, serving his time for receiving stolen goods.
When Harper arrives, White is on the floor, he has been stabbed twice, and rigor mortis has set in. White’s jail time was served for someone else who he wouldn’t rat on, and as Harper stands over the body he experiences regrets. If only he had pressed White to talk when he had the chance. White’s criminal ties before his early demise are now prescient, but lost information as far as solving his own murder goes.
Harper also finds out that a good friend Tom Maguire, a local union organiser and founder of the Independent Labour Party in Leeds, has died of natural causes. Maguire’s death hits Harper and his wife hard on a deeply personal level and the loss lingers in Harper’s mind as he tried to piece together the White murder.
Nickson’s On Copper Street is a late era Victorian set police procedural, and follows other books with metals in the title such as Gods of Gold, Two Bronze Pennies and The Iron Water. The themes of loss, time’s passing, and one’s connection to a place and people are at the heart this novel. There is a deft sense of the history and the politics of the time, interwoven with the emotional, social and local stories of the people involved.
Harper’s wife Annabelle is a young and budding suffragette who really takes the loss of Maguire hard. She contemplates the role of women and work and the brevity of life as she processes the man’s death. The heaviness facing the Harpers is broken up by their three-year-old daughter, Mary, who is a darling. Her interactions add yet another dimension to Harper, making his relationship to Leeds feel all the more real and important because of his role as a father.
Just as Harper is trying to piece together the deaths that open the book, another violent crime is committed in a bakeshop. This time someone has run in and thrown acid on a 13-year-old boy and his sweetheart, a girl of the same age who works behind the counter. Harper’s job is further complicated as he wonders why this young man has been targeted by such a violent and vicious crime.
In the midst of the chaos his boss, superintendent Kendall, gets sick and offers him the top job. Harper accepts and there is a general sense of celebration around Millgarth. But the joy doesn’t last long and Harper is too preoccupied anyway with his cases for much celebration. He can’t get White’s murder and the acid attack off of his mind and is relieved, in the first hours on the new job, when Kendall suggest he run off to chase leads on the case.
Nickson does a great job of conveying the conflicting and real emotions the characters face confronting loss and change. The book takes a hard turn from its very personal opening towards well-plotted procedural. Harper works to find a balance between his new position as superintendent and his role as detective and spends more time avoiding his new position than occupying it in order to he get to the bottom of the investigations he started.
The writing is strong throughout On Copper Street, and the genre elements of the book are compelling. But you can’t help rushing through the procedural aspect of the text, otherwise they drag.
The domestic and personal passages, things like Harper contemplations about his role in society or his wife grieving over Maguire, are so compelling that the mystery aspects of the book almost get in the way. The glimpses you get into the hearts of mind of these people really make this a unique and engaging book and are what you end up looking for as you read.
But to author’s credit he ramps up the stakes continually and the book is full of surprises that sustain the tension. The end is strong and satisfying. But what is best here is how Nickson uses Harper and the mystery genre to examine his protagonist’s internal conflicts. This is the compelling story of a man who is doing all he can to restore order in Leeds, the place he’s calls home for himself and his family.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars