Back in 2002 I was about to have my first book of fiction published, a collection of three novellas all set in Yorkshire. One was based in my own village of Gomersal, another in Leeds, whilst the third ventured as far as Scarborough, just to show how cosmopolitan the writing was.
The editor at 4th Estate suggested that I might set the third story in the south of England, rather than Scarborough, just to make one of the locations more recognisable to more readers. And in that pompous way that writers have when they’re just setting out, I emailed back saying that no one questions Paul Auster when he sets his stories in particular neighbourhoods of Manhattan…
In the end, after my pomposity had receded, I agreed to set a scene in a hotel in Margate. Yet as a general issue, the idea persists that you should set your stories somewhere known to a lot of readers. Now, personally, I can do without any more novels about London, but I guess the advice is sound on the whole.
Crime writing is a bit different. Writers often base their novels in a specific place, and become identified with that city or area. Ian Rankin (Edinburgh), Peter James (Brighton), John Harvey (Nottingham), Peter Robinson (North Yorkshire), Ann Cleeves Northumberland, Shetlands), Nick Quantril (Hull). The new wave of self-published writers has continued this tradition: Kerry Wilkinson (Manchester), Bill Rogers (Manchester), Mel Sherratt (Stoke)…
The setting for these books become part of the works themselves, almost characters in the fiction. When you open a new novel by one of these writers, you sink back into the familiar atmosphere of a familiar place, just as you reacquaint yourself with the main character.
Looking back at that (very incomplete) list, there’s a lot of northern towns and cities. Whereas ‘literary’ fiction is often associated with the south, especially London, the same cannot be said of crime writing, where both Tartan and Northern Noir are squarely on the map.
Except for Leeds. England’s third largest city (after Birmingham and London) is more or less absent from the list. Sure, there’s David Peace. But his novels, for some reason, don’t resonate with the city in the same way as Ian Rankin’s do of Edinburgh. We do have Kate Atkinson’s STARTED EARLY, TOOK MY DOG there, but apart from that, Leeds really lacks a major presence in crime writing. Which is strange, because rival city Manchester is bursting with crime fiction, so much that at any moment we might expect the city’s Tourism Office to take out ads in the national press reminding people that this is fiction, and that Deansgate and Peter Street are not in fact littered with bleeding corpses.
A couple of years ago I wrote my first crime thriller, and decided to set it in Leeds. As part of the research for the book, I contacted the West Yorkshire Police, explained who I was, and was allocated an official contact on the city’s CID. I asked him what it was like working on serious crime in Leeds. The best place! he said, grinning. He went on to tell me how interesting and varied crime was in the city, and that for a CID officer there was no better posting.
I started to realise that Leeds was in fact perfect for crime fiction. It is large, with a varied economy and a rich social mix. There’s the broad swathe of 1960s social housing to the north of the city, which at one point included Quarry Hill, at the time the largest social housing project in the UK. Then, just a few miles further out are the millionaires’ residences and golf clubs of the city’s rich folk, many of whom are extremely rich, and absolutely fair game for any fictional criminal…
Leeds also has a long history of immigration, with a number of very well established ethnic communities. For example, when young Polish immigrants began to arrive in the city in recents years, they found the remnants of an earlier wave of Polish immigration, including social centres.
Then, inevitably, there’s the Ripper. The hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper was coordinated from Millgarth Police Station in Leeds city centre. It was a watershed in British policing, and showed how inadequate the investigative practices of the time were; at one point, the floor in Millgarth used to store the huge card index system for the Ripper inquiry had to be reinforced, since it was threatening to bring down the whole building.
A direct consequence of this was the HOLMES nation database, which figures in most police procedural novels these days, since all serious crime is entered into its vast digital store. Every police officer I have talked from the city to carries the Ripper investigation deep in their psyche, part of the DNA of policing there.
To say Leeds could be the new Edinburgh is not stretching the imagination. And given that the Harrogate Festival is just a bus ride away (OK, a short drive in your BMW), it seemed a good place to celebrate Leeds in all its (fictional) criminal glory. The Tartan lot may have had all the headlines up until now, but I think Northern Noir is ripe for a surge, with Leeds at the helm. I’m doing my bit, with a series set right in Leeds city centre. I don’t know to what extent this is a risk, but when the first novel came out, last year, a blogger from Australia not only reviewed the book, but wrote a piece about the city itself.
So, if you’re looking for a new destination in your crime reading, give Leeds a try. The streets are not littered with bleeding corpses just yet, but I’m doing my best.
John Barlow’s second novel set in Leeds, FATHER AND SON, is out now on Amazon.