Published by Severn House,
20 September 2019.
ISBN: 978-0-7278-8935-5 (HB)
Life for the poor in 19th century Britain is never easy and often dangerous. This is a fact that Simon Westow knows from personal experience. He was raised in the workhouse until he ran away and scraped out a meagre existence on the streets. During those years, he would not have survived if it had not been for the kindness of people upon whom he had no claim. Chief amongst these were Davey and Emily Ashton who took him in when he was hungry, and the weather was harsh. Emily fed his body and offered him a warm place to sleep, while Davey fed his mind, teaching him to read and how to think things through. Now, maintained by his work as a thief taker, Simon has a wife, children and home of his own, and he has never forgotten what he owes to Davey and Emily.
The book is set in Leeds, 1822, at a time of civil unrest, when those in power are afraid of the common people. All over the country, arrests of ordinary people are taking place because they are suspected of sedition. In Leeds Davey Ashton is arrested, by the order of Curzon, a self-serving magistrate, aided by his newly acquired and violent bodyguard, Whittaker. Simon is determined to save Davey, even though it means taking on the power of the Government. He discovers that there is a spy for the Government working in the north of England, fermenting trouble and then pointing out as traitors the men he has stirred into unwise speech, and eventually giving evidence against them. Simon plans to identify and locate the spy and force him to withdraw his claim that Davey is a traitor, but as he probes deeper, he realises that he has discovered a separate and equally dangerous plot.
Despite his preoccupation with saving Davey, Simon still has to work in order to make money. In the days before a regular police force had been established throughout the country, the thief taker’s role was to locate and retrieve stolen valuables and bring the thief to justice. One of the jobs that Simon has undertaken is to retrieve a ring stolen from a wealthy man by a hocus girl, a young woman who picks up men, drugs them and steals their possessions. Simon is good at his job and, when dealing with criminals, has a great asset in his assistant, Jane, a young girl who has had a hideous early life, which has taught her to trust nobody. Jane is ruthless and deadly with a knife, and she is especially skilled at following people without being detected. It is Jane who locates the hocus girl and retrieves the ring but then the tables turn and Jane realises that the hocus girl is following her, apparently intent on stealing the money Jane has saved and hidden, money that she has never told anybody about. Is the hocus girl working alone or is somebody else behind her attempts to steal Jane’s money? Simon and Jane, aided by Simon’s wife, Rosie, have to use all of their skills, both as investigators and fighters, in order to survive the threats of their vicious and ruthless enemies.
The Hocus Girl is the second book in the series featuring Simon Westow, and it is unusual for historical crime fiction set in the Regency period because it features a working class, early 19th century detective who lives in a violent, dangerous society. The plot is fast paced and intricate, the characters are realistic and engaging, and the historical detail believable. Above all it portrays the helplessness and paralysing fear that ordinary people feel when they are trapped in a situation in which ruthless, self-serving political power crushes human rights. This book is an exciting and powerful read, which I enjoyed and recommend.
Reviewer: Carol Westron
Chris Nickson was born and raised in Leeds. He is the author of the Richard Nottingham books, historical mysteries set in Leeds in the 1730s and featuring Richard Nottingham, the Constable of the city, and his deputy, John Sedgwick. The books are about more than murder. They're about the people of Leeds and the way life was - which mean full of grinding poverty for all but the wealthy. They're also about families, Nottingham and his and Sedgwick, and the way relationships grow and change, as well as the politics, when there was one law for the rich, and another, much more brutal, for everyone else. In addition to this Chris is also a music journalist, reviewing for magazines and online outlets