The Tin God by Chris Nickson
Tom Harper series
When Superintendent Tom Harper’s wife is threatened during an election campaign, the hunt for the attacker turns personal.
Leeds, England. October, 1897. Superintendent Harper is proud of his wife Annabelle. She’s one of seven women selected to stand for election as a Poor Law Guardian. But even as the campaign begins, Annabelle and the other female candidates start to receive anonymous letters from someone who believes a woman’s place lies firmly in the home.
The threats escalate into outright violence when an explosion rips through the church hall where Annabelle is due to hold a meeting – with fatal consequences. The only piece of evidence Harper has is a scrap of paper left at the scene containing a fragment from an old folk song. But what is its significance?
As polling day approaches and the attacks increase in menace and intensity, Harper knows he’s in a race against time to uncover the culprit before more deaths follow. With the lives of his wife and daughter at risk, the political becomes cruelly personal …
Folk music, feminism and fire!
A recipe for historical fiction, with a political spin.
1897 – Leeds, England. Is the era and the setting for the latest Tom Harper mystery. The series is of the crime fiction genre, with great historical accuracy. Annabelle Harper is a firm favourite of mine as a character. She is courageous, honest and a deep thinker. She knows exactly how she wants to change the world. If she can just get herself into a position where she can make a difference. Within this novel she sets her sights on being an elected poor law guardian. Only not everyone is happy about it.
‘Tories and the Liberals were deriding the women for trying to rise above their normal station’
In Leeds seven women are getting prepared to stand for election as poor law guardian’s. They face aggressive opposition from all side of the political spectrum. The opposition is backed heavily by the newspapers and they become well aware it will be no easy victory. But they cannot have foreseen it would turn deadly. . .
‘A woman’s place is in the home, tending to her family and being a graceful loving presence, it is not to shriek in the hustings like a harridan or to display herself in front of the public like a painted whore. . .’
– Letter sent to all seven women.
The women begin to receive anonymous and threatening letters. Local journalist Gerald Hotchkiss writes opinion pieces, lecturing women on their role in society. What we would call in 2018 ‘mansplaining’. He warns the women they should be guided by their husbands, live modestly and look solely to the welfare of their family. Gerald is condescending, using religious reasoning to attempt to control women.
But Annabelle Harper won’t be controlled by anyone!
The novel also has scenes with Harper’s old police partner Billy Reed. He has relocated to the northern coastal town of Whitby. Currently on the case of potential smugglers.
Harper provides police protection for the women and places undercover officers at the future meetings, within the crowd. However, before the police can reach the meeting at St Clements, there’s an explosion that leaves a man dead. Has the person sending the anonymous notes upped their game?
The political dominance and threats continue as the surrounding influences attempt to silence the women. Harper realises not only does he have a tough case on his hands with little clues, he also has a wealth of potential perpetrators. He calls upon the local barracks to provide assistance, in sweeping future meeting places for explosives. Will the bomber strike again?
Despite the terrifying threats Annabelle refuses to stand down.
‘I want to help the poor, not vilify them. They’re not outcasts. They haven’t sinned. They’re us. And that’s why I’d appreciate your vote, so I can do that. Thank you’
Vote Annabelle Harper for poor law guardian
Harper finds some notepaper at the scene of the explosion, some simple song lyrics scribbled down. But what does it mean? He requests the help of local music expert Frank Kidson, to decipher the lyrics and help with the creation of a profile, of sorts.
When one of the candidates is attacked by the railway and threatened with rape. Harper realises that it all just got a lot more sinister. What started has simple opposition has developed into political warfare. Harper has deep concerns for Annabelle’s safety. Across Leeds Annabelle continues to whoo the crowds, she has a determination like no other.
Annabelle speaks with conviction, she seeks to humanise the way the poor are treated. Offering a dignified, respectful future with better quality of life. What will her enemies make of her progressive ideas for the future of Leeds?
The novel is very well researched, the era of politics and women’s rights really draws you into the story. Annabelle is such a great fictional ambassador for women. You can really get a sense for the real-life Annabelle Harper’s who would go on to inspire a generation of women. Which would ultimately fuel and evoke a passion in women, long into the future.
The novel raises many thought-provoking questions regarding women’s liberation and the political oppression the women faced. I think this novel would be ideal for book groups. But I could also see how it could assist the younger generation. The Tin God could create great debate in GCSE English lessons or history class. The emotions of the era are portrayed so well on the page.
A fabulous historical fiction crime read. 5*
Q) For the readers, can you give us a little bit of background behind the inspiration for this novel?
A) It was sparked by a suggestion from a friend, a suffrage historian, who suggested Annabelle should run for office. With that, it all clicked into place. I love Annabelle, she’s the soul of the series, to the point where I honestly think of her as a real person, and I wanted to be able to bring her more into a book, but do it organically, so this was perfect. And the law changed in 1894 so that the working-classes, both men and women could vote in some local elections and run for office – essentially the first steps of the system we have now, and it was one person, one vote. So it all made perfect sense, and Tom and Annabelle’s story is largely the same tale in this. Interestingly, the historian who made the suggestion is curating an exhibition called The Vote Before The Vote which will run all May at Leeds Central Library, celebrating the Victorian Leeds women who battled for equality and the vote well before the Suffragettes. The ‘official’ launch for The Tin God is part of that exhibition, and we’re melding fact and fiction by giving Annabelle her own board as part of the exhibition. She’s become a Leeds Victorian icon, and I’m incredibly proud of that.
Q) Annabelle Harper, although a secondary character in this series. Is firmly one of my favourites, as is Lottie Armstrong. What drives you to write female characters that embody the feminism movement in the differing era’s?
A) I’m not sure anything specific drives me to that. I was raised by a strong woman, I’ve been in relationships with strong women. The world needs more of them! I write the characters that come to me, so I suppose those are the types I’m naturally drawn to describe, people I admire. Annabelle is quite daunting, really, she’s so able at everything she does. Lottie is different, quieter, but strong in her own way. They just feel right to me, that’s probably the best way I can describe it.
Q) To try and summarise this novel at the start of my review, I tried to think of three of the themes. I used Folk songs, feminism and fire. What words would you use to summarise this novel?
A) For me, justice and compassion are the important themes. Annabelle wants the poor to be treated fairly by a system that’s weighted against them. She wants justice – equality – for women. When the book takes place she’s been a suffrage speaker for four years, she’s been insulted and threatened. She stands up, not afraid to be counted.
Q) The poor law guardian’s, was a minor form of election in regard to women’s rights. But was a fundamental part of the journey. Can you expand further, why the moral dilemma of the poor would strike so deeply within Annabelle?
A) It was a huge part of it, women being able to run for some offices and vote for them was a massive leap forward. One of the first women elected as a Poor Law Guardian in Leeds in 1894 was a coal miner’s wife. That’s a huge slap at the establishment. For Annabelle, who grew up in an Irish immigrant family in the poorest part of Leeds and lives and works in a working-class area, poverty is everywhere. She’s known it all her life, she’s worked in a mill and as a servant. As a pub landlady, she has money and influence now, but she sees the effect of having no money and the spectre of the workhouse every day.
Q) In my review I mention the novel’s potential use within the education system. My own teenage daughter is very well read on the topic of women’s rights and the various, current political systems. With young adults becoming more and more invested in politics and their desire to re-write history in some respects. Do you see novels with these themes appealing to the YA readers?
A) Honestly, I’d never thought about that, and I’m flattered you think it might. I’d be very gratified if some political historical fiction did make classroom discussions. But right now, I think the older generation has more to learn from the young than the other way round. During the last election, when Corbyn spoke in Leeds, in a student area, he drew 3,000 people most of them young. They’re tired of a system that excludes them. The young people in Florida are a shining example. They’ve grown up always knowing school shootings and they’re saying enough to the old white men who run things. Change is rumbling, and hopefully the activist will remain more deeply-rooted than it did in the 1960s. My own generation has mostly failed, I admire the young and I hope they succeed.
Q) What is next for Tom and Annabelle Harper?
A) Well, I’m just revising the next Tom Harper book, which is quite different to this one, although Annabelle does play a part, albeit a much smaller one.
That’s probably as much as I should say about that…
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