Book Notes: At the Dying of the Year,’ by Chris Nickson
“At the Dying of the Year: A Richard Nottingham Mystery,” by Chris Nickson. Crème de la Crime; Sutton, Surrey, England, 2013.
I like an author who dedicates his book to his cat: “For August, the best cat.” In doing so, Chris Nickson sets up the expectation that there’s more to his murder mystery than death and detection. There’s the human factor.
And that’s exactly what we get — a cast of characters we come to know and like and root for both on the job and at home, where life isn’t easy.
In the bone-chilling days of early winter in Leeds, England, 1733, three homeless children are found at the bottom of a deep, dark pit. They’ve been molested, tortured and murdered. They are three of several who’ve been prey to one or two men with appetites for sadism.
The community expresses its horror by collecting money for a reward (which only complicates the murder investigation), by attacking people dressed like the killer, and by drowning their anxieties with tankards of ale in the local pubs and, then, erupting into fights that further tap the constable’s resources.
Constable Richard Nottingham, just returned after five months spent recuperating from a near-death knifing, must face off with a mayor more interested in maintaining the status quo than catching the killer. When Nottingham starts querying members of the wealthy business elite, the mayor tells him his days as constable are numbered. Deputy John Sedgwick and Rob Lister, who’s in love with Nottingham’s daughter, are loyal to their boss, Nottingham, and work tirelessly alongside him to track scant clues to their fruitless ends. They have only a couple of days before the ax falls on Nottingham. Up until the last couple of pages, we have no idea how the increasingly dire situation is going to get resolved.
Nottingham is a good mix of likable, vulnerable and assertive. He winces with every step as the painful wound continues to heal and as he continues to regrow his endurance. At the same time, he refuses to back down. At home, he supports his enlightened daughter’s desire to be her own woman. She will allow her relationship with young Lister to deepen, but marriage is out of the question. Nottingham makes it possible for the lovers to have time alone at the same time that he takes advantage of Lister’s skills on the job. At one point, he takes in a young homeless girl who can identify the killer. He gives her a job in his home to protect her from the fate of her homeless friends who were prey to the sadistic men.
Tragedy continues to befall Nottingham. He’s a Job-like character who functions despite mounting miseries. At one point, his wife counts 17 work-related wounds on his prematurely aging body. We hold our breath, hoping that he will survive another of Nickson’s Richard Nottingham mysteries.
The setting — Leeds 1733 — reveals people struggling amid crushing poverty, inadequate resources, hostile weather and few barriers against all of it. Their overcoats serve as their blankets. Hearth fires and the arms of loved ones are their only warmth. Bread, cheese and ale are their base sustenance. Death is commonplace but they are far from inured to it. They love passionately and wholly, even though they know the cost for this kind of affection is long and lonely grief. This, for me, is the core of the book. When death is untimely and violent, the community reaches out with its love and support — at least in Nickson’s version of 1733 life in England. The detached and wealthy businessman suspected of the violent crimes, on the other hand, has no capacity for love or compassion.
Not all wealthy are bad. Nor is this a black-and-white story. It is short but nuanced, with good men contemplating bad deeds in order to find the justice the mayor inhibits. The ending, just like the dedication to the cat, comes from the heart.
Rae Padilla Francoeur’s memoir, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” is available online or in bookstores. Write her at email@example.com. Or read her blog at http://www.freefallrae.blogspot.com/ or follow her @RaeAF.