Leeds, 1820. Simon Westow, a Leeds thief-taker, knows all about lost property. But when he is asked to find the kidnapped daughter of a successful Leeds businessman, Simon and his assistant, Jane, face a challenge like no other. Could the answers lie within the streets of Leeds and a figure from Simon’s own past?
Ahead of its US release date, there have been some fantastic reviews in for this first in a new series!
Bestselling writer Joanne Harris has described it as being ‘beautifully balanced between suspense and action’, while Publishers Weekly lauds Simon as a ‘welcome contrast to such aristocratic Regency sleuths as C.S. Harris’s Sebastian St. Cyr’.
The extract below is from the start of the book, where Simon recalls his childhood in the brutal workhouse – a dark moment, but one that gives us a insight into his incredible resilience.
They were grave men. Sober men, neat in their black coats, white stocks snowy and clean, tied tight at the neck. Important people, businessmen and landowners. Men who believed that wealth and position gave them a heavensent command of life. Three of them together at the carefully polished table, papers arranged in piles before them. The one in the middle spoke.
‘Your name is Simon Westow. Is that correct?’
He waited for a moment before he answered. Let them look at me, he thought. Let them see me.
‘How old are you?’
‘Thirty in July. If I was told the truth.’ He wasn’t about to call them sir. If they wanted his respect, let them bloody earn it.
‘You were in the workhouse, I believe?’ The man kept his voice even, glancing at the sheet he held.
‘I went there when I was four, after my parents died. There was no one else to take me in.’ He could hear the scratch of a pen as the clerk in the corner took down his answers.
‘How did they treat you? When did they put you out to work?’
‘Are you really sure you want to know that?’
That made them stop. Just for a second. But he had their attention. The man behind the desk gave a condescending smile.
‘Of course we do. That’s the purpose of this commission and these questions. Our intention is to find out about child labour.’ A slight pause. ‘But you must know that. I understand it was made perfectly clear to you.’
Oh yes, he thought. Perfectly.
‘They set us on at the mill when we were six, and let the manufactories do their worst.’
‘Their worst?’ He laid a soft emphasis on the word. ‘And what might that be? Were you beaten often?’
‘We were,’ Simon told him. ‘Boys and girls alike.’
The man looked down and shuffled a few of his papers.
‘More than once the overseer made us take off our shirts, climb into one of the bins on the floor, and he’d hit us with his stick until we were bloody.’ He let his words remain steady as the memories raged through his mind. The facts could speak loudly enough.
‘I see. What else?’
‘They’d tie a two-stone weight to our backs and make us work. Two of them for the bigger lads. They said it would make us strong so we’d be able to work harder.’
They looked a little uncomfortable now, all of them shifting on their seats. Good.
‘There was one boy who could never do his job fast enough,’ Simon said. ‘He tried, but he couldn’t manage it. Every week the overseer hung him from a beam by his wrists and used a strap on his back to try and teach him a lesson.’
‘Did he improve?’
‘He died. He was seven years old.’
The men were staring now. The clerk had stopped his writing. The only sound in the room was the soft tick of the longclock. But he hadn’t finished yet.
‘Once they took a pair of vises, and screwed one to each of my ears. Then they had me work half the day with them in place.’
The man grimaced. ‘Why would they do that? How could it improve you?’
‘It was for their own amusement. I still have the scars.’
But they wouldn’t want to see, he knew that. He’d leave this room and they’d try to forget everything he told them. Maybe it would return in their dreams tonight. Every night to come. Exactly the way it had for him for years after it was over.
‘Don’t you want to know where it happened?’ Simon asked. ‘Don’t you want the name of the mills and their owners?’
The man shook his head. ‘That’s not part of this inquiry. We’re here to discover facts, not blame people for things that happened in the past.’ His voice changed, becoming oilier, trying to appease. ‘How long did you work there?’
‘Until I was thirteen. Seven years.’
‘Thank you, Mr Westow.’
He stood, back straight, and walked to the door. A final question made him turn.
‘What is your occupation now?’
He stared at them. ‘I’m a thief-taker.’
THE HANGING PSALM is out now in the UK and is available from 1 January in the US. Find out more here.