At the Dying of the Year is the fifth book in Chris Nickson’s series of historical crime novels set in Leeds. I discovered this series last year, and am a bit of a fan – you can see all my previous reviews in the series here.
***WARNING: Contains mild spoilers for the previous books in the series***
I started my review of the previous book in the series, Come the Fear, by saying that it took “a darker turn” than the ones before it. Well, past-me, you ain’t seen nothing yet…
Leeds, 1733. Three children are found dead in a disused bell pit, their bodies battered and bruised, each of them stabbed through the heart. Fear, suspicion and violence tear at the city as Richard Nottingham, John Sedgwick and Rob Lister hunt a ruthless child-killer. The Constable is certain he knows who’s behind the murders, but his efforts to bring the killer to justice brings a blow that strikes right at his own heart.
Let me start by saying: my word, this book is bleak. Seriously bleak. If you like your historic crime nice and cosy and easily resolved, look elsewhere. From the start, it’s pretty clear that this book is showing us a more vulnerable side to Richard Nottingham, Constable of Leeds: whereas in previous books he’s always seemed pretty much in control, in this book you get a real sense of a man whose world is slipping away from him. Having been almost fatally stabbed at the end of the previous book, At the Dying of the Year sees him return to work, weakened and feeling his age, to be immediately confronted with several horrifically murdered children, and a murderer who may be beyond the reach of justice.
All the books in this series deal with the enormous gulf between the wealthy and the desperately poor at the time, but it is in this book that this division is emphasised most strongly. The poor are literally powerless, while the rich do as they please. It is also brought home just how precarious the Constable’s position is: as a man from a poor background, employed at the discretion of a mayor whose main priority will always be keeping the wealthy merchants of the city happy, his livelihood depends on pleasing those in power. If his job brings him into conflict with them, where can he turn?
This was a tough book to read. Without wanting to give any of the story away, Nottingham’s pursuit of the powerful comes at an incredibly high personal cost – leading to some things that really cut very close to the bone for me. However, I think it’s my favourite of the series so far. It’s harsh, and brutal, and doesn’t offer any easy answers, but I rather like that in a book!
Fortunately, it isn’t all unrelenting bleakness. Once again, Nickson’s rich cast of supporting characters do a wonderful job of fleshing out Nottingham’s world. I liked the passages featuring deputy John Sedgwick and his family, but mainly I loved everything about Nottingham’s daughter, Emily. She’s always been one of my favourite characters, and I was delighted to see more of her in this book! There’s a particularly lovely scene where she is at dinner with Rob Lister and his father, who’d previously voiced his disapproval of their courtship because of Emily and Nottingham’s impoverished background. Again, I don’t want to give too many details away, but this scene had me doing proper cheers in my head (only in my head, I was reading on the train!)
Nottingham’s relationship with his daughter is explored a little further in this book, leading to some lovely scenes between the two of them. I did think though that Nottingham seems a very liberal parent for the time – would a father at that period of history really have been so unconcerned that his daughter was “carrying on” with a man she’s been quite clear she has no intention of marrying?
This series just keeps getting better and better. If you haven’t read any of them so far, I would urge you to give this one a go – although I think starting from the first in the series is definitely the best way to read them all!