Book review: Cold Cruel Winter, Chris Nickson

Cold Cruel Winter book coverThe second in Chris Nickson’s Richard Nottingham series of historical crime thrillers set in 18th century Leeds (the first of which was The Broken Token, which I reviewed earlier this year). Cold Cruel Winter takes a rather darker turn than the previous book in the series:

March 1732, and Leeds is suffering from the most brutal winter any can recall. The rolls of the dead grow longer, the wealthy hoard their money and power, and the poor struggle just to survive. Richard Nottingham, Constable of the City of Leeds, is lost in grief for the death of his daughter, taken by the bitter cold. But the discovery of a corpse of a wealthy wool merchant, his throat cut and the skin stripped from its back, drags him harshly into the present. Why would a killer want the man’s flesh? That’s what Nottingham can’t comprehend. But when he does discover the gruesome answer, it hurls him up against a killer determined to settle old scores. Even as winter claims more victims and Nottingham and his family try to piece together their shattered lives, the Constable and his men desperately chase a ruthless murderer.

Having thoroughly enjoyed the first book in this series, I was eager to see how the characters would develop in a further novel. As I mentioned in my review of The Broken Token, one of the things I really enjoyed about it was the interplay between Richard Nottingham and the supporting characters, such as his family and his deputy John Sedgwick. I was therefore pleased to see that the “supporting cast” gets plenty of development in Cold Cruel Winter. I was slightly disappointed to find that one of Nottingham’s daughters had been unceremoniously killed off before the opening chapter, but this did provide for plenty of opportunities to explore Nottingham and his wife’s relationship in the wake of their grief. My only small complaint was that the death of the elder daughter seemed to push Emily, the younger, rebellious daughter, who was such an interesting character in The Broken Token, much further into the background. She is described as having “lost her wilful ways” after her sister’s death, and at the end of the book we see Nottingham and his wife planning to send her off to work as a governess. While it isn’t suggested that Emily is unhappy with these plans, I couldn’t help but feel slightly outraged on her behalf.

This book also sees the character of Joshua Forester, the young cutpurse Nottingham took under his wing in The Broken Token, further developed and fleshed out. I really liked him as a character, and was glad that he was given a fairly prominent role in the story. His story is truly heartbreaking, and although I really hope we’ll see more of him in future books, the ending of Cold Cruel Winter leaves this somewhat in doubt.

As well as being an interesting and likeable character, Josh also acts as a device for exploring how the poor in Leeds lived, compared to the rich. This is a central theme of the book: the winter of the title is indeed cruel, and it is the desperate lives of those living in absolute poverty that are shown to be most greatly affected. And it is not just the winter that is cruel. Continuing a theme that was begun in the first book, Nickson illustrates the two-tiered system of justice in operation: where the murder of a powerful man is a top priority, but the killers of a poor Jewish peddlar are allowed to walk free because of family connections. Although the serial killer at the heart of this story is not portrayed in a sympathetic light, his story also centres around the gulf between the rich and the poor: he is a clerk from a poor background, motivated by revenge against the rich and the powerful that he perceives as having kept him from his just rewards.

At heart, this is a good,solid crime thriller, with plenty of gruesome details to keep the reader interested. Beyond that though, the period detail, social commentary and compelling characterisation lift it above what could have been a fairly bog-standard genre piece. I loved it, and can’t wait to start the third in the series!

Verdict: 4/5

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