Book review: Fair and Tender Ladies, Chris Nickson

Fair and Tender Ladies book coverRegular readers of this blog (both of you! 😉 ) will know that I am a big fan of Chris Nickson’s Richard Nottingham novels, a series of historical crime novels set in 18th century Leeds. Fair and Tender Ladies, the sixth (and, apparently, final! Boo 😦 ) book in the series, continues the winning combination of strong characters, plenty of historical detail, a genuine love of Leeds and its history, and a gripping plot.

1734. When a young country lad comes looking for his sister who’s run away to Leeds, Constable Richard Nottingham isn’t optimistic; too many girls come seeking their fortune. But before a day has passed the young man is found dead, his throat cut. Who could have wanted him dead?

The Leeds Nottingham knows is changing. Someone is vandalising the charity school his daughter has founded. There are plans to reopen the workhouse. And Tom Finer, a criminal who vanished years before, has returned.

Then the girl the young man came seeking is dragged from the river, drowned. Nottingham, John Sedgwick and Rob Lister find themselves investigating killings where nothing is as it seems.

Warning: spoilers for previous books in the series.

Fair and Tender Ladies takes a more sombre, reflective tone than the previous books. His wife dead, the victim of a murderer Nottingham was trying to bring to justice, Nottingham is disillusioned with his job and considering retirement. His only remaining family is his daughter, Emily, who is being her usual kick-ass self by founding a charity school for poor girls. When the school is vandalised, and Emily starts getting death threats, it becomes clear that someone in the city objects to the daughters of the poor being educated – because, presumably, they should know their place, and that place doesn’t require an education.

I actually found this the most compelling plot line in the book, partly because I thought it was a rather timely reminder that people not wanting girls to be educated is still a thing that happens. It also made me think about some of my Mum’s stories from when she taught at a school in a particularly deprived area of Portsmouth. She always said that the thing that broke her heart the most was seeing bright, capable kids, who at one point had actually been excited about learning, have that gradually ground out of them by being continually told (by messages from society but also in many cases, sadly, being directly told this by their own families) that there was no point, they weren’t worth anything and weren’t going to achieve anything anyway, so school was just a waste of time. It was interesting to see this considered from an historical perspective – I would have loved to have seen more of this!

I knew when I started reading this that it was the last in the series (I say again, boo! 😦 ) so I wondered what kind of body count we’d see among the main characters. Nickson has proven himself to be willing to kill off beloved central characters in the previous books in this series, so I did wonder – would we see the end of Richard Nottingham in this book? Well, I won’t give that away! I will just say that there are deaths (of course, it’s a crime novel!), and that one in particular caught me completely off guard, with its shocking violence and utter senselessness. Once again, Nickson has really brought home the desperation of ordinary people’s lives during this period in history.

Although I am disappointed that there aren’t to be any more Richard Nottingham novels, I have to say this was a fitting end to the series. Not every loose end is tied up – and rightly so, I can’t stand it when writers try to be too neat about how everything ends (step forward, JK Rowling…) – but the characters that I’ve grown to know and care about over the course of six novels, and the Leeds that Nickson has conjured up so vividly, are given a satisfying conclusion.

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