Review – Gods of Gold
by Chris Nickson
Reviewed by Iain Dalton
Gods of Gold is a mystery fiction taking its title from the words of Leeds socialist, Tom Maguire’s ‘A New Nursery Rhyme’. Its backdrop – the magnificent 1890 Leeds Gas Workers strike which shook the city and in which Maguire was a key leader.
The novel follows a young detective inspector, Tom Harper, who is examining the case of a young missing girl from a troubled family, when the whole police force is mobilised to ‘keep order’ during the strike. As the dispute goes on and the conflict between the gas workers and the council intensifies, the murder of a scab has suspicious links to the girl’s disappearance.
Chris Nickson, does a great job is recreating the atmosphere of the strike. Details such as the huge confrontation as scabs were under armed escort from the city centre to a gas works and the duplicity of the council’s gas committee in lying to these scabs as to what they were there for.
Nickson also skilfully captures the atomosphere of Leeds of the19th Century, with its slum housing and courts and the domination of the city by the tailoring trades at this time. Occasionally, you may find yourself reaching for a dictionary to work out what things like an ‘omnibus’ are (a horse drawn enclosed bus – 19th century public transport), but the detail just adds to the immersion.
The plot toys with the tensions between Harper’s sympathy with the strikes and his role within the police, there to protect the better classes – both for Harper internally, and his relationship with suspects and witnesses as he attempts to pursue his investigation. Harper working class background leads to natural sympathies with the strikers, which clashes with his superiors in the police force, in particular his apathy towards the scabs.
On the otherhand, there is a distance between Harper and many ordinary people he comes into contact with. At one point Harper is instructed to find out whether a union man killed the scab, when he intimates to Maguire that the workers physically attempting to stop scabs entering the gas works may look bad in the press, Maguire responds “Come on Inspector. When does the press ever treat the working man fairly? We’re already scum to them…”
Further interesting moments come during scenes where a suspect dies in police custody after being roughed up by one of Harper’s colleagues. Whilst the officer isn’t ultimately responsible for the death, we do see the police sweeping the issue under the carpet. Yet this is not the only issue around questions of policing the book attempts to tackle that wouldn’t look out of place in a novel set in 2015.
There is a little bit of artistic license, both with Maguire’s relationship with the main character and the murder of a member of the gas committee, the latter leading to intrigue and corruption creating a story that is much more topical than perhaps the author may have thought when he was writing. To say more, would ruin the shocking conclusion, and I would rather save that for the reader to discover themselves.