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Recent review

The Scream of Sins’ by Chris Nickson
Published by Severn House,
5 Marsh 2024.
ISBN: 978
-1-4483-1290-0 HB)

The story is set in Leeds in October 1824. Thief taker Simon Westow has always been aware of the divisions between the wealthy and powerful and the helpless suffering of the poor. Every day as he goes about his work, he sees the children who are struggling to survive on the cold and grim streets of Leeds. Simon can only be glad that he has risen from the poverty of the workhouse to a position where he and his wife, Rosie, have a comfortable home and he can employ a tutor for their two sons so that they can have better prospects than he did. However, he is always aware that one false step could result in him angering somebody with the power to bend the Law and all he has worked for could be wrenched from him.

Another person who has risen from living on the streets is Simon’s assistant, Jane, a young woman who can blend into her surroundings so that she becomes invisible and is swift and deadly with her knife, which she sharpens every day before she goes out. After years of not allowing anybody into her life, even when she was living in Simon and Rosie’s house, Jane is now living with kind Mrs Shields who has taught her how to read and write. Despite Jane’s bitter, self-contained and angry personality, she has learned how to love the frail old lady and is happy care for her, although sometimes their roles are reversed, and Mrs Shields has to tend Jane when she has been injured. Jane has discovered the empowerment that reading and writing has given her and revels in the joy of losing herself in a fictional world. Jane knows how much she owes Simon for enabling her to make her new life and will always help him if he asks for her assistance. However, she has not forgiven Simon for preventing her from killing a man who had wronged her, and a gulf has grown between them, even though she knows he did it to prevent her from being arrested and executed for murder.

When Simon is summoned to meet an unknown client in a remote location, he goes fully armed, aware that it could be a trap, but the person who meets him is the wealthy and influential Captain Holcomb who wishes to employ him to recover some papers that one of their maids has stolen from his house before she ran away. Simon thinks this is odd, as the maid is unlikely to be able to read and will be unaware of any value the papers may have. Captain Holcomb is annoyingly non-committal about the papers’ contents although he admits they were written by his late father, a magistrate hated for his cruel treatment of poor people whom he considered were not staying in their suitably subservient situations. Despite this lack of information, Simon agrees to work on retrieving the papers. However, as he investigates, violent deaths occur and Simon has to tread carefully, caught between the demands of his client and those of Constable Porter. Soon Simon’s search for the papers is driven by his belief that those who have been murdered deserve justice even if they are poor and powerless.

Although Jane helps Simon with his investigation, she has another even darker matter to look into. She discovers that men are kidnapping very young girls from respectable homes and selling them to other men who are wealthy and outwardly respectable. Any girls who are too old to meet the predators’ requirements are thrown onto the streets where they lack any of the street urchins’ ability to survive. This is a crime that unites Jane, Rosie, Simon, Constable Porter and an untried new helper, and they are determined to save the lost children if they can and get justice for them, although they know it could cost them all they have, even their lives.

The Scream of Sins is the sixth book in the series featuring Simon Westow and his team of thief takers. It is a dark and deeply disturbing evocation of the lives of the poor in nineteenth century Leeds. What has happened to the abducted girls is appalling but equally cruel is the number of small children who struggle to live on the streets, possessing no hope or any ambition other than to survive. The characters are an engaging mixture of ruthlessness, courage and integrity; the plot is fascinating, and the historical atmosphere is superbly depicted. This is moving and exciting novel which I wholeheartedly recommend.
Reviewer: Carol Westron

Signed first editions available from Goldboro Books