Spirit of the North

Spirit of the North

Rated 5.0 out of 5
5.0 out of 5 stars (based on 12 reviews)

Tom Catlow and William Melling’s latest adventure leads them to investigate a Victorian cold case.

Spirit of the North

Spirit of the North

Rated 5.0 out of 5
5.0 out of 5 stars (based on 12 reviews)

‘This is the kind of book that one can get immersed in while sitting in front of a fireplace on a cold day with a nice glass of wine.’

Set in Lancashire, the province of ‘superstition and rain’,  the realm of witches and boggarts, mediums and spirit guides, Tom Catlow and William Melling’s latest adventure leads them to investigate a Victorian cold case. 

Shimmering with séances and ethereal manifestations, Ian Thomson’s latest page-turner takes the childhood friends beyond the veil and into the spirit world in a novel rich and evocative of time and place.

A Blackburn Trilogy

An Extract from Spirit of the North

MY GRANDMOTHER SAID she had seen a red Indian chief come floating out of the full length mirror of her ward- robe. He wore warpaint and a headdress bristling with feathers of many colours. Around his neck were strings of beautiful beads. He seemed to give off his own light, and his red skin was shiny and the muscles of his arms were powerful. 

‘Weren’t you scared?’ I said. 

‘Nay lad,’ she said. ‘There were no cause to be frit. I’ve never felt so safe in all my days. He was my protector, my spirit guide. His name was Blood Moon.’ 

I couldn’t say whether I believed her or not at the time. I was probably only six or seven. I think I believed her as I believed in Jesus and Father Christmas, taking their existence for granted whilst having doubts at one and the same time. I remember being glad that there was no mirror in my parents’ wardrobe at home. 

I liked going to Grandma’s house because she spoilt me rotten. She lived on Hope Street, off the top of Montague Street. Mum used to drop me off there for a whole day a couple of times a month. 

‘It’s nice to have a break once in a while,’ she would say. ‘He’s no bother, only he never stops talking.’ 

Gran used to call me Little Tommy Tittlemouse be- cause my name is Thomas and I was such a chatterbox. She would sing to me: 

Little Tommy Tittlemouse

Lived in a little house;

He caught fishes

In other men’s ditches. 

I was full of questions. ‘What’s this, Grandma?’ And ‘What’s that, Grandma?’ and she would often reply with ‘it’s a layore to catch meddlers’. I would ask what it meant, but she would just tap her nose and say nothing. I still don’t know. Blackburn friends of my own age re- member the expression, but nobody can tell me what it means, or where it comes from. I’ve tried Googling it, and there are a number of variants suggested, but no satisfying answers. 

‘What’s for dinner?’ I would ask. 

‘A doll and a drum and a kick up the bum,’ she would say. 

‘What’s for afters?’

‘Wait-and-see pudding.’

I would get so frustrated at her evasions that I would throw a cushion at her. There were cushions all over the house with covers she’d knitted, crocheted or embroidered. 

She would throw one back at me, and a full- blown cushion fight would follow, until she collapsed wheezing with laughter into her armchair by the range. Then I would climb onto her lap and snuggle into her ample bosom and she would tickle me until I screamed at her to stop. 

Book of Month Award

Winner: Book of the Month Award

Cover image (copyright pending) with thanks to Blackburn with Darwen Library and Information Service.


Ian Thomson was educated at QEGS, Blackburn, and at Downing College, Cambridge. 

He lives in exile in Lincoln.

Other Books in the Blackburn Trilogy

A Blackburn Trilogy

The Northern Elements

Northern Flames

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Reviews for Spirit of the North

Brilliant read

Rated 5.0 out of 5
Sunday, 7 April, 2024

Ian Thomson I don’t know if you remember but I sent you a message last year to ask where I could access your books. You very kindly replied & I thought I would see if it was possible for our local bookshop to obtain them.

Well he did, and I thoroughly enjoyed them

Brilliant read, took me straight back to my childhood & the mischief we got up to. ( not that we murdered anyone)

I am now going to see which others he can obtain.

BTW very impressed with the quality of the paper they are printed on.

Best wishes.

Hannah Walmsley

Absorbing and authentic

Rated 5.0 out of 5
Friday, 8 December, 2023

As Winter approaches, Spirit of the North represents a wonderfully absorbing and yet strangely comforting read on dark, chilly evenings. It builds successfully on the strengths of The Northern Elements and Northern Flames and to anyone raised in this part of East Lancashire, as I was, conjures up a host of memories. Corporation Park and the upmarket residences of East and West Park Roads are vividly portrayed, as are the dynamics of ‘upstairs, downstairs’ in the late 1800s together with the churches, meeting houses and pubs of downtown Blackburn. The novel has humour and pathos in abundance and straddles the years with an authentic grasp of character, place, language and custom. Whilst simply a cold case revisited, the focus on mysticism and the spiritual world, out of curiosity, draws the reader into the life and times of Cornelius Pickup and his family and raises many questions about the nature of any afterlife. One’s empathy for his situation makes the final betrayal all the more shocking. Spirit of the North is well researched and true to this gritty and yet endearing corner of NW England. But, then again, perhaps I’m biassed.

Dave Woods


Rated 5.0 out of 5
Thursday, 7 September, 2023

Brought back so many memories.



Rated 5.0 out of 5
Saturday, 24 June, 2023

A sophisticated murder mystery stretching over a hundred years. It is cleverly constructed and closely observed. Emotionally it ranges from very funny to shocking and heart-breaking. The way in which the writer describes seances and other manifestations of the occult is gripping and demonstrates impressive research. Such an absorbing read that I finished it in two sittings.


Love, love, love these books.

Rated 5.0 out of 5
Sunday, 21 May, 2023

The Northern Trilogy books are dark, light, entertaining, humorous with great mystery twisteries. Mostly set in and around Blackburn…they bring back lots of happy childhood memories including the Lancashire dialect and great humour. Loved them all.


Another successful addition to the collection

Rated 5.0 out of 5
Saturday, 13 May, 2023

This is the 3rd book in this collection and I think the best so far. Ian’s local knowledge evokes many memories of growing up in Blackburn. His research for this story and his knowledge of Victorian terminology is fantastic.


One knock for yes

Rated 5.0 out of 5
Saturday, 13 May, 2023

Ian Thomson’s Northern Trilogy (beginning with The Northern Elements and Northern Flames) weaves history, nostalgia, and autobiography into highly engaging and thought-provoking tales. Spirit of the North is no different in that, but it is different.

The plot looks at three episodes of spiritualism, two relatively harmless, and one with serious consequences. While the first two are reminiscent of Agatha Christiesque table-turning, the third involves murder. This is the one that leads to a serious investigation by Tom Catlow with his childhood friend, Will Melling, playing Watson. Readers met these two mischievous friends in The Northern Elements. Tom is a retired police Senior Scientific Officer (Forensics) and Will a former sports journalist. Now to fill their time, Tom and Will investigate another very old case while continuing their friendship with teasing and banter.

The third main character is long-dead. Cornelius Pickup, was a successful businessman, kind employer, and loving husband and father. He rises to become prominent in Blackburn and in his church, until, Job-like, he is beset with a series of events that transform his life. It is his diary from 1875 until his death in 1892 that forms most of the second half of the book.

Following contemporary records and site visits, Tom and Will assemble the curious clues, venture into the Victorian spirit world and uncover some more earthly deceptions.

Not to diminish the achievement of his other novels, Thomson seems to be truly in his milieu in Spirit of the North. The writing is more confident and assured, and the command of this themes more accomplished. He is with people he likes and in a place he loves. What must have been painstaking research is made to look effortless, and the writing is everything we have come to expect. It is the allusions, in-jokes, wordplay and characteristic erudite vocabulary (that sent me to the dictionary) that raises this murder mystery to a different level.

Along with the local and period history – all of which is nicely observed and subtly conveyed – are the characteristic themes (cited above), but this time there is a new element of ritual. Calling it “religion” gives what we find in Spirit of the North too much precision, and these presentations of the spiritual – in both senses – are never preachy. Rather, there is the suggestion of an underlying need for a spiritual foundation to life. There are many references to religion, quotes from hymns, religious beliefs and practices as well as to their effect in underpinning individual lives, and, by implication, society as a whole. I don’t want to make too much of this lest some readers be put off, but it is undeniably, if quietly, there and enriches the book.

As with a good bowl of Lancashire hotpot, the temptation is to devour Spirit of the North too quickly when each bit should be savoured. At least it’s possible to go back for seconds.


Yet another great book by this wonderful author

Rated 5.0 out of 5
Saturday, 13 May, 2023

Just finished this book on my holidays and really enjoyed it! A great addition to Ian Thomson’s wonderful series of novels set around Blackburn in days gone by. Well written and often with humour and pathos! I will eagerly await his next novel!

Mr Gordon Walker

From the Light to the Dark

Rated 5.0 out of 5
Thursday, 11 May, 2023

Ian Thomson’s new novel The Spirit of the North finds him exploring his beloved East Lancashire once more. But it is not just the Lancashire of the here and now, as he moves easily from the present to the past, from the light to the dark. From the material world to the world of séances, in different times and different locations. Thomson manages these shifts with an assurance which his regular readers will recognise

What is ‘The Spirit of the North’? It takes several forms. It is firstly outlined in the easygoing and relaxed relationships between the narrator, Tom Catlow, his wife, Ruth, and Tom’s old friend Will Melling. These three characters know and trust each other’s judgement. Their spirit emerges in the characteristic va et vient of local badinage as they get closer to solving the mystery of Wastwater House, a warmth inseparable from the character of so many Blackburnians. Then there are the Spirits associated with séances, the souls of those ‘on the other side’ who may communicate with the living. The servant, Mary Ann Duxbury, who claims to possess ‘the gift’ reminds the reader of Rosanna Spearman in The Moonstone. The sceptical Hotspur, quoted in the epigraph to Part One, puts us on our guard when crediting this sort of spirit. And then there is Cornelius Pickup who embodies that urgent, thrusting spirit of the nineteenth-century Northern manufacturer – a civic worthy, a pillar of the community. His tragic tale forms the second half of the novel; his solid, prosperous world is turned upside down, as his confidence is assaulted by personal misfortune and betrayal.

Thomson well conveys the feeling of several, markedly different, times and places, interiors real and metaphysical. The front room of Tom Catlow’s grandmother, harking back to the late forties of the previous century, embodies a sense of domestic order, good plain food, and well-being. Grandma is the first medium we encounter, and she takes the spirit world in her stride. Much of the second half of the novel is centred on Wastwater House, a nineteenth-century pile on East Park Road. This house witnesses a series of horrors: the agonies of protracted childbirth, the sudden onset of incurable disease. And at the centre of the house sits a massive piece of furniture, as big as the console of an old cinema organ; this bureau, like Rosanna’s old japanned tin case, takes us to the heart of the mystery. Its contents impel the eager reader to a disturbing, inexorable finale.


Spiritual Archaeology

Rated 5.0 out of 5
Friday, 10 March, 2023

This clever little novel reveals a northern industrial town as it is, as it has been in living memory, and as it was long ago. The plot strands are like archaeological layers revealing a psychodrama from Victorian times which is engagingly developed through characters who are wholly credible, even when their manners, customs, and beliefs have been consigned to history. Ian Thomson’s evocation of spiritualism through a number of séances throughout the book is gripping and atmospheric. Tom Catlow, his narrator, acknowledges fraud where it occurs, but keeps an open mind.

Don’t worry if you haven’t read the previous novels in The Blackburn Trilogy. Each of them stands alone and they can be read in any order. However, I can guarantee that if you read this one, you’ll want to get the others.

'Donkey' Stone

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