Written by Eva Dolan — Yesterday was an important day for crime fiction in the UK. It saw the arrival on bookshelves of Long Way Home, one of the best debut novels you’re ever likely to come across. Eva Dolan’s writing is snappy, confident and sharp as an X Acto blade, with a storytelling style that bubbles and fizzes its way through a tale of lies, exploitation and ultimately murder, all in the unfashionable setting of Peterborough.
The story begins with a shed fire. Normally, that’s no big deal, except the Barlows’ shed had someone sleeping in it the night it was set ablaze, and the door was padlocked shut. It seems the dead man was Jaan Stepulov, a big drunken Estonian immigrant, who’d taken their shed by force. So DI Dushan Zigic and DS Mel Ferreira of the local constabulary’s hate crimes unit are right in there questioning the Barlows. Strangely, it wasn’t Phil or Gemma Barlow who called the fire department, but their neighbour. They claim they didn’t notice the fire right outside their window.
Through a seedy Polish landlord sleeping 16 immigrants in a house fit for four, and a pub landlord pimping teenage prostitutes, they find out that Jaan Stepulov had a brother called Viktor. There had been altercations with the landlord, and Viktor hasn’t been seen since he boasted that a good job had come his way. Another line of suspicion is introduced when the detectives discover that Clinton Renfrew, a convicted arsonist with links to the right wing English Nationalist League, has just been released from prison. Then they get a call from a local morgue – an unidentified corpse in one of their drawers turns out to be Viktor Stepulov. His body was found in about 80 pieces by the railway line. Suicide, accident or murder?
While all that’s going on we get a glimpse of life inside a work camp somewhere in the Cambridgeshire countryside. Paolo shares a caravan with three other men and none of them speak the same language. He has no idea how long he’s been there but nobody is allowed to leave. Every day they’re driven to a construction site where, one day, a Chinese worker is killed. Instead of helping the injured man, the English bosses dump the body in a concrete foundation and Paolo gets a severe beating for objecting. As the story unfolds we discover how this injustice links back to the Stepulov case.
From the broken English of the Eastern Europeans through to her stressed-out detectives, Dolan’s characters are original and believable. The female detective Ferreira is always on edge, rolling cigarettes and rolling her eyes with every response she’s given during interrogations. Every dirt bag is guilty in her book. DI Zigic, is mellower and pragmatic, letting her play bad cop just a little more than he should. His mind keeps returning to his wife and kids, whom he keeps in the dark about the horrible crimes he sees. Zigic has a Serbian background, Ferreira is Portuguese, which adds another subtle layer to the racial landscape of the story.
In a Peterborough that’s not just bleak, but morose and acidic, Dolan goes far beyond questioning the rhetoric surrounding immigration. Migrants aren’t welcomed with a free council house and benefit cheques. Instead they’re exploited by everyone from reputable English companies through to gangmasters, landlords and criminals – some are even enslaved. With this backdrop, solving murders is a serpentine challenge, but one which the author has plotted out to perfection and the conclusion unwraps one surprise after another. Long Way Home is an utterly gripping and totally convincing first novel. Hats off to the author for tackling the UK’s biggest and trickiest political issue with such candour and compassion, while at the same time producing a dark yet zippy police procedural.
You can read our interview with the author here.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars