Written by Vicky Newham — Mile End High is a secondary school in the heart of the East End of London. It’s had its problems in the past, but thanks to the leadership of headmistress Linda Gibson the school is now seen as a shining example of how multicultural education can succeed.
There are just a couple of blips in that record. One is the suicide of a pupil just before Christmas, the second is about to occur as this book begins. It’s the day before spring term starts at Mile End High and new substitute teacher Steve Rowe is at a staff meeting with the rest of his colleagues. The heating is on the blink, then a power cut plunges them into darkness and Mrs Gibson hurries off to find out what’s going on. It’s the last time she will be seen alive – and it’s poor Steve who finds her strangled body.
Enter DI Maya Rahman, freshly returned from Sylhet, Bangladesh, where she has been attending the funeral of her brother, Sabbir, who committed suicide. If that’s not enough to contend with, she is a former pupil of Mile End High and has a great fondness for the place. Rahman has a boss who is racist and misogynist and has little time for her, and she’s also got a new partner, DS Dan Maguire, freshly arrived from Australia.
It’s a great start to a debut novel from an author who herself used to teach at a secondary school in the East End. Vicky Newham obviously knows the area and her subject well, and she translates that into a book that quickly draws you in. Her depictions of a melting pot of cultures and religions are bang on target, and Rahman’s struggles with the twin pulls of her family and her job garner sympathy.
It’s a brilliant idea to feature characters who are all a little out of synch with the rest of the world. Rahman has spent most of her life living in the East End, yet still feels somewhat adrift from the people she lives among, while Dan, newly arrived from Australia, is struggling to settle in and has a great deal to learn about English ways before he can properly assimilate. They are still finding their feet as a team and we are there on the sidelines as a tentative trust begins to develop.
As Rahman and Maguire begin to investigate Linda Gibson’s death, a card found near her body gives them pause. It contains one of the five precepts of Buddhism: ‘I shall abstain from taking the ungiven’. It’s a cryptic message that bears little relevance to the victim, a woman universally well liked and respected. But that perfect picture begins to blur a little as the pair dig deeper. And when another member of staff dies too, another Buddhist saying at his side, it looks like someone is on a killing spree. Who has been earmarked as the next victim and can the police capture the perpetrator before he or she manages to strike again?
This is an engrossing psychological thriller cum police procedural with a twist of the whodunit, made all the more interesting by debut author Newham’s choice of setting and context. Forced marriage, child abuse, race and racism are all tackled head on in a novel that is both relevant and riveting at the same time.
Vicky Newham is definitely an author to watch. I particularly like Maya Rahman, a woman who sits astride two cultures and somehow doesn’t fit happily into either of them. This is the first in a series featuring Maya and I look forward to following her, and DS Maguire, as they develop further.
If Turn a Blind Eye sounds interesting to you, you might also like Western Fringes by Amer Anwar, a crime story set on the other side of London.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars