Given the number of posts I’ve written recently about crime fiction I (and, I suspect, you) have to ask whether there really is room in the market for yet another police procedural. However, having just read Long Way Home, the first novel by Eva Dolan and publicised as the first in a new major series, I would have to say yes, because what Ms Dolan offers is not just a well written and extremely readable story but also one that does what the very best of crime fiction always does, that is throw a light on a social situation that is current, pressing and, to be honest, one that many of us would rather not acknowledge.
Long Way Home is set in Peterborough, a city so far from most people’s day in, day out, conscious experience that when I told an acquaintance about this book I had to explain to her where it was. It is, however, a city that has seen considerable change over the past decade: change I have actually witnessed because I have friends who live nearby and it is their closest shopping centre. Always a hub of transient immigration because of the demand for agricultural workers in the nearby fen country, in more recent times it has seen this population grow and be augmented by immigrants, both legal and illegal, who are being lured here with false promises of jobs and homes by people bent only on exploiting them and treating them with unspeakable cruelty. It isn’t, however, only those who deliberately set out to abuse these workers who have difficulty accepting them as valid members of society. Many of those who have lived in the area for any length of time are also resentful of their presence, even if they only show it by moving away from the city centre into local villages. Consequently, while the crime that is being investigated at the start of this novel is that of murder, it is not a murder squad that is investigating it but rather Peterborough’s Hate Crime Unit, because the victim is thought to be an eastern European immigrant and the motive for his death one of racial hatred.
DI Zigic and DS Ferreira are called in when a burnt out shed proves to have been both home and final resting place to a body that is identified as Jann Stepulov, an itinerant worker who has been sleeping in the outhouse much to the anger of the Barlows on who grounds it is built. DS Ferreira, herself an immigrant, is satisfied that the Barlows are responsible for the fire, seeing it as the simplest way to get rid of their unwanted tenant. However, Zigic, of Polish stock but far less quick to judgment, is not so easily convinced and sets about looking for alternative evidence. The further they dig into Stepulov’s background the more it becomes apparent that there are other people, both British and immigrant, who have reason to want him out of the way. What they uncover is a network of gang-masters willing to exploit anyone who is seemingly friendless and without the resources to stand up for themselves, to the point of starvation and, if expedient, murder. What they uncover is the type of situation that was brought forcible to public notice in the wake of the Morecambe Bay tragedy several years back when at least twenty-one immigrant cockle pickers were caught out by the incoming tide.
Brought to public notice, and yet, it still goes on. The strength of Dolan’s novel is that she forces her reader to address a situation that is one I suspect many would rather just pretend isn’t happening and if it is, certainly isn’t any concern of theirs. Initially I found myself bridling at Ferreira with her insistence that the British couple must be guilty because all Britons are prejudiced against immigrants. “Excuse me,” I wanted to say, “er, pot, kettle, black.” As the novel progress, however, all the characters, and the readers as well, have to question the easy assumptions that we make when we lump groups of people together and fail to treat them as individuals, and to accept that both great good and pure evil can reside in any human regardless of skin colour, creed or background.
This is a very strong first novel with leading characters who walk off the page already fully formed. It has already excited the praise of critics and with good reason. If I have one concern it is that Dolan may find it difficult to bring variety to the cases that she has Zigic and Ferreria investigate. But, if she can avoid that issue then this has the potential to be the first in a series that will run and run.
With thanks to Random House UK, Vintage Publishing who made this available for review.