Peterborough is the setting of Long Way Home, a suburban satellite town the Internet says is in the heart of rural East England. I won’t lie, Dolan’s novel didn’t exactly rocket the place to the top of my must see list of holiday destinations. But what is the Peterborough Tourism Board’s loss is a gain for lovers of great crime fiction.
Long Way Home opens with the discovery of a corpse of an adult male in the burnt out remains of a backyard shed. John Doe was a migrant farm labourer of Eastern European decent, part of the army of semi-illegal workers who have flooded into the area, with all the resulting problems and social tensions. That makes it a job for the Hate Crimes Unit of the local Peterborough plod, and introduces the two main characters, themselves immigrants, DI Zigic, a third generation Serb living in the town, and his offsider, Ferrier, a young policewoman of Portuguese decent.
The victim had been dosed in lighter fluid, the shed locked from the outside and set on fire, so it was no accident. That’s the only clear-cut part of the case, that and the fact there’s no shortage of possible suspects.
First to fall under suspicion are the backyard’s owners, a white working class couple who maintain the victim was squatting in their shed and had resisted their efforts to evict him. That and the barely concealed racism they display towards the town’s migrant labour force makes them chief suspects. Also in the mix is a white supremacist with a penchant for arson that has just been released from jail, and the slumlord of substandard accommodation for migrant labourers.
Zigic and Ferrier’s investigation is made even more difficult due to the fact that people who might be able to help them, Peterborough’s largely illegal and highly transient migrant workforce, are terrified of talking to authorities and risk being deported back home.
It’s a great set-up by Dolan. But several aspects elevate Long Way Home from being just another satisfying police procedural.
The plot is sophisticated and obviously deeply researched. The parts of the story delving into reality of life for migrant workers are particularly well rendered. Dolan’s pacing and character development is near flawless, helped by a vivid sense of her main characters and the way they interact, especially the dour, slow burn Zigic and the fiery, shoot from the hip, Ferrier.
What really elevates Long Way Home, however, is the writing, which feels like the work of a far more experienced author, not a debut novelist. Dolan’s prose is consistently crisp and economical while at the same time imbued with a great sense of mood and nuance. Her skill comes to the fore regardless of whether she’s describing the casual racism of some of Peterborough’s residents, the palpable sense of desperation caused by country’s economic recession, the terrifying plight of the region’s illegal migrant workforce or the depressing reality of police work.
‘Late to the party again, Inspector,’ Dr Irwin said, pulling his latex gloves off in a puff of chalk. ‘Anyone would think you were squeamish.’
It’s just meat, Zigic told himself, looking at the wrecked remains of Jaan Stepulov laid out on the gleaming stainless-steel table. Thin pink juices dripped into the drain below, the sound intermittent but resonating around the white tiled mortuary, percussive against the medley of humming freezes and a droning light which flickered at an epileptic rate, making his eyeballs throb.
It’s just man shaped meat.
The burnt ones didn’t usually bother him. His first corpse was the victim of a house fire in Paston, an elderly woman murdered by her grandson for the saving she kept hidden between the yellowing pages of her Mills & Boon novels. The house was alight for hours before they managed to bring the fire under control, fuelled by piles of old newspapers and magazines she’d hoarded over the years, and by the time her body was recovered it was nothing more than a jumble of brittle black sticks.
Long Way Home is a deceptively hardboiled story and an accomplished debut from a writer I suspect we are going to be hearing a lot more from in the years to come.
Long Way Home is available in Australian here through Random House.