Eva Dolan's debut novel in the increasingly crowded world of crime fiction deserves a little stand-out time.
How to be different enough to get noticed, yet not so different that it frightens the horses and foils any commercial potential, must be of concern to new crime fiction writers. Established writers of literary fiction can dabble in the genre to their hearts' content, it would seem, in the way of Kate Atkinson's private eye Jackson Brodie or John Banville when writing as Benjamin Black. A lucky few can even mix the literary and crime to create something new, like Megan Abbott, and build up a commercial following. But how daring can a new voice be in the current publishing climate? How many risks can it take?
The Harvill Secker imprint is enough to signal that Dolan's debut will be perhaps a little more literary than might be expected and, surely enough, she eschews much of the cliché-ridden prose so beloved of many practitioners of the genre. Her subject matter is also controversial while suitably topical, involving illegal immigrants, their exploitation and effect on the local community.
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The burned corpse of a man, quickly established as an economic migrant from Estonia and called Jaan Stepulov, has been found in a Peterborough shed belonging to Phil and Gemma Barlow. The detectives assigned to the case are from the newly established hate crimes unit and are both from families who immigrated to Britain a generation back: DI Zigic's family is from Poland, and DS Ferreira's from Portugal.
Both have dealt with, and continue to deal with, racial prejudice in different ways. Zigic is the senior officer, male, a father of two young children, established in the community. Ferreira is a young woman still living at home, but prickly and sensitive to any perceived slight.
Dolan takes time to establish both her main protagonists' backgrounds, and if the male-female police partnership dynamic is not new, her exploration of their different personalities and ways of viewing the world is more than skin-deep.
Ferreira's prickliness has her fingering the Barlows too soon for the crime, suspecting them of trying to get rid of an unwanted squatter in their garden shed, who would be violent and offensive by turns. However, further enquiries reveal Stepulov to have been a polite and considerate man, who had come to Britain simply in search of his missing brother, Viktor. Dolan's novel begins with an unnamed man desperate to escape baying dogs as he is hunted across the Lincolnshire fields at night - what connection will he prove to have to the case?
There is another theme, though, beyond that of illegal immigration versus economic migration, beyond the sexual exploitation of young women trafficked into western Europe and the men who participate in their exploitation, that Dolan also touches upon. This novel is also about families and how they are torn apart when economic necessity sends husbands, fathers, sons many miles away from home. How they end up living in sheds, dossing down anywhere.
But it is also about the men in their native country, Britain, who are living apart from their kids, holing up in flats with a mistress here, a deal going there. Zigic can only wonder: "What was wrong with these men? They had families but they weren't involved with them. They lived apart and unconnected and it didn't seem to bother them. There was no question of responsibility."
Dolan draws a neat parallel between those men going abroad to find work to send money back home, and those men living here who abandon their families altogether.
Crime writers are often seen as the best chroniclers of modern life, which isn't entirely fair - Rose Tremain offered an excellent view of life from an immigrant's point of view six years ago in her novel The Road Home.
Dolan has taken up a similar subject and created a highly effective and meaty crime novel out of it, though, complete with twists and turns that genuinely take you by surprise.