Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. It’s been the custom for a very long time for people with limited prospects to go look for work elsewhere, often in another country. Sometimes it goes very well; countries are enriched by the talent, the hard work and the ideas that immigrants bring. But sometimes it turns disastrous. There are many, many things that can go wrong. Let’s take a look at one kind of migrant experience today and turn the spotlight on Eva Dolan’s Long Way Home. This is her debut, and the first of her Zigic and Ferreira novels.
Early one morning, Alec Lunka reports a fire in the shed of Paul and Gemma Barlow, the people who live across the way. The fire itself is bad enough, but the case turns more sinister when the body of an unknown man is discovered in the ruins of the shed. Other evidence indicates that someone had been living there, and that’s certainly not impossible. It’s not uncommon for migrant workers who can’t afford places of their own to stay in barns and sheds, and pay the property owners.
Right from the beginning, this case smacks of murder. The dead man was very likely a foreigner, and there’s plenty of anti-immigrant sentiment in the area, so DI Dushan Zigic and DS Mel Ferreira, of the Peterborough Hate Crimes Unit, are called in to investigate. One of the first things they try to do is to identify the victim. If the crime wasn’t a hate crime, it could have been a crime with a more personal motive. Soon enough, reports come in that he is an Estonian named Jaan Stepulov.
Now that they have a name, Zigic and Ferreira try to locate anyone who might have known Stepulov. They begin with the obvious ‘people of interest,’ Paul and Gemma Barlow. At first, both Barlows say that they didn’t know Stepulov was living in their shed. But they change their stories here and there, and it’s soon clear that they know a lot more than they’re saying.
They aren’t the only possibilities, though, so the detectives try to find other people who might have known the victim. That doesn’t prove to be easy. No-one seems to be willing to say very much about him. The most people will admit is that he’d been in the local, or worked with them – nothing that gives the detectives very much. But they persevere.
The trail leads into a sort of ‘twilight world’ of cheap rooming houses without records, cash for everything, and no questions asked. In fact, that aspect of this investigation proves to be a real challenge for Zigic and Ferreira. The police usually rely on details such as banking records, telephone calls, emails and other such traces to connect victims with their killers. But in this case, the victim was off the proverbial grid. There aren’t even any dental records. All the police have to go on, at least at first, is what people say. And the people in the best position to know about this case can’t be relied on to tell the truth. In the end, and after a couple of lucky breaks, Zigic and Ferreira find out the truth about the shed fire and its victim.
The context for a lot of this story is the community of migrant workers in East Anglia and Peterborough. For a lot of them, it’s a hard life to say the least. For some, it’s a nightmare. Readers should know that in that sense, this is a very uncompromising look at migrants and the people who take advantage of them. There is, in some cases, horrible cruelty.
The local culture also figures into the story. There’s a good deal of resentment against foreigners. Even Zigic comes in for his share, simply because of his name and family background, although he’s lived in England all his life. Some people turn a blind eye to what goes on because of that prejudice. Others do so because they are afraid of what will happen if they don’t. Still others say little because they benefit financially from migrant work.
Dolan also gives the reader a look at the people who become migrant workers. Most of them are not particularly gullible or stupid. They come, in large part, because they’ve been convinced that they can make better money in the UK than they can where they are. The story is told in part from the point of view of a few of these immigrants, so we learn where they come from, why they’re in the UK, and what happens to them. Readers who prefer only one point of view will notice this.
Several parts of the story are also told from Zigic and Ferreira’s points of view, so readers get to know their characters. Zigic is third generation English, chosen to head the Hate Crimes Unit because
‘The ACC needed a foreign name to head up Hate Crimes, and he wanted it attached to a third-generation body. Someone just different enough.’
That doesn’t mean that everyone accepts Zigic as ‘one of us,’ but it does give him some insight, and, pragmatically, it looks good on the records.
For her part, Ferreira is originally from Portugal, having come to the UK at the age of seven. She and Zigic are quite different in some ways. She’s had her share of bad experiences as an immigrant, and has some resentment about it; so she has her own prejudices in this case. Zigic, on the other hand, is more even-handed. There’s a real difference between them when it comes to the way they see this case, and part of the reason for it is that one is an immigrant, and one is not. They have different personalities, but readers who are tired of police procedurals with a lot of ‘patch wars’ and politics will be pleased to know that there isn’t much of that in this novel. Zigic and Ferreira rely on each other and respect each other, even if they annoy each other at times.
And there is a strong element of the police procedural in this novel. The detectives find the solution through talking to witnesses and suspects, gathering evidence, and making sense of what they learn. There’s quite a lot of detail about the way the detectives do their jobs, so readers who enjoy detailed police procedurals will be pleased.
The solution to this mystery is not a happy one, and that’s in keeping with the tone of the novel. The life of a migrant worker is not easy, and Dolan doesn’t mince words. And there are plenty of people, from simply unscrupulous to downright abusive and sadistic, who are ready to take advantage of immigrants. Dolan doesn’t gloss over that, either. That said though, we do learn the truth, and there is the sense at the end that some things will be better.
Long Way Home explores life in East Anglia and Peterborough, and what it’s like to be a migrant worker there. It features two detectives who have their own reasons for wanting to go after ‘the bad guys,’ and raises some difficult questions. But what’s your view? Have you read Long Way Home? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 2 November/Tuesday 3 November – Laidlaw – William McIlvanney
Monday 9 November/Tuesday 10 November – Real World – Natsuo Kirino
Monday 16 November/Tuesday 17 November – The Calling – Michael Redhill/Inger Ash Wolfe