A couple of weeks ago, I read a collection of shorts called Faithless Street. Billed as a prequel to Jay Stringer’s upcoming novel Old Gold, it gave a tantalising glimpse of what readers could expect from this debut author. Stringer calls his work ‘social pulp’ and the post-industrial Midlands city of Walsall is fertile ground for politically literate crime fiction, with its blasted economy and social ills largely ignored by successive governments. The stories in Faithless Street covered drug crime and gang dynamics, but the focus was on the human fallout, handled in a way which had me hooked and pushed Old Gold straight to the top of my TBR pile.
Half-Romani cop turned gangland detective Eoin Miller is good at finding people who don’t want to be found, which is ironic since he is steadily losing himself, jettisoning the trappings of a normal life – his job, his wife, maybe his self-respect too. It could be in his blood, that need to remain unencumbered, or maybe he just has a contrary nature. Either way, Eoin isn’t into psychoanalysis, as the doctor he keeps ignoring could attest. Why bother when there’s always another drink waiting behind the bar?
Then one night Eoin meets Mary and he sees the weight on her shoulders as they drink and flirt in the pub’s back room. Mary confides in him – he must have that kind of face – tells him that her boyfriend is trying to kill her. He’s threatened her before, pushed her around, but this time it’s serious because she’s stolen something valuable from him. Eoin takes her home and after so much drink they fall asleep in separate rooms. When Eoin wakes up the next morning he finds Mary dead in his bed, strangled with one of his old ties, track marks on her arms. So he runs, driven by his father’s voice in his head, “They’ll just see a Gypsy, they won’t ask questions, won’t stop to see who else might have done it.”
Eoin’s nature gets the better of him though. He goes back home, thinking of calling the police, or maybe the Mann brothers, the gangsters who have him on their payroll now. Either way he wants to see Mary’s murder avenged. But then things get complicated. Mary’s body is missing when he returns. Someone is manipulating the situation, ready to throw him to the dogs just when it suits them. Eoin sets out to find Mary’s boyfriend and ends up at the centre of the violent turf war, juggling his former colleagues, his current bosses and a femme fatale gangster with a social conscience.
The plot is fast-paced and the writing stripped to the bone, not a word wasted, but what really impressed me about Old Gold was the characterisation. At the heart of it you have Eoin Miller, a Marlowe-esque figure all dry wit and unexpected depth, a fallible, conflicted man who is too decent for the life he has made for himself. His voice drives the book and it is one you’re happy to listen to. The rest of the cast is handled with the same sure touch and a keen-eyed humanity rarely found in crime fiction.
Old Gold is a cracking debut novel and promises great things for the rest of the series. Stringer has a strong voice and a confident style, and he’s created an intriguing protagonist in Eoin Miller – he’s one of those characters who screams out for the screen treatment. If you’re a fan of Lawrence Block or George Pelecanos you need to buy Old Gold right now.