Iain Rowan has earned something of a cult following for his short fiction and after publishing two excellent collections he has finally released a full length novel. One of Us began life as an entry to the Crime Writer Associations’ Debut Dagger award for which it was shortlisted. After reading it I can see why the judges were so impressed.
One of Us is an ambitious piece of work with Rowan choosing an Ossetian woman as his protagonist, writing across gender and racial lines, and placing her in the twilight world of London’s illegal immigrants. Anna has fled her homeland after witnessing the death of her brother and father at the hands of thugs – she knows she will die too if she stays and so she washes up in London, finds work in a cafe and tries to stay under the radar.
Anna has skills beyond making coffee and wiping tables though. At home she was a medical student, almost fully qualified. So when gangster Corgan needs a bullet wound cleaned up with no questions asked, Anna is drawn into his organisation. She is principled enough to hate what Corgan is but he can give her the one thing she desperately needs, legal status in England. It’s an offer she can’t refuse. She lives a dual life from then on, mostly just another invisible migrant worker in a cafe, but when Corgan calls she must answer. It is a slow seduction into doing wrong, one mirrored by Anna’s relationship with Corgan’s right hand man Danny, a charming piece of no-good who she is at once attracted to and repulsed by.
Inevitably things take a darker turn. Elena, one of Corgan’s highly-specialised prostitutes, is brought to Anna for repair work. Anna wants nothing to do with it and Corgan shows her exactly what her protestations are worth. A bond is forming between Elena and Anna already, and when Danny tells her about a brewing coup in Corgan’s organisation, hinging on one of Elena’s clients, Anna begins to see an opportunity to get both of them out.
Iain Rowan is a writer with a fine eye for the unexpected and he brings that to play here. There’s no glamour in his conception of this world of gangsters and casual brutality, and it is all the more effective for that. The pace is slow, reflecting the grind of Anna’s life, and a narrative loaded with creeping menace, which draws you through and keeps you turning the pages. Ultimately the book’s success lies with the character of Anna – she’s an engaging heroine and you want to see her come through this trial.
One of Us is an unconventional novel, intriguing and strongly written, showing a side of immigration which is often overlooked by crime writers. Fans of Iain Rowan will find him as assured as ever and for everyone else, prepare to enjoy.