Manx author Chris Ewan is best known for his comedy crime series The Good Thief’s Guides, which follow Raffles-esque gentleman thief Charlie Howard on his international capers. With glamorous settings, pacy plots and a voice full of dry wit, the Guides are a real joy to read. Safe House is a different beast entirely. It sees Ewan move into much darker territory, returning to his home turf of The Isle of Man, the setting of the world famous TT motor cycle race. And, this book is a thrill-ride to rival it.
Called out to fix a cranky boiler, plumber Rob Hale arrives at a tumbledown cottage, seemingly uninhabitable, isolated in the middle of dense woodland. Things get stranger when he meets the occupants, two taciturn men who look like gangsters, and Lena, a beautiful young woman with a foreign accent and a flirtatious manner. The whole set-up feels wrong to him, but he pushes aside his reservations and gets to work, drawn in by his attraction to Lena. She wants to go out, take a spin on his bike. Rob is a semi-pro rider and the opportunity to spend some time with her, showing off his skills, isn’t something he’s going to pass up.
Waking up in hospital Rob is told there’s been an accident, he’s crashed his bike and the doctors blame his injuries when he asks about the girl who was with him. Because he’s sure he remembers her gripping his waist, screaming as she was thrown from the bike. He remembers the ambulance arriving and the paramedic assuring him they’d take care of her. He’s sure those memories are too vivid to be the result of head trauma, but Lena is gone. Worse than gone, it’s like she never existed. The doctors tell him he was alone when he crashed, the police too, who seem very determined for him to forget all about Lena.
Then Rebecca arrives on the scene and finally somebody believes him. A private investigator with shadowy motives and impressive moves, she has been hired by Rob’s parents to look into the recent, mysterious death of his sister. While Rob and Rebecca begin to untangle the mystery of Lena’s disappearance, running up against the island’s police force and unknown agents bent on violence, Lena is fighting her own battle. Spirited away and still held captive, she is trying to think her way out of the bind she’s in, watching and scheming, looking for cracks in her captor’s plan.
What follows is a sophisticated reboot of the classic everyman thriller, which takes in high-level government conspiracies, rogue agents and international terrorism. Frankly, that kind of subject matter is usually a huge turn-off for me, but Ewan is an intelligent and humane writer who never slips into dick-lit territory. He focuses on the human cost of such politicking and gives us characters we really care about. Rob is decent to the core, driven by a sense of loyalty to a woman he hardly knows, he’s also endearingly out of his element, but Rebecca steals the book. Smart, tough and with a nice line in gallows humour she’s proof that male crime writers can do great female characters.
Due to the Manx setting it’s impossible to read Safe House without thinking of the TT event and Ewan has distilled the spirit of the race into a breakneck thrill-ride of a book, all unpredictable twists and wicked turns. It takes a skilled writer to keep a plot of this complexity on the rails and Ewan’s handling is impeccable. Safe House is a bona fide must-read.