Old Gold, Jay Stringer’s 2012 debut, was one of the strongest first novels I’ve read in years. Introducing half-Romani cop, turned underworld detective, Eoin Miller it combined a hardboiled sensibility with a fine tuned social conscience and signalled the arrival of a promising talent on the British noir scene. So I had high expectations when the second instalment, Runaway Town, was released. I’m pleased to say those expectations were met and then some.
Miller returns, nursing the slow healing wounds he sustained at the end of Old Gold, treading carefully as he negotiates the tightrope between Wolverhampton’s two major crime families, the Gaines and the Manns, both of whom have holds over him, as well as some old scores to settle. Miller is between jobs, coaching aspiring young footballers under the watchful eye of his sort-of-boss Veronica Gaines, when she calls with a proposition and a fat wad of cash.
She sends Miller to meet with a Catholic priest – not his usual clientele at all. Father Donnelly, along with local radio presenter Salma Mina, has established a support group for immigrants, helping them to deal with the myriad small attacks on their dignity, but they’ve run into something too big for them to handle alone. Several young girls have been raped and nobody wants an official investigation. Miller understands the urge to protect the girls from press attention and unsympathetic police, as well as the desire to have the man responsible properly punished, but as he begins to investigate he discovers that Donnelly, Salma and Gaines may have a more compelling reason to keep the police out of the matter.
As he’s pursuing the serial rapist through the Black Country’s urban sprawl Miller is dogged by problems closer to home as well. His mother has been attacked but refuses to say who is responsible, and the incident brings the far flung members of the Miller family back together; Eoin’s human rights campaigner sister Rosie and wayward brother Noah, who washes up with a payload of unresolved sibling rivalry and his eye on Veronica Gaines.
Jay Stringer is an author who doesn’t shy away from tough subjects and Runaway Town, even more than its predecessor, covers ground most crime writers avoid, and from a position very few adopt. Superficially it’s a story about a serial rapist – handled, incidentally, with far more respect than in your average crime novel -but the true subject is immigration; almost every major character is of foreign extraction, an excellent reflection of the real ethnic make up of the post-industrial Midlands, and the growing political influence in area of a UKIP-like far right party is chillingly topical. These are big themes but Stringer shows the effect at street level, taking us into fascists meeting rooms and slum housing, never letting the issues overshadow the terrible human cost.
Runaway Town is cracking read, lean, pacy and grimly realistic, exactly the kind of crime fiction I love, and as the series progresses and the character dynamics become more complex, it’s only getting better.