James Oswald – Nowhere To Run
Published by Wildfire Books, paperback £8.99. Also available in ebook and audiobook I received a proof copy of the novel from the author.
First, the official blurb: On compassionate leave following the death of her mother, Detective Constable Constance Fairchild thought renting a cottage near Aberystwyth, Wales would get her far enough from London to finally relax. But trouble always seems to find Con, and it’s not long before she is cooling off in a police station cell after defending herself from two would-be rapists. In custody she meets a young Ukrainian woman, Lila, who confides in Con that she’s been forced by her manipulative boyfriend into prostitution and running drugs. Fearing for her life, she has run away from him, only to end up in the cells. Con offers to help, but when her cottage is ransacked, and Lila subsequently disappears, she realises she’s stumbled into very dangerous company. International drug smugglers and ruthless people traffickers – those who will stop at nothing to protect their secrets. Out here at the end of the line, will Con find that there’s nowhere left to run?
I’ve proclaimed my love of the Tony McLean series of Edinburgh-set police-procedurals-with-a-supernatural-twist by James Oswald many a time. But he also started a second crime fiction series a few years ago, featuring a young female cop, Con Fairchild, who lives in London (though she travels a lot in the books), yet I have not written a review of one. Time to put that right.
Con is trying to recover from the events of the previous book while mourning the death of her mother. A friend of her aunt has loaned her a cottage on the coast in a village near Aberystwyth, where she can heal. Her PTSD is sensitively and plainly handled – no histrionics, no wallowing; she knows her coping mechanisms are not foolproof, but they work in the moment and the long term will have to wait until she can face it. So very relatable.
A quiet evening in the village pub’s beer garden is cut short when a couple of guys arrive: “Look like you could do with some company.” Every female reader knows this scene, the feelings it sparks, and where it may go. But this is Con, and she is both smarter and unluckier than you might expect. She puts the two on the ground – then a cop car arrives. Then Con is in the back of it, in handcuffs, and finally dispatched to a cell. She has a cellmate, Lila, an eastern European, and while their conversation is brief as Con is released swiftly, she doesn’t forget about Lila.
The cool eye of the trained cop and the outsider view combine to show Con the darker side of Aberystwyth and around. Lila said in the cell she’d run away from her boyfriend – read: “pimp”. There is so much natural beauty on show, it’s a real contrast to see Con find the dark places underneath the idyllic picture. While I know almost nothing of Wales, I feel like I know Con’s haunts thanks to Oswald’s knack for painting widescreen images in a few sentences (he lived in Wales for several years, fact fans). The pull of the sea and the oceans of stars Con sees from her Welsh cottage remind me of the Northumberland village I grew up in – coastal towns and villages have much in common despite the miles.
Con’s boss warns her off nosing around Lila’s situation – it’s not her patch, and is she still a cop, having taken a much-extended period of leave? – while handing her a briefing file on what is going on with the Welsh police’s investigation into drug trafficking in the area, knowing Con can’t resist investigating herself. Sneaky boss. Con may be unsure if she wants to return to work in London with the National Crime Agency, but she knows those cop instincts cannot be shut off.
Lila turns up again and we get more of her story: she’s from Ukraine, in the UK illegally, and delivers bags for her “boyfriend”. Trafficked, coerced, and above all scared. Con can’t turn her back on this, and we settle into a slow burn as she gets stuck in to keeping Lila safe, keeping tabs on her pub assailants and delving into the drugs investigation for her boss.
The pacing is, as expected from Oswald, superb. There’s enough downtime between bursts of action and dread to process what we’ve just experienced; enough anticipation to get the “just one more chapter” muscles working overtime, and enough moments of physical and psychological trauma to put the reader through the wringer as well as the characters.
If you’re familiar with Oswald’s two crime series, you’ll know he likes to add a dash – or sometimes a liberal slosh – of the supernatural. In Nowhere To Run, we get Welsh legends of a faithful hound, a cauldron with healing powers, and the hiding place of the Holy Grail. Con, like McLean, is a sceptic – a Scully, and with the red hair to boot. But they respect those who believe in otherworldly explanations for strange goings-on, because sometimes it’s a good an answer as anything.
I’m not one for happy endings, with everything neatly tied up, and thankfully neither is Oswald – the ending here is satisfying, with bad guys and good each getting something of what they deserve, but there are also a pleasing amount of loose ends and possibilities for the future in the last pages.
Oswald writes the kind of books that make you rush off and find the rest of the series, and then press them into the hands of friends, because they are so utterly, compellingly readable (and re-readable). Grab yourself Nowhere To Run, you won’t regret it.
James Oswald is the author of the bestselling Inspector McLean series, and the DC Constance Fairchild series. James’s first two Tony McLean books, Natural Causes and The Book Of Souls, were shortlisted for the Crime Writers Association Debut Dagger Award. The Damage Done and Bury Them Deep were longlisted for the McIlvanney Prize, as was the first Con Fairchild book, No Time To Cry. He also created the fantasy series, The Ballad Of Sir Benfro. James farms Highland cows by day, and writes disturbing fiction by night.
You can find my review of some of James’ previous Tony McLean novels elsewhere on the blog: Natural Causes, What Will Burn, Bury Them Deep, Cold As The Grave. He was a Five By Five Interview guest in February. And you can see the panel discussion of Natural Causes – including a short reading by James – from November 2021’s Bloody Scotland Book Club on the festival’s YouTube channel: