I’ve got something a bit different for you on the blog today! If you’re a regular visitor to Girl, Reading you’ll know I don’t read an awful lot of crime thrillers but I was lucky enough to be sent a free reading copy by the author and hey, I’m never one to turn down an opportunity to try something a bit different! It sounds pathetic in the extreme, but one of the main reasons I’m wary of the crime genre is that I have a real aversion, almost hypersensitivity if you will, to any kind of violence or psychological cruelty whether it’s in books or TV and movies. This novel does undoubtedly have its occasional brutal moments (and one particularly grim one) but in spite of this I was pleased to discover I quite enjoyed it, racing through at breakneck speed, anxious to find out if the characters I was rooting for would emerge from the action unscathed.
Zaq, the novel’s hero, isn’t exactly squeaky clean – he’s recently been released from prison after serving a sentence for manslaughter – but you can’t help feeling from the off that he’s less of a thug and more a man who ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Anyway, as it turns out someone who was squeaky clean wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in the situation in which the unfortunate Zaq finds himself. The owner of the builders’ yard where he works, Mr. Brar, calls him into the office out of the blue and demands that Zaq track down his daughter Rita, who’s gone missing. If he fails, or even lets slip to anyone else that’s she’s disappeared, Mr. Brar will make sure Zaq’s back in prison before he knows it. The Brars are a Sikh family, and Zaq assumes this is a case of wanting to protect the family honour, and in all likelihood the end result of the daughter’s liaison with someone of whom her father and brothers don’t approve. His first instinct is to try and do the bare minimum to get Rita found, pass on her whereabouts to the family and wash his hands of the whole business as soon as possible, but the deeper he’s drawn into the case the more unexpected he finds its complexities and the realisation soon dawns that stepping away with a clear conscience isn’t going to be the option he assumed it would be.
In terms of the plot, I’m stopping right there as I have no intention of spoiling the mystery or suspense for anyone who hasn’t yet read it. There is a genuine sense of tension throughout as the author isn’t afraid to ramp up the stakes for his characters; suffice to say not everyone will make it through to the final page. If you like your bad guys unequivocally bad then you won’t be disappointed – there are no mitigating circumstances or tortured psychological explanations for the brutality, just out and out bare-knuckle thuggery. It makes sense too that the protagonist, although essentially good-hearted, is no stranger to the world of street violence, shady dealing and macho intimidation, as his ability to navigate his way through the various perils becomes infinitely more credible that way. It’s a world with which I am (very clearly) not familiar, having spent most of my formative years in a picture-postcard village a million miles away from Southall, where the novel is set, so I’m working on the assumption that the author knows his stuff and that this is indeed an accurate reflection of the capital’s criminal underbelly – but even if it isn’t it felt authentic enough that I totally believed it. It was also interesting from a cultural perspective to read a story set in a section of society where honour violence, while not universally condoned by any means, is a familiar and predictable occurrence. As a female reader I have to say I found it immensely satisfying to see female characters who took on the predominantly masculine world around them with barely a second thought. Huge credit has to go to the author too for refusing to fall into the trap of thinking that Strong Female Characters have to be signposted to the reader by having men comment on their fortitude and gutsiness every five minutes. For that reason alone I’d recommend it!
As I say, it was something quite different for me, and while I confess I do miss the corsets and bustles if I’m away from them for too long, it was interesting to undertake an excursion into unfamiliar territory and try something I wouldn’t normally read. Am I going to develop a new obsession with dark, gritty thrillers? Honestly no, but what “Western Fringes” goes to show is how much books can keep on surprising you even when you thought you had yourself pegged!
See you back on the blog soon…