A body is found bricked up in a basement. He’s died a quite horrific death, for he was alive when he was entombed. While he had received a head injury to incapacitate him which likely also sped up his death, he was aware enough to try to claw his way through the bricks. He is only discovered years later. The building his body was found in was devastated by a fire and has since lain derelict. Now the new owner has decided to renovate it and it is only when the builders are working in the cellar that he is discovered.

DS Adam Tyler is the sole member of the South Yorkshire Police cold case team. He is on the unit both because he’s good at what he does and due to an incident years earlier which nearly destroyed his career (so he’s kept safely out of the way). He’s attached to the murder squad, despite the reservations of some, because this is a cold case, and thus, his speciality. When the identity of the dead man is confirmed, there’s little regret, for he was rich, powerful, and engulfed in scandal.

The plot of Firewatching takes place in a rural village on the outskirts of Sheffield (though some of the narrative also occurs in Sheffield itself). It revolves around a cast of characters, members of the police, and members of the local village community, and it’s both a modern police procedural and a whodunnit. Tyler and the team he is attached to have a number of likely suspects, people of interest with intriguing pasts.

There are more than a few compelling supporting characters in this novel, both on the police side and in the village itself. The villagers, in particular, are an eccentric and (some of them) sinister lot. In many ways, they reminded me of the characters that populate the small Swedish town of Gavrik in Will Dean’s Tuva Moodyson books. Both authors create a community where everyone knows each other’s business and on the surface, everyone gets on, but where hidden tensions, grudges, and rivalries simmer.

Firewatching is Russ Thomas’s debut and it really is an impressive one at that. Another reviewer has mentioned how he really does seem to have come out of nowhere and that’s very true. Many debut novelists take a while to become established, their first novel doing OK, their second building on that, etc. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with such a path, and many a fine novelist has built a brand like this, going on to become a bestseller. Occasionally though, an author makes a splash with their debut and I’d be surprised if this is not how it is for Thomas. His is a name to watch.

James Pierson 5/5

Firewatching by Russ Thomas
Simon & Schuster UK 9781471180927 hbk Feb 2020