Fresh Blood

Name: Russ Thomas

Title of Book: Firewatching

'This book will burn itself onto your memory and fire the imagination.'

ONE WRONG MOVE: A body is found bricked into the walls of a house. From the state of the hands, it’s clear the dead man was buried alive. Soon, the victim is linked to an old missing person’s case and DS Adam Tyler is called.

WILL IGNITE: As the sole representative of South Yorkshire's Cold Case Review Unit, Tyler recognises his role for what it is – a means of keeping him out of the way following an ‘incident’. When this case falls in his lap, he grabs the opportunity to fix his stagnating career.

THE CITY: And then Tyler discovers he has a connection to the case that hopelessly compromises him. He makes the snap decision not to tell his superiors, certain that he and only he can solve the crime. But now Tyler must move carefully to find out the truth, without destroying the case or himself.

Meanwhile, someone in the city knows exactly what happened to the body. Someone who is watching Adam closely. Someone with an unhealthy affinity with fire…

As when playing with fire, I need to tread carefully and make sure I don’t burn myself by giving anything away of this spine-tingling, fire feast that is ‘Firewatching’.

The Old Vicarage is the scene of the discovery six years after the owner disappeared. It is from this find that the embers begin to be fanned, spluttering into flames, catching everything it touches, turning the whole investigation into an inferno. In the middle of it all is DS Adam Tyler blindly stumbling through the smoke and flames, losing his bearings, his perception of the case and the people involved.

Thomas has an innate ability of obscuring the whole picture with a smokescreen. Nothing is crystal clear, nothing can be made out with so much fire and destruction going on. How is it all related to the body in the cellar? It all leads to a thrilling and explosive conclusion.

DS Tyler is a conundrum himself and I hope that Thomas explores his character in further detail, especially with the whole drama about his own father. And this is a tale about fathers, the good, the bad and the ugly ones and how the choices of a parent can cause huge ripples, of water or even fire. Not since P.D. James has an author made a brick building, as Thomas does with The Old Vicarage, feel like a character, part of the cast filled with its own secrets waiting to be revealed.

Am I talking in fiery riddles? All will be made very clear once you start reading ‘Firewatching’. It really is one of those books when you burn through the pages like the proverbial inferno… there’s that word again… This book will burn itself onto your memory and fire the imagination. ‘Firewatching’ has to be one of the hottest crime novels of 2020. Flame retardant gloves should be worn whilst reading this book!

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating

Fresh Blood Questionnaire

1) I absolutely loved ‘Firewatching’. Can you tell us what the inspiration was for the story and these characters?
Thank you! It started as a short story I wrote called ‘Visiting Time’, about an elderly woman with dementia in a care home, waiting for visitors who never arrived. It was pretty dark and explored this woman’s life as her mind unravelled and jumped from past to present. It stayed with me for a long time and I often thought about revisiting the character and finding out the answers to some of the questions I’d only hinted at in the story. When I began my MA in Writing at Sheffield Hallam University I dug out my old work and rediscovered it. It grew from there.
2) There are certain Firewatcher posts throughout the book relating to Historical events as well as what is happening within the book. Did you do much research and were some of the facts you found helpful to bringing another element to your book?
Oh yes, I loved researching all the fires and deciding what to put in (many didn’t make the cut). Originally, it was just a way to add a bit of flavour, and background to the arsonist. The blog posts were poems in the first draft, but then I realised I’m terrible at poetry and no one would want to read them, so I turned it into an online blog diary. They then became integral to the whole structure of the book, the spine around which the story hangs. In the way of writing, it was one of those happy accidents, or possibly it was my subconscious doing the hard work for me.
3) DS Adam Tyler is gay and not a great communicator. Are we going to find out more about Tyler and his father? Will there be more on a possible relationship with Paul Enfield?
In the second book, ‘Nighthawking’, we find out a bit more about Tyler’s past and what happened to his father, and there’s more still to come. As for Paul… well, as you pointed out, Tyler’s not the best communicator in the world so… No, that’s all I’m saying, you’ll have to wait and see.
4) Two main characters are Edna and Lily. Where did you get the inspiration for these two women who were in an obvious relationship during WWII when, although not classed as illegal for lesbians, such a relationship was unacknowledged at the time?
Lily and Edna are (very) loosely based on two elderly Aunts I had as a child. They lived together their entire lives after one of them was bombed out of London during the war. No one ever questioned their ‘friendship’ but in those days the idea of two women living together as ‘Spinsters’ wasn’t questioned in the same way it would have been if they’d been ‘Two Gentlemen Sharing’. To this day I don’t know the full extent of their relationship, only that they must have loved each other very much. I wanted to try to reproduce that on the page so I’ve left the exact nature of their relationship a little obscure. I know what I think, but it’s up to the readers to decide for themselves.
5) Like many writers, you’ve had other careers before you started writing. What made you want to try crime fiction?
I always only ever wanted to be a writer, even while I was doing all the other jobs. It never really occurred to me that I could do anything else. Firewatching was never intended to be a crime novel really. I ended up throwing a body into the story in a desperate attempt to find a plot. But I love crime fiction so much – books and TV dramas – that I doubt it was a complete accident. I suspect I was always destined to head down that road.
6) What bit of advice would you give to anyone starting out writing their debut? Are you working on anything else at the moment? If so, can you tell us a little about it?
I know it sounds trite, and it’s the advice that everybody gives, but just sit down and do it! It’s not as easy as that, obviously, and there are times I’ve really had to force myself to sit down and write when I would much rather be doing almost anything else, but you just have to keep writing and writing and sooner or later (later, in most cases, I’m afraid) you get better through practice. Just like playing a guitar or taking up woodwork. It’s a craft. Also, read. As much as possible, as widely as possible.
7) Are you a fan of crime fiction? If so, which three crime novels would you like with you if stranded on a desert island?
Of course. But blimey, that’s a hard question! Are you sure I can only have three? Er…
1. The Big Sleep - Raymond Chandler – just because I never get tired of Gumshoe Detective/Noir stories and this is probably the greatest. Also the plot is so convoluted, and the characters so quixotic, that I never quite remember the order of events or exactly how things turn out.
2. Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier – This is a wonderful story and I would never get tired of the characters.
3. The Secret History by Donna Tartt – Maybe not technically a crime novel but I think it counts, and it’s a very long book so it would give me plenty to read. Having said that, it might be a bit of a dark read if I was stranded somewhere. The first time I read this I found myself physically shaking, waiting for the police to come and knock on my door and arrest me. Before I realised I was fine, I hadn’t actually done anything!