By Paula R. Stiles
Rowan, Iain. Nowhere to Go: Eleven Short Crime Stories. Infinity Plus, 2011. 82pp. ASIN: B004TNHGFG.
There is an aspect of crime fiction that overlaps with horror. Famed Hollywood director Alfred Hitchcock is equally claimed by the mystery and horror genres. No surprise, therefore, that Iain Rowan has also published horror – or that his crime anthology, Nowhere to Go, trips along this uneasy line. Several of the stories have even appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and share the Master’s love of fatal irony.
Each of these tales shares two major characteristics: Every story has a crime in it and each has a twist. In most cases, that twist turns the protagonist’s situation from dicey to completely screwed. Sometimes, the protagonists deserve it; sometimes, they don’t. Sometimes, the twist comes at the end. Just as often, it appears early, but you don’t know it until later.
A cheating husband’s sins have consequences well beyond his own life when he’s blackmailed in “Chain”, while two urban gangsters find themselves well out of their element on a countryside job in “A Walk in the Park”. The countryside proves equally deadly for an opportunistic burglar in “Easy Job”, a story that takes a nasty drop at the end right into horror of the Poe variety. And in the title story (which is also the last), a man suffering from paranoid schizophrenia discovers it’s possible not all of his enemies are imaginary.
Probably the best outcome is the Lady-or-the-Tiger cliffhanger in the first tale, “One Step Closer”. At least Ward has a chance to be a hero when he tries to stop a bank robbery by gambling on a real-life case of Russian Roulette. He’s also one of only two protagonists who isn’t a criminal. Others get away with their crimes, but you sense that it’s only a matter of time before they, too, will be caught in the trap and dispatched by a bigger fish. In Rowan’s stories, a bigger predator is always out there, circling, waiting.
While most of the stories are in third person, “One of Us” is in first person. This does not change the fate of the protagonist, this time an illegal immigrant, one bit. Her willingness to do anything for a visa gets her into a situation that is as bad as the one she left behind in Kosovo. The first-person narrator of “Two Nights’ Work” has better luck, haggling in a bar over a “worthless” painting, as does the cunning narrator of “Fake”, who cons a nebbish distracted by a far worse crime.
Only one tale, “Moths”, is dark fantasy and it’s pretty dark. A man becomes obsessed with a woman he meets in a bar. He doesn’t give any thought to what this means to the man she’s left at home, or what it might mean to replace him. Or what her motivation is.
You find out the narrator of “Chairman of the Bored” is dead on the first page. You don’t find out how or why until the end. The story evokes the teenage wasteland of A Clockwork Orange, but if anything, it’s bleaker. Similarly bleak (even in the title) is “The Remains of My Estate”, in which a man kicks heroin, only to find he has cancer. But his illness may give him a courage he never had to take out a man as evil as a cancer, who preys on his neighbourhood.
All of the stories are set in England. Rowan doesn’t overdo the dialects. In fact, his language is spare and unadorned, almost as colourless as the surroundings he describes. But there are many references specific to English culture, such as WHSmith (a British bookchain) and council estates (the British equivalent of a housing project in Canada or the U.S.). Even more distinctly English is the nearness of the sea, no matter where the story’s set, and the immediacy of the countryside. The characters can easily go from the city to the middle of the country in an hour or so. For some, it proves their undoing.
Stories often begin deceptively, with not much indication of where they’re going, but the endings are remarkably clear in where the protagonists end up. There is no doubt or ambiguity about their fates, even for those who get away. Rowan’s world is dark and pitiless, horror in mood if not always in execution. It reminds me a bit of Ian Rankin’s work. His short, brisk tales draw you in and you hope for a better outcome, even for some of the worst protagonists. But you won’t usually get one.