Rare is the spy thriller that doesn’t have as its central character a spy. Or even a disaffected veteran of some service who imbues the story with cool professionalism or weary cynicism.
So it is a surprise, and a pleasant one, to discover early on in Chris Ewan’s Channel Islands thriller that the main character is a regular bloke, a plumber yet (alas, not named Joe), who stumbles into the mystery of his sister’s death and possible international intrigue, by, of all things, answering a service call.
The “Safe House’’ of the title is a worn cottage tucked into the woods and bramble on the Isle of Man. The island is outside the legal jurisdiction of Mother England, which combined with its remote location makes it a convenient place to stash someone on the lam, as Rob Hale discovers when he is called to restore heat to the cottage and meets a lovely young girl and her two keepers.
At the beginning of the book Ewan includes an introduction to the Isle of Man that notes it is host to the Tourist Trophy time trials, one of the more hair-raising motorcycle races in the world. Rob, it turns out, is the son of the island’s most famous motorcycle racer. While he is not the rider his dad was, he is much more than merely capable.
So our suspicions and Rob’s are piqued when he crashes while taking the girl from the cottage for a secret joyride. He wakes up in a hospital, asks about the fate of his passenger, and is told by doctors and the police that, as far as they can tell, he had ridden alone.
When the local cops express official uninterest in the girl’s whereabouts, Rob gets his back up. Straightway he is joined by a second attractive woman, a private detective hired by Rob’s parents to look into his sister’s recent death. The sister, Laura, had come home from London seemingly troubled, but what appeared to be a straightforward suicide seems less so as the investigator slowly clues Rob into his sister’s true identity.
The main stem in the plot concerns a wealthy industrialist, his daughter Lena — the girl in the cottage — and some thuggish Secret Service types who are either on a black box job or are just rogue agents. As the mystery unspools, it appears Lena has either been stashed away for her safety or kidnapped. And Laura either killed herself out of guilt for her involvement in a conspiracy, or was murdered to keep it from being blown.
Like Rob, we’re not really sure what is going on, as Ewan exerts an admirable discipline for keeping clarity at bay without letting the mystery get too oblique or the plot too outrageous. It helps that Ewan resists turning “Safe House’’ into a sprawling save-the-world spy epic. What we have instead is a nice, tightly focused story about love and corruption, about rural character versus big-city arrogance, and a rollicking adventure scaled down for your above-average plumber.
Not that Rob is a gung-ho volunteer. He’s pretty beat up by the motorcycle accident and is sensible enough to know he’s fighting above his weight. At several turns in the book he seems willing to stay in his corner when the bell rings, but his reluctance is weakened by the responsibility he feels toward the missing Lena, and a gnawing hope that maybe he can prove his sister didn’t kill herself after all.
One of Ewan’s chief accomplishments is keeping the ambitions for “Safe House’’ modest and delivering on the story. This is not edge-of-your-seat thriller stuff, or a hall of mirrors on the scale of le Carré. It is, like the main character, a workmanlike production with a tight story and mostly believable plot. And that’s an achievement worth reading.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, this story incorrectly located the Isle of Man. It is in the Irish Sea.