William Shaw (williamshaw.com)

Quercus (www.quercusbooks.co.uk)


When a young woman is found strangled and naked yards away from the recording studio on Abbey Road made famous by The Beatles, the case falls to Cathal Breen, a member of the Met’s D Division. Still recovering from the death of his father, Breen is far from popular with the men with whom he shares his office. Assigned Temporary Detective Constable Helen Tozer – an unheard-of development in the Metropolitan Police of 1968 – Breen sets out to identify the dead girl and bring her murderer to justice. As their investigation progresses, the body-count mounts rapidly, and it quickly becomes clear that there is more to this case than meets the eye.

William Shaw’s debut novel, A Song From Dead Lips, transports us back to London at the latter end of the swinging sixties. Casual sexism and racism are rife, and the incident room from which Cathal Breen works is a smoke-filled boys’ club with all that that implies. This is a scene we’ve seen before – think Life On Mars, for example – but here it forms little more than the launch pad for a clever and engaging mystery, and a reminder that these were much less enlightened times than we are used to today.

Cathal Breen – born in London, but with enough Irish heritage to warrant the nickname Paddy is the obvious choice for protagonist in this bunch of misfits. He is disliked by his colleagues for the very qualities that make him appeal to the reader: he is a clean policeman, an incorruptible and dedicated investigator whose duty is to the victim, and not to the whims of those higher up the food chain than himself. He’s something of a morose character – understandable given his recent history – and prone to finding himself in humiliating situations. Breen takes a beating at the hands of the author over the course of this first novel, but he becomes a more realistic and relatable person as a result.

Helen Tozer is Breen’s polar opposite – talkative and outgoing (‘Do you ever stop talking?’ Breen asks her early in their relationship), there is an immediate clash of personalities when the two begin working together. Breen seems almost incapable of coping with this new whirlwind force in his life, constantly on the back foot, defending his actions and statements. Tozer is an essential ingredient in the novel, providing, as she does, some useful insight into the case – the potential link to The Beatles who frequent the nearby recording studio on Abbey Road; the contacts in that much younger community that Breen would not have had otherwise. Shaw uses Tozer to highlight the sexist state of affairs that existed in 1968, but does so obliquely, ensuring that there is enough reason for her existence beyond illustrating a point.

Breen, perhaps because of his immigrant history, comes across as ahead of his time. When he questions the people in the flats where the girl’s body was found, fingers inevitably point towards the black man who has recently moved into a nearby house. Unlike most of his colleagues, the man’s colour is not enough to put him high on Breen’s list of suspects, though it quickly becomes clear that there is something less than savoury in the man’s past. In Samuel Ezeoke, William Shaw takes the opportunity to examine some wider issues: the brutal civil war in Nigeria and the formation of Biafra; the British role in the oppression of this new nation. These two second-generation Englishmen – one from an Irish heritage, the other from a Nigerian – provide us with some insight into national identity and zealotry that is as relevant in today’s society as it was in 1968.

A Song From Dead Lips is not without its problems, but they’re minor niggles in the grander scheme of things: there is a sexual tension between Breen and Tozer that often leaves Breen looking like a love-struck teenager. While it’s an extra insight into this complex character’s persona, it does tend to grate from time to time. And there is, I feel, too much emphasis on the smoking culture that was prevalent at the time. Everyone smokes. With few exceptions, every character to whom we’re introduced will be smoking at some point during their stint on the pages (including,for example, a server at a carvery). While it may have been the case, the constant references do nothing but distract from what’s going on and leaves the reader wondering if as much attention would have been drawn to such a trivial fact had the book actually been produced at the end of the sixties. Minor niggles that shouldn’t detract from the story, in the grand scheme of things.

In all, William Shaw has produced an excellent first novel and given us a pair of detectives that are unlike any others in the genre. A Song From Dead Lips is a beautifully-written and cleverly-plotted piece of fiction that is sure to keep readers engaged from start to finish. Shaw’s sense of place (not just London, but Devon and Cornwall) and time (Nobby Pilcher’s arrest of John Lennon and Yoko Ono on drugs charges plays an important role in the development of the story) are perfectly tuned and enhance the reading experience. The most important aspect of the book, though, are the two characters who form its heart and soul, and the – often fraught – relationship that exists between them. These are characters we want to visit with again and again, and that, for this kind of novel, is the key to success.

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