The Kings of London by William Shaw

She’s Leaving Home was the first in a proposed trilogy from British author William Shaw. Set in the 60s, She’s Leaving Home introduced CID CS Cathal (“Paddy” to his workmates) Breen and Temporary Detective (“Probationer,”) Helen Tozer. Breen, an outsider in D Division, and Tozer, a female copper who wants to cross gender boundaries and work in the Murder Squad, make an interesting team. In She’s Leaving Home, Breen and Tozer investigate the murder of a teenage girl found dead under a mattress. While the crime under investigation in this first novel was engaging, the book’s strength came from the crackling dynamic between Tozer and Breen. This is the Swinging 60s and Breen is feeling left behind and out of touch with the new subversive elements of society whereas Tozer, subjected to continual harassment from her male colleagues, opens doors that close in Breen’s face.

She’s Leaving Home is a solid introduction to the Breen-Tozer team, and so here we have the second in the series The Kings of London. Once again, there’s an absence of 60s nostalgia, but this is late ’68, and in this world of shifting morality and changing attitudes, both Breen and Tozer find themselves, once again, butting up against laws and shifting attitudes towards abortion, sexuality, and narcotics.

Kings of LondonBreen investigates the death of Francis Pugh, living on a trust fund, a man who played the field with an endless stream of married women, and who collected art. He’s found dead in his home moments before it, and any possible evidence, explodes into a fire. Francis was the son of a Welsh politician, and so pressure’s on for Breen to solve the case, but also to not make noise when seeking witnesses.

She’s Leaving Home took this reader straight back into the 60s–a strange time–a time when meaningful social change occurred but was somehow tragically derailed by the drug culture. In The Kings of London, the cultural references were occasionally, just occasionally, more like name dropping rather than bricks in the solid wall of genuine atmosphere. The story has a strong 60s feel, and it’s mostly ugly: Tozer’s boss doesn’t hesitate to grope her, Tozer lives in segregated housing, Breen must suffer the bother of feeding the electric meter, people fire up cigarettes casually in restaurants, the now vanished rag-and-bone men (immortalized by Steptoe and Son) make an appearance, and a disabled child is ordered to leave the library by an employee. It’s these well-worked in references that build and create atmosphere, placing us effectively in the attitudes and expectations of the Age. The more obvious references–especially to the rockstars, added too much name-dropping tinsel and felt forced.

The strength of She’s Leaving Home is absolutely in the dynamic between Tozer and Breen. There’s a sexual attraction from Breen towards Tozer, but she, a child of the 60s has an entirely different attitude towards relationships. In The Kings of London, Tozer, who’s decided to leave the force and plans to return to the family farm in Devon, is somewhat sidelined, but every time she appears in the book, that central dynamic resurfaces. And what’s so interesting here is that even though just a few years separate Breen and Tozer, they are clearly the products of a different age. Unfortunately for Breen, he’s caught between floors; he doesn’t fit with the Establishment and its values, but neither can he adjust to this new world of hippies, Hare Krishna, Free Love, and the Psychedelic 60s.

Breen is the main focus here, and we see his character shift as he’s forced to either allow the Establishment to roll over his career or to take steps to manipulate his future. There’s some unfinished business at the end of the novel, but even more intriguingly we see Breen developing and, as he fights for his career, wondering if this is how corruption begins.

He was fifteen minutes early for the 11:52 at Paddington. He stood on the platform end. He was back at work. He was a policeman again. He had something to do. But he was also a little appalled at himself. First Tarpey, now Creamer. This was the way it started. A slow corruption.

Many of the characters first seen in She’s Leaving Home continue their stories in this second volume. The unpopular “old-school policeman,”  Inspector Bailey, who never seems to connect with D Division, is still as out of touch as ever, Division secretary Marilyn still has a thing for Breen, and the ferrety Jones still can’t quite align himself with impending fatherhood. Given that one on-going thread/mystery in this novel concerns Breen’s arch-enemy, bent, but popular copper Sergeant Prosser, to get the full impact of The Kings of London, She’s Leaving Home should be read first. Fundamentally this is a novel about change–at the fore, of course, is the dynamic, constant shift of the 60s. New Scotland Yard has relocated to posh new digs and the Drug Squad is the place for the ambitious to make their careers.

The Drug Squad was still recruiting. Carmichael wanted Breen to follow him into it. But they were a loud team, brash and confident. Always getting in the papers. Not only were they fighting a whole new type of criminal, but the ones they were arresting were usually far more glamorous than the usual CID fare.

Underneath that main emphasis of the shifting 60s, William Shaw creates characters who must face changes in their lives, whether they seek those changes or not. Tozer is very much a New Woman–a woman who rejects the traditional path of marriage and children. Breen sees Inspector Bailey as a good man but largely ineffectual and fossiled in the attitudes of the past. The big questions remaining at the novel’s conclusion: Can Breen change with the times? Are Breen’s aggressive career moves simply self-defense or is he on a slippery moral slope?

Rock on volume 3….

Review copy

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14 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Shaw William

14 responses to “The Kings of London by William Shaw

  1. A friend of mine might like this series as she’s on the lookout for a something new (she’s just finished the Rebus novels). I think she’d like the setting, and the characters sound interesting with some nice development as the trilogy progresses. I wonder if anyone has bought the rights to these novels as they sound ripe for a television adaptation.

  2. I like the idea of the interpersonal issues interrelating to the mystery. I have not read Shaw but he seems well worth reading.

    Outstanding commentary as always Guy.

  3. Great review. I have to read the first book now!

  4. It’s annoying to start a series with number seven as it just happend to me as well.
    This sounds like it’s not as good as the first but good enough to want to try another. It’s interesting what you point out, that even if charcaters aren’t too far apart in years, there still might be a generational gap.

  5. It’s potentially very unfair on the author when you come into a series part way through. The characters will likely seem flat, their situations underexplained, because it’s assumed you already know a lot about both.

    It sounds good, though I’m not looking for a series at present. The period detail thing sounds something for the author to watch, though it must be tricky balancing evocation of the time with overegging it (Max quickly checked his iPhone, and idly wondered how long Peter Capaldi would continue playing Doctor Who).

    And yes, great review as ever Guy. Nicely captured..

    • Thanks Max: For the most part the author builds the 60s atmosphere well, and I found myself marking differences between then and now–the electric meter is one such example. Oh the good old days…
      But the stuff about Lennon was overplayed. He popped in for a cameo of sorts.

  6. Being a child of the 60s, I am usually drawn to any novels set in the 60s or 70s – and these sound well worth investigating further.

  7. Was She’s Leaving Home called A Song From Dead Lips in the UK? As I have The Kings Of London, but have that down as the first book??

  8. She’s Leaving Home was the US title. The UK title was A Song from dead Lips. A House of Knives or Kings of London is number 2. A Book of Scars is number 3 but who knows what other title it will pick up.

    • Really irritating for fans who may buy the same book twice, erroneously. Actually, now I think about it, I think it’s A House Of Knives I have for number 2. Not 100% sure though!

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