Category Archives: Shaw William

The Birdwatcher: William Shaw

William Shaw’s Breen and Tozer series ( She’s Leaving Home, The Kings of London, A Song for the Brokenhearted ) series is notable for its intense 60s setting, so it’s not too surprising that Shaw’s standalone, The Birdwatcher presents an equally compelling atmospheric novel, this time set on the Kentish coast. Grounded against a stark unfriendly landscape, The Birdwatcher is the story of police sergeant William South, a solitary man who plugs away at his job and spends his time …. bird-watching. And he’s picked a great place for it, a marshy area on a remote shingled promontory, a perfect area for shore birds and its nuclear reactors don’t exactly attract tourists:

Behind the black tower of the old lighthouse, the metal and concrete blocks that surrounded the two reactors rose, unnaturally massive in the flat land. These colossal shapes were surrounded by rows of razor-wire fences. 

William South’s paced, orderly, quiet life begins to unravel when he’s assigned to “hand holding” the new DS, Alexandra Cupidi who’s transferred, as it turns out, under a cloud from the Met. A single parent with a troubled teenage daughter, Cupidi’s just arrived and she’s already caught a murder case. South tries to beg off the assignment, he’d “always avoided murder,” and to make matters worse, the victim is his neighbour, friend and fellow birder, Robert Rayner.

Rayner has been savagely beaten to death over a period of time. Cupidi feels that the murder is very personal, a result of rage. As she investigates, with South reluctantly by her side, it becomes clear that Rayner lied about his past.

The Birdwatcher

In spite of the fact that South did not want to become involved in the murder case, soon his entire life, private and professional, is taken over by DS Cupidi. There’s a sign of things to come when he sits in the car she’s had for a day, and already has to move crumbs and food wrappers aside in order to sit. South valiantly sends out hermit vibes which Cupidi blithely ignores. Soon she sets up headquarters, for convenience, at South’s house, violating his carefully established privacy.

Where South is methodical, Cupidi seems to embrace chaos. It would be easy to underestimate Cupidi, but South realises that would be a mistake when they discuss the victim’s private life:

“To be honest, now I think about it, he never talked that much about anything else.”

She stood, looked at her watch. “Because he didn’t have anything to say? Or because he had something to hide?”

He would have to watch her, he thought.

The investigation of Rayner’s murder is alternated with chapters which reveal South’s past in Ireland. We know from page one, that South has something to hide (which explains his lifestyle), and we also know that the past will inevitably catch up to the present.

The police procedural is not my favourite type of crime novel, as all too often this form can bog down in detail. Not so with The Birdwatcher, and while I wasn’t entirely convinced by the ending, the compelling narrative, along with the idea of the futility of trying to escape one’s fate, make for a gripping read. Shaw convincingly makes the argument that bird-watching and policework, at least for William South, go hand in hand. Bird-watching has made South a better policeman, or perhaps it’s vice versa. As with Breen and Tozer, Shaw has created a fascinating dynamic between South and Cupidi, and Shaw fans will be pleased.

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A Song for the Brokenhearted: William Shaw

“Violence had its echo.”

A Song for the Brokenhearted is the third volume in William Shaw’s Breen and Tozer trilogy. The dynamic between these two main characters, both outsiders for different reasons, are a major draw for this series. CID CS Cathal Breen, known as ‘Paddy’ doesn’t ‘fit in’ with his Division, and Helen Tozer, never taken seriously by her male colleagues, is a young female policewoman, Temporary Detective (“Probationer,”) who hails from the countryside. In the first book, She’s Leaving Home, the mismatched team of Breen and Tozer tackle a murder case, in The Kings of London Breen investigates the murder of a wealthy art collector, and this final book in the trilogy, opens at the Tozer farm. Helen has given up on her career and has returned home to work. Breen is there for.. well read The Kings of London for that one.

The series is unique for its 60s setting–Tozer, in the first book is the source of many sexist comments and expectations from her male workmates who think she exists to make their coffee and giggle over their jokes, and meanwhile Beatlemania rages through Britain. Shaw’s characters are firmly rooted in their time, so we have speculation about why a nice girl like Helen Tozer wants to be a policewoman, but the answer to that lies in her past.

a song for the brokenhearted

That brings me to A Song for the Brokenhearted–anyone who read the first and second books in the series knows that Tozer is haunted by the brutal, unsolved slaying of her sister Alexandra. This vicious crime is the root cause for Tozer’s career choice, and the murder is so deeply embedded in the character of Helen Tozer that we know its solution had to occur somewhere in the series. With Breen bored out of his mind on the Tozer farm, he grasps how the unsolved murder permeates the household. He begins poking around in the cold murder case.

Murdered people never really go away. They stay with you. If you never discover why they were killed, or who the killer was, it’s worse. As a policeman he knew this from the families and friends of the victims that he’d met over the years. Now living here, the dead girl was all around him in this house.

Using Tozer’s influence, he accesses the old files and discovers that information regarding a key witness, one of Alexandra’s many secret lovers, is missing from storage. After discovering the name of this witness, a wealthy local married man, Breen begins digging into the case, and the past comes back with swift retribution.

As with the previous two books in the series, the author does an excellent job of recreating the 60s atmosphere without nostalgia, and since this entry in the trilogy is set, mostly, in the countryside, the 60s references are more social values than star power, so at one point, for example, we see a pregnant woman puffing away at a cigarette–funny how that seems shocking these days, and hear about jury selection for the Kray brothers’ trial.  Shaw presents the generational gap between Breen and Tozer as the world of the 50s clashing with the 60s. This is a world in flux with rapidly shifting values. In this novel, there’s an additional element of colonialism, and the Dirty business carried out in Kenya washes up in unexpected ways in spite of, apparently, being swept under the rug.

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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….

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She’s Leaving Home by William Shaw

How are you doing with that women’s libber of yours, Paddy?” asked Jones. “Wouldn’t mind seeing her burning her bra.”

William Shaw’s title She’s Leaving Home references a Beatles song, and it’s an appropriate choice given the subject matter and the times in which this excellent crime novel is set. It’s 1968, London, and the naked body of a teenage girl is found stuffed under a mattress right next to some flats and around the corner from EMI Studios, located on Abbey Road. A couple of details about the placement of the body don’t add up, and troubled CID DS Paddy Breen is assigned to the case. Paddy hails from Ireland but now works in D Division where he’s a distrusted, disliked outsider. Bailey, who ineffectually heads the station, is also disliked and has no control over the Division coppers who make fun of him behind his back. When the novel opens a murky incident which involves Breen and the very much-liked Sergeant Prosser has taken place. The incident, a robbery, only underscores the contempt aimed at Paddy, and he’s warned by a friend to get out of Murder and D Division and get into drugs where all the growth and excitement will be:

We’re on the tip of the iceberg. Come aboard, Paddy. Ship’s about to sail. Murder is just the same old same old. And I’m on vice. That’s even worse. Vice is done for. This is the permissive society. When there’s people starkers on stage up at the Shaftesbury Theatre singing about the age of the Hairy-Arse, who needs to pay for it anymore? Did you go? No? I did. God, there’s some ugly women in that. I felt like shouting, ‘For God’s sake out your clothes back on.’ In a couple of years, we’ll be like Sweden, I tell you. The point is, nobody even has to pay for it these days. These young girls, nowadays, they’ll fuck anybody. Nobby Pilcher’s got it right. Growth industry. I’m serious, Paddy. You need to get out of D Div.

While Breen investigates the murder of the teenager, he is accompanied by Temporary Detective Helen Tozer, originally from Devon, who wants to work murder. Women PCs are “only on admin and social work. If a crime involved a kid, you’d ask one on them in. Apart from that they never came into a CID office.” Tozer, who has personal reasons for wanting to work in murder, must face an avalanche of attitudes from her fellow police officers.  Repeatedly ordered to make the tea for the male officers, it’s also assumed she’s promiscuous when she identifies a stain as sperm on a dress found in the bins near the victim. Her suggestions are treated as a joke and the implications are that she’s either good for fresh cups of tea or as a potential sex partner. Fortunately, she’s thick-skinned enough to let the insults slide off her back. While Breen expects that the male officers will taunt Tozer, he’s unprepared for the venom directed at Tozer by one of the female secretaries.

she's leaving homeTozer and Breen make a great team, and a great deal of the novel’s interest can be found in the way Breen learns to bend to Tozer’s suggestions as they investigate the opaque world of crazed Beatles fans–the masses of young girls who camp outside the homes of their idols and sleep outside of the recording studios hoping for a glimpse of the Beatles as they arrive. While Breen represents the fossilized world of Authority, Tozer can relate to Beatlemania.

One of the refreshing aspects of the novel is the total lack of 60s nostalgia, so forget the up-beat score of Pirate Radio. In Shaw’s world, the 60s is an unpleasant place–racism and sexism are unchecked and even applauded. We see a world in flux, so while young men with long hair walk around in flowered shirts and flared trousers, and greasers and their girls snog publicly, the older generation tut and complain and rain judgments down about the new permissive society where anything goes. There’s an ugliness to this world found in the small-minded callousness of many of the characters Breen and Tozer question in the course of the investigation. The judgmental and primly unpleasant Miss Shankley, for example, who lives in the flats where the body was found, assumes that the naked girl was a prostitute, while to members of D Division, she’s just another “naked bird.” But even the smaller details coat the story with the minutia of life in the 60s–from coin-operated electric meters to  pregnant women smoking as a matter of course.

West London was full of color. Each year the colors got louder. Girls in green leather miniskirts, boys in paisley shirts and white loafers. New boutiques selling orange plastic chairs from Denmark. Brash billboards with sexy girls in blue bikinis fighting the inch war. A glimpse of a front room in a Georgian house where patterned wallpaper had been overpainted in yellow and a huge red paper lampshade hung from the ceiling. Pale blue Triumphs and bright red minis parked in the streets.

Around Clerkenwell the color faded. The old monochromes of post-war London returned. Still flat-capped and gray. East London continued its business.

Breen and Tozer make a terrific team, and I was much more interested in them, I’ll admit, than the solution to the crime.  He’s lonely and attracted to this young woman who’s a bit out of his league, and although the premise isn’t overworked, it’s clear that Tozer is the new kind of woman–a woman who wants to be taken seriously, and a woman who wants a career–not a family in this age when “women officers aren’t allowed to drive cars.” The plot is also a commentary on the shifting face of crime in Britain with celebrity drug-busts and young officers, thrilled by a break from tedious routine, excited to participate in a car chase or a murder. Author William Shaw, a journalist, has written other books which he terms “narrative non-fiction.”  She’s Leaving Home is also published as the title A Song From Dead Lips and is the first of three planned books set in London 1968/69 and featuring DS Breen and PC Tozer. I’m in for the duration, and for anyone scouting for material out there, this book would make a great television series.

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