Tag Archives: Kent

Salt Lane: William Shaw

William Shaw’s Salt Lane is the first in the Alexandra Cupidi series, but the name and the locale, Dungeness, Kent,  rang a bell. Cupidi appeared in The Birdwatcher, and since Shaw knows better than to waste a good character (the Breen and Tozer series), it’s not too surprising that divorced, single parent Cupidi is back.

In Salt Lane, Sergeant Cupidi begins to investigate the murder of a middle-aged woman fished out from a marsh. Even the coroner is stumped when it comes to cause of death, but as the days pass, the case becomes more complex. When Cupidi finally learns the woman’s identity, she makes the drive to London to break the news to her son, Julian. But this is when things become even murkier; Julian was adopted at age 2. His mother, absent for decades, was a heroin addict, and she turned up on his doorstep right around the time the murder victim was fished from the marsh. So who is the imposter? The worn out heroin addict who apologized to Julian and then disappeared or the dead woman fished from the marsh?

Salt Lane

As Cupidi investigates, a second body is found. This is the particularly heinous murder of an illegal alien. Why was he herded into a manure slurry tank ? Are the two murders connected?

In The Birdwatcher, Cupidi ‘lost’ her first partner. For this book, she’s teamed with a younger woman, Constable Jill Ferriter. While Cupidi does not have the most winning personality, Ferriter still has the enthusiasm and naivete of youth, and the two women make a good team–although it takes a while for Jill to crack Cupidi’s defenses. 

In Salt Lane, a tightly written atmospheric police procedural, Cupidi finds that she must dig back into the alternative culture of the 80s. At the same time, she also faces the impenetrable world of illegal employment. It’s a gray world which exists just under the surface, and illegals, who are “never anywhere for very long,” don’t want to talk to the police.

The novel is marred by two coincidences, but in spite of that, this is a highly readable novel, which is driven by the murder investigations. I really liked the location, and the author capitalizes on the area when it comes to atmosphere, idiosyncrasy of locals and method of murder.

Cupidi found the owner of the breaker’s yard in the lot behind the office. He was wearing swimming trunks and dark glasses. A man in his fifties, greying hair swept back across his head, sitting on a plastic chair next to a swimming pool with a can of lager in his hand.

The pool was surrounded by old tyres and rusting gas cylinders.

“Hard day at the office?”

His leathery tan suggested he was out here most days during the summer. He fancied himself; worked out a bit. His stomach was flat for man his age, his arms muscular.

“Work, work, work,” he answered, smiling. “What about a dip?”

Cupidi makes for an interesting series character and I enjoyed the inclusion of her mother as that made some of the puzzle pieces fit. As always with a series character, we get the case (or cases) at hand plus personal life. On the personal side, Cupidi has a problematic relationship with her teenage daughter, and work demands always take precedence. Cupidi transferred to this rural area after she ended an affair with a married officer in a different department. Cupidi watches Ferriter’s interest in another Constable and knows how these things can take a sour turn.

Seriously, these characters need to take their friggin’ cell phones with them for goodness sake. Plus Cupidi is going to have a short career if she keeps putting herself (and her partner) into these risky situations. I’m not a member of the police but even I can see that the risks Cupidi takes are over-the-top. And while I’m at it, Julian’s wife, Lulu is portrayed as somewhat of a nasty cow because she’s suspicious and unfriendly when a woman claiming to be Julian’s mother shows up out of the blue. My sympathies are with Julian’s wife. I wouldn’t want a smelly heroin addict moving in my home and hovering around my toddler. Call me heartless but just because someone gave birth to you doesn’t give them automatic rights–especially if they abandoned you and decided, decades later, to pop in and see how you’re doing. 

While I guessed the perp, the novel kept my interest right up to the end, and if you read the review, it’s easy to see I felt involved with the characters here. 

Now: just a couple of non-review thoughts I’m going to add here. Personal lives are personal lives, and while I understand work-place behaviour/ethics and potential sexual harassment suits, it seems a bit intrusive for ‘the Practice Support Team’ to question Cupidi as to whether or not she’s having an affair with a married officer in a different department. Since dickhead lover boy is in a different department, I’d file that under Cupidi’s PRIVATE life, but that’s me. Then at one point DI McAdam (Cupidi’s boss) stands to “lose his job, his pension, his reputation, everything,” under an IPCC investigation. That seems harsh when we are talking about a split second judgement call under pressure. 

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Filed under Fiction, Shaw William

Calamity in Kent: John Rowland (1950)

“First of all I did what I always do when I come into a strange room-I looked at the bookshelf.”

Journalist Jimmy London is recuperating from an unnamed illness on the Kent coast at the small seaside town, Broadgate. Jimmy, out walking before the rest of the guests at the boarding house are awake, finds the operator of the cliff lift stumbling, in the state of imminent collapse after finding a dead body inside the locked cliff lift. While the operator, a rather peculiar, dense character named Aloysius Bender, goes off to get the police, Jimmy guards the body.

Jimmy, who was forced to resign from his last job for health reasons, seizes the opportunity to sell a story as a freelancer. Alone with the body, he rifles the clothes of the dead man and grabs a notebook. This behaviour is the first sign that we are dealing with a delightfully unscrupulous character who justifies himself throughout the story as he skirts between his self-interest and remaining in the good graces of Inspector Shelley from Scotland Yard.

calamity in kent

John Rowland’s 1950 novel Calamity in Kent is an interesting entry in the British Library Crime Classics. Inspector Shelley and  Jimmy are old friends, and these two characters work their own parallel , co-operative investigations with Shelley acknowledging that people will talk to a newspaperman whereas a uniform will often result in a witness clamming up. And this indeed proves to be the case. Jimmy digs into the past of the dead man and befriends a couple of young people who are mixed up in the case by association.

With many of the books in this series, following the investigation with a main character brings the reader in as a sideline detective. Take Miles Burton’s Death in the Tunnel, for example–whenever Inspector Arnold and his friend, amateur sleuth Merrion meet, they exchange theories and alternate scenarios, and the reader inevitably enters into the detective dynamic and the puzzle of the crime. In Rowland’s novel, the same dynamic doesn’t exist. Inspector Shelley allows Jimmy to collaborate but the reporter is definitely not an equal–Shelley doesn’t divulge exactly how and where he gets his information.

In Calamity in Kent, the emphasis is on the murder victim’s business dealings in Broadgate, and while the number of murder suspects are limited, these aspects, along with the fact that the body is found inside a locked lift, are both subsumed and sidelined by the victim’s possible black market connections. So the emphasis is not so much who-dunnit as why, with Inspector Shelley obviously rationalising that if he can solve the puzzle of the victim’s criminal life, all other parts of the puzzle will fall into place. If you are the sort of reader who wants to solve the puzzle–in this case, how was the victim inside a locked cliff lift, then you may feel a little disappointed that you can’t run with this aspect of the tale. If, however, you are content to be inside Jimmy’s head, then you will sit back, relax and enjoy his story.

Jimmy balances his desire to deliver a salacious story to the paper that’s hired him against his promise to Shelley that he’ll keep some aspects of the case confidential. When presented with moral dilemmas regarding his responsibility towards the case, Jimmy’s self-interest rules, but there’s always a little moral quibbling:

I know that this was something in every way reprehensible. I ought not to have tried to keep anything to myself. But I salved my conscience by telling myself that Shelley had not told me by any means all that he knew.

It’s clear that Jimmy is first and foremost a newspaper man. He has a nose for character and behaviour and acts rather -un-detective-like upon occasion. For example, he decides that a couple of suspects are innocent and treats them accordingly. His view of the crime is always light-hearted, and he’s content to be Shelley’s bloodhound as he knows this will, ultimately, profit his career.

“I suppose that even the discovery of corpses is something which may become more or less normal if it happens often enough.”

Review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Rowland John