Written by William Shaw — Crime writers are occasionally given to complaining about how technology has made life harder when it comes to plotting. Many Golden Age authors would certainly have been scuppered by mobile phones or CCTV. So, in theory, the historical crime novel should make life simpler. However, the judicious deployment of research for a truly evocative period crime story is perhaps more challenging.
It’s even riskier when the setting is still within living memory, yet that hasn’t deterred William Shaw from depicting a criminal investigation in London in 1968. A debut novel and the start of a procedural series, A Song from Dead Lips is a richly detailed portrait of the late 60s. Yes, it features Beatlemania, mini-skirts and institutional sexism, but also less obvious elements of the period that readers of a certain age will surely recognise. There are dodgy drug raids on celebrities, references to the fascist coup in Greece (a popular holiday destination for Brits), and the divisive utterances of Enoch Powell.
Shaw’s evocation of the era is convincing, which helps draw you into the fictional world of DS Cathal Breen, who’s coping with the death of his father and, in his 30s, feels just a bit too old for the swinging 60s. An incident with his partner has made the detective unpopular with his colleagues, who routinely call him ‘Paddy’ because of his Irish origins (institutional racism is also rife).
Their latest case centres on the discovery of an unidentified young woman who’s been strangled and her naked body left in an alley in St John’s Wood. The junior officers are uncooperative and Breen’s colleagues are not interested in his theories about this possible runaway. They have decided this is a dead prostitute case and not worth their time.
The investigation is shaken up by the secondment to Marylebone CID of a new recruit: WPC Helen Tozer. Neither the male cops nor their secretary are keen on this idea. In 1968, female police officers were largely shunted into administrative roles and social work. Even Breen is a bit uncertain about this chatty, opinionated female detective.
But Tozer gradually elbows her way onto the team, not least because she’s in touch with youth culture and this case involves questioning hippies in squats who might have known the victim. The location of the body is also close to Abbey Road Studios, where The Beatles record. Band devotees hang around hoping to catch a glimpse, and perhaps the dead girl was also a fan.
Breen and Tozer also discover an African angle as a local resident is closely involved in the campaign for Biafran independence. It’s a period detail that further enriches the novel, although it’s a little unfortunate that William Boyd’s high-profile James Bond novel, Solo, is also set in the late 60s and incorporates a plot inspired by the Nigerian-Biafran civil war.
Shaw’s procedural still has plenty going for it, though it suffers from the typical problems of the debut: secondary characters who tend to blur into one another and a story that’s a slow starter. When Breen and Tozer fire up the Ford Zephyr and head to Cornwall, the plot kicks in and the second half of the book is a riveting read.
The novel includes cameo appearances from John Lennon and his drug squad nemesis Norman ‘Nobby’ Pilcher, who employed dubious methods and was later jailed for perverting the course of justice. Shaw’s research is exemplary and the clash of alternative moralities between the generations is vividly portrayed.
There are humorous touches in the book, too, such as the prevalence of smoking and the idle cops who never seem to leave the canteen. A Song from Dead Lips is tragic enough to make you angry about some of the things that happened in the 1960s, but it’s also funny and full of authentic details. This promises to be captivating crime series.
The second book in the Breen and Tozer series, A House of Knives, is out now.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars