She’s Leaving Home
Author: William Shaw
Published: Published February 11th 2014 by Mulholland Books
Previously published in the UK as A Song From Dead Lips
Genres: Detective, Historical
Blurb: London, 1968: The body of a teenage girl is found just steps away from the Beatles’ Abbey Road recording studio.
The police are called to a residential street in St John’s Wood where an unidentified young woman has been strangled. Detective Sergeant Cathal Breen believes she may be one of the many Beatles fans who regularly camp outside Abbey Road Studios. With his reputation tarnished by an inexplicable act of cowardice, this is Breen’s last chance to prove he’s up to the job.
Breen is of the generation for whom reaching adulthood meant turning into one’s parents and accepting one’s place in the world. But the world around him is changing beyond recognition. Nothing illustrates the shift more than Helen Tozer, a brazen and rambunctious young policewoman assisting him with the case. Together they navigate a world on edge, where conservative tradition gives way to frightening new freedoms–and troubling new crimes.
It has been a while since I found time to read anything for some pretty obvious reasons. When I have opened a book, it has usually been held up in front of a small child and featured brightly colored elephants, dinosaurs or bears having adventures (by which I mean performing simple, everyday tasks that adults take for granted – but more on that in another post). My ‘to read’ pile has grown and grown to the point that it may soon outgrow my bedside cabinet and I have found excuse after excuse to delay picking them up or, to my shame, I have started some and simply never finished them.
This book turned out to be the one that broke through. I came to it relatively blind, grabbing it off the shelf mostly on the basis of its cover and blurb. It was intended to fill up a lunch break where I was stuck at work without my car and I fully expected to do what I had done with every other book I had grabbed over the past few months but this one grabbed me. I found myself caring about the characters, intrigued by an element of the setting (I knew nothing about the Biafran war prior to reading this and the book left me wanting to learn more) and impressed by the way the novel explored the societal changes taking place in Britain during the late Sixties without becoming sentimental.
Typically when a work reflects on the Sixties there is a tendency to paint the decade as a time of hope and liberation but Shaw’s novel recognizes that while one generation was excited about the changes that were looming for Britain, those same changes seemed confusing or threatening to others within society. The novel’s main character, Cathal Breen, is a great case in point. He is something of an outsider himself, both within the Police Force and British society as a whole. He is the son of Irish immigrants and never quite seems to click with his colleagues (we learn at the beginning of the novel that he had run away when a fellow officer was threatened at knife point – an action that has marked him out as a coward) who frequently show themselves to be casually sexist, racist and violent. Anyone who has seen the excellent British fantasy-crime show, Life On Mars, will be familiar with the types.
While Breen and Tozer, the young female officer assigned to a murder case with him, are shown as being more progressive than those around them, they are not themselves perfect. Tozer is bright, sparky and appealing but while she is clearly part of the new, more hopeful and liberated generation, we would still regard some of her language as offensive. A reminder perhaps that social progress is never instantaneous and that being socially conscious in one respect does not guarantee the same level of care in every aspect of life.
I found both characters likable and believable, enjoying the way their partnership and eventual friendship builds throughout the novel. The conflict between them felt genuine and grounded in understandable emotions. When I ask myself why this was the novel that broke my DNF streak, I feel that the answer lies in the characterization. I quickly came to care about both of these characters and I wanted them to figure out a way they could work together (and perhaps get together). Both of our leads are given their own back stories that inform their characters and which we learn more about in the course of this first novel. This is apparently the first book in a trilogy of stories so we can expect further developments there (the second novel, The Kings of London, will be released early in 2015).
The mystery sometimes feels almost secondary to the characters and the setting, though that may just be a reflection of how it emerges from them and interacts with the novel’s theme of generational conflict. This is not the sort of mystery story that is packed with red herrings and dramatic twists. Our focus is always on how the things Breen and Tozer discover affect them and their relationship.
The characters we encounter in the course of the investigation, both in terms of the suspects and the wider net of characters we encounter, are both interesting and colorful. I enjoyed discovering the connections between them and while I was ahead of the investigation for each of the key revelations, I never . There are certainly some very dramatic moments and the solution, when it is revealed, is not only satisfying in how it ties up various things we have learned in Breen and Tozer’s investigation but it also works beautifully with the broader themes of the novel.
Sometimes a historical novel’s setting feels incidental – color grafted onto a plot to add interest. What impressed me most about this book was how very necessary the setting proved to be. Shaw creates a mystery that is drawn out of the fractures and challenges that were confronting British society during that decade. In doing so he creates a work that is more than a piece of genre fiction. This is something bigger, bolder and more interesting. It is not a perfect work. There are moments where the main mystery might have been more tightly paced and the prose is occasionally a little awkward, the casual racism and sexism can sometimes feel premeditated, but this is an impressive and promising debut and I am keen to read further mysteries featuring Breen and Tozer.