Friday, December 18, 2015

Review of A Song from Dead Lips by William Shaw (Quercus, 2013)

London, 1968, and a young woman is found dead, hidden under rubbish in an alleyway near to the studio used by the Beatles.  The locals are quick to finger a new arrival in the area, a black surgeon involved in Biafra nationalism.  Detective Sergeant Cathal Breen is assigned to the case and has little time for racist prejudices.  Breen is under a cloud having abandoned a colleague at a robbery who was subsequently stabbed.  While most of his colleagues are reluctant to invest much effort into the investigation, new recruit to WPC Helen Tozer is keen to make her mark.  As the first woman to join the CID team she’s fighting an uphill battle to gain acceptance.  Working together Breen and Tozer slowly make headway, establishing that the girl was a keen Beatles fan.  When two more people end up dead, the case steps up a gear, with Breen and Tozer racing to catch the killer before anyone else dies.

Set in London at the tail-end of the swinging sixties, A Song from Dead Lips captures not only the changes taking place at the time, but also the rump of old conservatism and everyday racism and sexism, the influence of class, and the pervasiveness of corruption within institutions.  Along with context, the key ingredients of the book are its two lead characters and their somewhat awkward relationship.  Detective Sergeant Breen is a principled outsider, the son of an Irish immigrant builder, who is marginalised within CID.  WPC Helen Tozer is an ambitious but rather naïve detective determined to break the glass ceiling.  Shaw surrounds them with a number of other well penned coppers and suspects.  The plot is a relatively straightforward police procedural, with Breen and Tozer fighting their colleagues as they struggle to solve the mystery.  The result is an engaging tale full of social and political commentary.

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