Salt Lane by William Shaw

salt laneA woman’s body is found floating  in coastal marshland weeks after she was killed. The circumstances make it clear she’d been murdered, but why can’t the autopsy determine the cause of death?

And when DS Alex Cupidi notifies the woman’s son about the death of his mother, he insists that his mother had been at his house, only a day or two earlier, and very much alive.

Salt Lane is an intriguing follow-up to The Birdwatcher, in which Detective Sergeant Alexandra Cupidi  had been introduced, almost as a secondary character.

Her relocation to Kent, after an ill-considered affair with a married colleague in London, isn’t going smoothly. The distance between her and her teenage daughter is growing, echoing the fraught relationship she had with her own mother. The demands of her job complicate her  attempts to heal those bonds, and too often her investigations touch raw family nerves, bringing her work very close to home.

Like William Shaw’s earlier books this one weaves real events into the story. The Greenham Common protests of the 1980s provide some background context to a plot addressing the present day issue of refugees, “illegal migrants” and how their legal vulnerability makes the susceptible to exploitation. All of Shaw’s books use a political or social situation relevant to the time, as an integral part of the crimes being investigated.

The first William Shaw book I read was The Birdwatcher. After that I went back and read his earlier books,  the Breen and Tozer series.

That series had a late 1960s setting, and I loved the portrayal of the period, as well as the many references to real events of the time .

I was disappointed when the Breen and Tozer series came to an end, so was excited to find a link in Salt Lane between that older series and this new one, but I’m not sure whether someone reading Salt Lane first would experience the same “wow” moment that I did when that connection was made.

While I strongly recommend this book, my recommendation would be to read Shaw’s books in the order they were written, coming to this one last. Each book has its individual story, but there is an ongoing story line across them all. I think cross-references between each book would be better appreciated by someone who had read the preceding ones.

William Shaw’s work is one of the best discoveries I’ve made this year and I’m impatient for his next book. According to The Book Depository, Dungeness is due for release in May 2019.



Breen and Tozer

There are four books in William Shaw’s Breen and Tozer series.

A Song From Dead LipsA House of Knives, A Book of Scars and Sympathy For the Devil

They cover the last two years of the 1960s, referencing the music, the politics and the significant social changes going on at the time.

It’s the temporal setting that attracted me to the books. It covers my late childhood years, my last years of living in England, and therefore the books have a nostalgic appeal.

DS Cathal Breen meets new recruit WPC Helen Tozer while investigating the murder of a young woman near the Abbey Road studio in London. Breen is a little out of touch with the rapid changes in the world going on around him.

Helen Tozer’s exuberance contrasts with Breen’s conservatism as she pushes against what is expected of a young woman in the Metropolitan police force, a valuable asset giving her access to areas from which Breen, by himself, would be excluded.

Both are trying to put difficult family experiences behind them, but find its not easy to escape the effects of the past, in particular the childhood murder of Tozer’s sister.

Over the course of the series, complications in their relationship increase when their personal and professional lives become increasingly interdependent.

The four titles are standalone books but have common threads linking them together. While each story has a primary investigation, background incidents in one can be revisited in a subsequent book. A minor incident can become a major plot point later.

For me one of the more interesting things in the series was the weaving of real events and real people into the stories. The Biafra war. The Kenyan Mau Mau uprising. The Kroger spy scandal. The death of  Rolling Stones founder Brian Jones. Each play a significant part in one or more books, not only as background colour, but as critical parts of stories.

I’ve now read all of them and would definitely continue with the series if the author chooses to continue with these characters, especially as they move closer to my teenage decade. Should future books be written, portraying the 70s with the kind of evocative details as Shaw did with the 60s, I’ll be a very satisfied reader.


A Song From Dead Lips, by William Shaw

SongA Song From Dead Lips is set in the period that brought Abbey Road to fame through its Beatles’ connection.

The body of a teenage girl is found on wasteland near to the Abbey Road studios.  Investigations into her death lead DS Breen and his new assistant WPC Tozer through the worlds of late 60s pop-fandom and post-colonial politics.

I was attracted to this book after reading Shaw’s recent The Birdwatcher. I found out that he’d set an earlier books series in 1960s London. That gave them a strong element of nostalgic appeal.

This book is the first in a series of four and I enjoyed the story and its characters enough to read more of the series when I get the opportunity.

This book (and I assume the rest of the Breen & Tozer series) complement TV shows like Endeavour,   WPC 56 and even Tennison,  all of which give an insight into policing during the 50s, 60s and 70s. The latter two series, as well as this book,  showing up the prejudices faced by women entering the male dominated, often ultra macho world of the police force of those eras.

Shaw creates a convincing late 60s setting for his book: at least one that’s convincing to this reader (a year older than the author) who wasn’t quite old enough to understand or experience a lot of what was happening at the time.

I was a pre-teen during the 1960s, but there was still a lot familiarity in the cultural setting, with its music references and a background of the Biafran war (see video below)

While I was too young to understand the politics at the time, I do remember the slogan “Remember Biafra”, referencing the civil war that caused countless civilian deaths, including innumerable starved children.




The Birdwatcher Update

Just over a week ago I wrote about The Birdwatcher, the book I was reading at that time.

I was reading it with the suspicion that the bookseller’s online blurb had “spoiled” an essential plot point, basically giving away the ending.

I’ve now finished the book and I found that 1)  the suspected spoiled ending didn’t eventuate and 2) that I misread the bookseller’s blurb, and that the potential “spoiler” was my own invention.

When I wrote previously I was only a third of the way through the book, and while I was enjoying parts of it, overall it wasn’t exciting me.

But that changed very quickly not long afterwards, drawing me more deeply into the characters’ lives and culminating in an unexpected but satisfying ending.

I’m very pleased that some of the characters will be returning in a book to be released in May.

salt lane


I also enjoyed The Birdwatcher enough to order one of Shaw’s earlier books A Song From Dead Lips, the first of a series set during 1960s London, currently selling for less than half price.

The Birdwatcher, by William Shaw

I found out about this book through a brief review on Sarah Ward’s blog. I quickly ordered a copy.

Ward had said the book had an interesting ending and assured she’s give “no spoilers” to ruin the book for others.
However, the book seller may not have been so thoughtful. Their brief description of the book on their sales site potentially revealed a significant “spoiler”, and my reading of the book became an exercise in second guessing what was ahead.

What appealed to me and encouraged me to get a copy?

Firstly there was Sarah Ward’s recommendation.

Secondly I was interested in trying a new crime writer, although I’m not sure why considering how many books I still have by the handful of authors I’ve already started.

Thirdly, as a backyard birdwatcher, the reference in the title  was appealing. How many novels these days have bird watching references?

As I write this I’m only a third of the way into the book, so I still don’t know whether my spoiler fears about the bookseller’s blurb will be realised. I’m also not sure to what extent I’m enjoying it. Throughout, the story splits between two time periods; the present, with the murder investigation, and the past where childhood memories are depicted.

So far I’ve preferred the parts from the past. They seem to have more life, more colour, and a stronger uncertainty of what comes next. They also cover a period and a political situation that’s interested me since my teen years (when these events would have been occurring).

Of course, it may not be fair to write a “review” with so little of the book completed, but when I can, I want to address books as an ongoing experience, and not as some kind of post-read judgement.

I’ll have to write again later to confirm whether the book seller’s blurb was a genuine spoiler or not, and of course give a more informed account of my overall reading experience.