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.



Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime, by Val McDermid

I do a lot of my reading in my work lunchbreaks.

This book is perhaps not the best lunchtime material: discovering the forensic importance of blowflies and their larvae (maggots) while chewing on last night’s left over Aloo Gobi and rice wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste.

However there are compensations for the inevitable moments of squeamishness. McDermid’s study of various branches of forensic investigation is fascinating.

She takes the reader from early, historical ideas and practices through to present day scientific investigative techniques, with examples given from actual cases.

“The governing principles of forensic science, as laid down by Edmond Locard at the beginning of the last century, is that ‘every contact leaves a trace’. But unless we know how to analyse, categorise and understand those traces, they’re not much use when it comes to catching criminals. As scientists have made new discoveries, so the art of detection has advanced.”

Various different disciplines come into play, through which different “traces” can be examined to determine a course of events associated with a crime, an accident, a natural death or even a war atrocity. Each chapter of Forensics highlights a different field of investigation, starting with the crime or accident scene itself.

Noted evidence can include the presence (and activity) of insects, fingerprints, blood spatter and DNA testable material. Beyond the incident scene, evidence can be examined through various means including autopsies on victims, toxicology tests (to determine the presence and effects of drugs or poisons) and DNA comparisons. Non-biological forensics are also given a couple of chapters, with digital forensics playing a part in finding evidence through computer, phone and CCTV records; while forensic psychology looks into the personalities and possible motivations of potential suspects.

While all of these disciplines have been useful in solving crimes, McDermid also refers to some instances in which forensic evidence has led to questionable results. One example given was a case in which an interpretation of fingerprint evidence led to a wrong conviction, as well as implicating police in career-ending acts of misconduct that were later shown to be unfounded.

While forensic sciences have changed the nature of crime investigation, mostly for the better,  outcomes are always dependent on the experience and expertise of those reviewing and understanding what the forensic evidence means.

McDermid’s book gives an excellent, informative overview of the role of forensic sciences. My interest in the topic came about as a side-track from my recent journey into crime fiction, a diversion related to my occasional detour into true crime cases.

At the risk of using a gratuitously inappropriate metaphor, this book has helped to put some meat on the bones; giving me a better understanding of investigative practices that have been touched upon in other books I’ve read recently.

Catching a Serial Killer interview

When Detective Steve Fulcher arrested Christopher Halliwell for a murder, the taxi driver said there was another body. In an effort to build trust and find the second victim, Fulcher failed to caution him a second time. Christopher Halliwell is now in jail for two murders, and there are potentially more bodies to find. But the man who caught him has been drummed out of the force.


Catching a Serial Killer

On 19th March 2011, Sian O’Callaghan was reported as missing. She failed to return home to her boyfriend after a night out with friends. Early indications suggested she had been abducted, and Detective Superintended Stephen Fulcher was assigned the role of Senior Investigating Officer (SIO) in the case.

Fulcher worked on the assumption that Sian was a kidnap victim and therefore locating her quickly was essential. The hope that she was still alive motivated his approach to the investigation, prioritising her safe return.

Ultimately that motivation would cost him his job.

Taking advantage of a timely display of apparent contrition, Fulcher, still hoping to find the victim alive, questioned his prime suspect outside of expected police procedure. That interaction led to the suspect, taxi driver Christopher Halliwell, taking Fulcher to the place where he’d disposed of Sian’s body.

To Fulcher’s surprise, Halliwell then asked him if he wanted “another one”, after which he took the police to the site where he’d buried Becky Godden, a previously unknown victim of an earlier murder.

Fulcher later started to suspect that there could be another six unknown victims of Halliwell”s violence, after Halliwell boasted to a fellow prison mate that police were investigating 8 murders he’d committed.

Five years later Fulcher’s successor located Halliwell’s “trophy store”, where he’d hidden articles taken from Sian and others, who were also likely victims, whose identity remains unknown. However, despite the suspicion that there were six others , the number of discoveries indicated there could be up to sixty of them.

Like the earlier book about the 1960s Cannock Chase murders, Catching A Serial Killer gives insight into the workings within an active police murder investigation, however almost 50 years later technology has clearly made a difference.

Computerised systems have simplified the collation and retrieval of possibly relevant material.

CCTV in public places as well as vehicle recognition cameras have made it possible to locate victims right up to the time of the crime committed against them, as well as locating and tracking vehicles potentially used by the perpetrator.

And DNA profiling has helped in identifying victims as well as confirming a perpetrator’s contact with a victim.

While Fulcher’s unorthodox approach brought closure to the Sian O’Callaghan case, and discovered a previously unknown killing, it also brought an end to his police career.

This situation seems to offer the flip side to the American case examined in Adnan’s Story, and highlights the difficulties that can be faced in police investigations. In the American case it seems that a blind eye was turned to questionable police procedures that seem* to have led to the conviction and incarceration of an innocent man; all done in the name of expediency, to get a conviction of someone, anyone, to have the case closed “successfully”.

While that case shows good reason why  approved procedures and limits are necessary in the way police approach their work as a protection to the innocent (even though they seemingly had little effect in the Syed case), what Fulcher did, and what happened to him as a result shows how those procedures and limits can hamper the successful investigation of critical incidents where a life may be at risk.

The need to protect the innocent from the actions of potentially dodgy cops becomes a hindrance to the necessary work of the good cop. Maintaining justice will always be a difficult process  as long as there are “good guys” motivated by less than honourable ambitions. The reality of that kind of person within the law enforcement and legal systems makes it harder to obtain the desired, just outcome that society would expect.

And when “the law” becomes more about winning or losing than about  truth and justice…


I had been unable to see how Halliwell’s case could possibly be defended. I did now: by painting me as the bad guy. From the hero of the piece, having found the body of an abducted girl and a second victim, it seemed I would become the villain…

…It had never occurred to me that the actual facts of the case would – apparently – not be taken into account. The issue of Halliwell’s guilt or innocence wasn’t in question and I’d always thought his case was undefendable. I had never anticipated that his legal team wouldn’t even try to defend it – that they’d simply try to have it thrown out of court. But that was what was happening.

[Stephen Fulcher from Catching a Serial Killer]



* In my opinion, the investigations into the case covered in many hours of recordings on the Undisclosed website show that there was no convincing evidence that Adnan Syed was guilty of the crime of which he was accused.

See previous post and follow links here:


The Dead Place, Stephen Booth

An unidentified skeleton. Sinister phone calls. A missing office worker (probably abducted, maybe murdered). And a dead dog, shot through the heart.
All keeping the Edendale police busy in the Derbyshire peak district.
Is there a genuine crime to investigate or is someone with a death fetish playing macabre games? If there is a crime – has it been committed yet?
What is relevant and what is a distraction?

The Dead Place is the sixth in the Cooper and Fry series. Like the previous books, history, folklore and landscape each play a significant part in the story.

Both DC Cooper and DS Fry are challenged by their own experiences of death, making this case particularly difficult for Dianne Fry, as memories of an earlier case are revived.

A Daily Mail quote on the front cover says “not for the squeamish”. I suspect the warning relates to the book’s detailed descriptions of what happens to a body after death. The worst parts are not necessarily the natural results of decay, instead I found the more disturbing aspects were descriptions of the unnatural cosmetic processes used upon the dead to keep up appearances for grieving family leading up to the funeral or cremation.

Those attempts to sanitise death (due to a fear of death?) are also evident in the language used to avoid it.

Cooper knew that he’d have to face up to his own death some time. Like most people, he’d always thought he could avoid it for ever. And perhaps he’d read too many stories in which people didn’t actually die. Instead, they passed away, breathed their last, or were no more.

I’ve enjoyed all of the Cooper and Fry books I’ve read so far, but out of the six, I found this one a little less appealing; not because of it’s often grim (though fascinating) content, but because it seemed less straight forward and focused than the others. The conclusion brought loose ends together but I felt dissatisfied with the resolution of the ambiguities and uncertainties set up earlier. However, as part of an ongoing series, there are other aspects of this story that make up for that dissatisfaction.

We learn more about DS Fry’s past, and her troubled relationship with DC Cooper shows some signs (maybe temporarily) of mellowing. Ben Cooper also faces new family challenges, that are not associated with the memory of his hero father (who had been killed years earlier during his own police service).

And yet again DC Ben Cooper’s music collection stirs the pool of nostalgia.

We clearly have the same musical taste. Gloria introduced me to the Scottish band Runrig early in our friendship.

Cooper listens to the following song while driving away from an incident he was investigating.

Before the Poison, by Peter Robinson

poison.jpgThis is the first non-DCI Banks book by Peter Robinson that I’ve read.

After decades of living and working in America, Chris Lowndes returns to Britain after the death of his wife. He buys a large isolated property in Yorkshire and finds it was the site of a murder almost sixty years earlier. Previous resident, Grace Fox was hanged for poisoning her husband.

Lowndes becomes increasingly interested in the story as he finds connections between himself and the accused murderer and starts to investigate her story.

At first I found it hard going. The story is told in the first person by a character I initially found difficult to care about. I think I was annoyed about his life of privilege: able to move across the world to a large house with an interesting history, and able to indulge in various passions with no immediate need to earn a living. However I accepted that he needed that kind of background to give him the time and money to carry out his research into the life and death of Grace Fox.

Peter Robinson’s love of music is made clear in his DCI Banks books. Music pervades the stories, and many of his book titles are borrowed from songs. In Before the Poison Robinson goes to town with music references from a variety of genres, with his protagonist being a composer of film soundtracks whose life is accompanied by his wide ranging music collection. His profession also allows for many film references, especially the classic cinema of Britain as well as more well-known Hollywood films.

The music and film references evoke more than a hint of nostalgia and the inevitable loss that the passing of time produces.

All through my adolescence in Leeds, I had watched my favourite cinemas turned into bingo halls, carpet warehouses, Sikh temples or mosques – the Lyric, Lyceum, Clifton, Clock, Western, Crown and Palace, all gone. It seemed hardly a week went by without one of them disappearing for good.

But Lowndes’ investigations into the story of Grace Fox shows that the past can also be preserved, and what seemed lost can be rediscovered, whether through historical records, personal journals, or surviving friends and family members.
Utilising all of these he builds a picture of the unfolding tragic events that led to her death.





The Devil’s Dice by Roz Watkins

devils diceA new author and a Derbyshire setting to a crime mystery novel – it’s a book I really wanted to like, and at first I did.

This book may be the first in my recent venture into crime novels that has been written in the first person.

I think this allowed Watkins to write with more humour than has been evident in  a lot of the other crime fiction I’ve read, Her protagonist, DI Meg Dalton at times expresses a mildly self-deprecating view of her circumstances.

I hoped he wasn’t going to come over all patronising on me. I wasn’t even blonde anymore – I’d dyed my hair a more intelligent shade of brown, matched  to my mum’s for authenticity

I also liked Watkins’ descriptive skill.

An elderly dog lay in the corner draped over the side of his basket like one of Dali’s soft clocks.

However despite wanting to love this book, and the early fulfilment of that desire with writing like the above quotes, I found a bad taste became more and more evident the further into the book I read; all due to an increasing anti-religious, anti-God sentiment that started to pervade the story.

Here is one example:

“If I thought someone had created this world deliberately, I don’t think I could live with my fury. So, no. No benevolent gods in my construction of reality.”

This sentiment, which echoes attitudes I’ve read from Stephen Fry, is only part of the ongoing, cumulatively negative portrayal of religion and God that eventually led to some unfortunate, raving, religious nuttery from one character.

For me that unavoidable aspect of the book spoiled an intriguing story that starts with the death of a man in a small cave. Beside his body a Victorian era carving of the grim reaper and the dead man’s initials are found. Was it murder or suicide? And how could the century old carvings seemingly predict his death in that place?

The story includes good use of landscape, one of the elements that drew me to certain crime fiction writing in the first place. Like Stephen Booth’s One Last Breath, Watkins takes the reader underground through claustrophobic cave systems, bringing back memories of other stories I’ve read at different times in my life* and adding to my determination to never try caving as a hobby.

Watkins also looks at some serious social issues relating to genetics, terminal illness, euthanasia and the sacredness (or not) of life, very emotive issues that don’t always have clear cut simple answers; but it is through raising those issues that the author jumps feet first onto the anti-religious path mentioned earlier. I continued reading with the hope that she would also bring a more reasoned consideration of  religious adherence, but right to the end, and particularly at the books climax, religious observance and belief in God is portrayed in extremely negative terms, and tantamount to being the cause of humanity’s ethical dilemmas, holding mankind back from more caring and “progressive” ways.

…if religious folk don’t want to take advantage of euthanasia for themselves, that’s fine… But why should they stop others based on their beliefs? They can believe in Santa Claus if they want, but don’t use it as a reason to torture people

At the end of the book there are two sample chapters of a follow up, Dead Man’s Daughter. They seem to promise more of the better aspects of The Devil’s Dice and I’ll probably give it a go when it’s published, with the hope that Watkins doesn’t take the same kind of route in her second book as she did in her debut.


* Particularly one of Alan Garner’s early books (The Weirdstone of Brisingamen or The Moon of Gomrath) and Marc Chadbourn’s Underground. The latter being set in the coal mines of my childhood home region.