William Shaw- A Song From Dead Lips

song deadLondon, 1968

The Runaway A young woman found naked and strangled in an alley in well-to-do St John’s Wood.

The African The neighbours would love to pin it on the enigmatic black stranger who has just moved in.

The Pariah Detective Sergeant Cathal Breen is convinced there’s more to the case than anyone wants to admit; no-one’s listening.

The Outsider In walks WPC Helen Tozer – awkward chatterbox, farmgirl, and the first woman to enter the murder unit – and gives Breen a breakthrough.

Prepare to be transported back to the heyday of the swinging Sixties in this thoroughly enjoyable debut by William Shaw. Drawing on the sights and sounds of this iconic era, with a musical soundtrack resonating with references to the age of Beatlemania and the hugely influential Abbey Road studios, Shaw has conjured up a gripping crime thriller infused with period detail. I think to simply draw comparisons with Life On Mars vis-a-vis the police element is fair to an extent- the novel is peppered with references to racism, homophobia, sexism and the more Neanderthal methods of policing, all in what we view now as the non-PC language of the time- but I think this does the novel a bit of a disservice. As the larger, and indeed more global, themes of the novel become apparent, and the strength of the police characters generally have a more intrinsic depth to them, Shaw rises above a mere whimsical trip back to the past and produces something altogether more gritty and compelling.

The main police protagonists, DS Cathal Breen and WPC Helen Tozer are well-drawn and carry the weight of the plot with ease. Breen is a deep and thought provoking character, set apart from his more brutish colleagues in the murder unit, often being at the brunt of their misplaced humour or vitriol. At times he shows a distinctly more human and empathetic approach to both victim and the suspects, and genuine physical responses to the criminal acts he bears witness to. The interplay between him and the ballsy Tozer, the first woman assigned to the murder unit, is beautifully realised combining a mixture of humour, camararderie and emotional involvement, which makes the scenes between these two in particular, one of the most satisfying aspects of the book. Breen is haunted by demons, but Tozer has also experienced a dark event in the past, which has caused her to carve out a career in the police service. The grittier aspects of this investigation has serious effects on, and consequences to both officers that Shaw effortlessly inveigles into the main, and for the most part, intriguing and disturbing plot making reference to the social prejudices of the era and drawing on aspects of the Biafran conflict- a political hotspot of the era.

I had certain pre-conceptions of this book, largely because of the period it was set in, thinking it might just be a run-of-the-mill sixties police procedural, which were confidently dispelled by the weight of the issues contained within the book, and the exceptional characterisation throughout. Shaw recreates the sights and the sounds of the era with ease and the prejudices of the time and I found this a most enjoyable and compelling read, drawing on a historical conflict that I personally had little knowledge of. A highly readable debut and I hope to see more in this series.

William Shaw was born in Newton Abbot, Devon, and lived for sixteen years in Hackney. For over twenty years he has written on popular culture and sub-culture for various publications including the Observer and the New York Times. A Song from Dead Lips is his first novel http://williamshaw.com/ @williamshaw1


(With thanks to Quercus for the ARC)


  1. What an interesting-sounding context for a story! Just the era and the music alone have got my attention And it’s nice to know that the characters are well-developed, too. This is an excellent review (as ever) of a book that’s got me interested.

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