William Shaw- A House of Knives

SHAWThe decade is drawing its last breath. In Marylebone CID, suspects are beaten in the cells and the only woman has resigned. Detective Sergeant Breen has a death threat in his in tray and two burned bodies on his hands. One is an unidentified, unmourned vagrant; the other the wayward son of a rising politician. One case suffers the apathy of a depleted police force; the other obstructed by a PR-conscious father with the ear of the Home Office.

But they can’t stop him talking to Robert ‘Groovy Bob’ Fraser – whose glamorous Pop Art parties mask a spreading heroin addiction among London’s young and beautiful – nor to a hippy squat that risks exposing it. Then the potential perpetrator of his death threats is murdered and Breen becomes a suspect. Out in the cold, banished from a corrupt and mercilessly changing system, Breen is finally forced to fight fire with fire…

A House of Knives sees the more than welcome return of DS Cathal ‘Paddy’ Breen, and his amiable sidekick TDC Helen Tozer in this London based thriller at the latter end of the Swinging Sixties. The first book from William Shaw, A Song From Dead Lips was one of  favourite reads last year, so how does this new one shape up?

A House of Knives sees both our main protagonists in a time of enforced transition. Tozer is on the cusp of leaving the police force, in part due to the events at the close of the last book, and also by familial demands back home in Devon. Breen is thrust into a sinister murder case, but in the light of the recent death of his father, and the iminent decampment of Tozer, with their unresolved personal attatchment, has emotional issues of his own. This is where Shaw excels, in both this and the previous book, with his depiction of the both the personal and professional relationships of Breen and Tozer. He perfectly spotlights not only the natural bandiage and joshing of the two with their police colleagues, but also, and in one storyline in particular, highlights the petty jealousies and blatent sexism and racism that was inherent in the police force at this time. As Tozer deals extremely calmly with the sexist observations of her colleagues, Breen is dealing with his part in the enforced resignation of a bent colleague, spiked jibes on his Irish ancestry, nasty articles being left in his work desk and then a real dice with death. Add into the mix, a very misjudged romantic entanglement, and a murder investigation reaching up into the highest echelons of British society and it is all- as we say in common parlance- kicking off for Cathal.

Shaw’s easy and fluid style of writing keeps every thread and nuance of these interweaving storylines and character development, flowing harmoniously as the central murder investigation becomes ever more complicated and threatening for our intrepid duo, yet with no reduction in either this plot or the little vignettes of the character’s personal lives that we are given a window into. Recently, the crime genre has been criticised by a certain quarter for lacking ‘heart’ in its protagonists, but I see no evidence of that here, as the reader cannot fail to become emotionally involved with both Breen and Tozer, whether through their humour, stoicism, bravery or sheer bloody-mindedness, counterbalanced by the more introspective and caring sides of both their characters. Taken in tandem with a wonderfully sordid storyline involving drugs, spoilt rich boys, dodgy art dealers, misguided hippies, and crooked politicians, I found this a thoroughly entertaining read, imbued with the spirit of the sixties with all its highs and lows. Groovy.

A review of A House of Knives from Crime Thriller Fella

William Shaw talks about the 60’s with – Reader Dad

Read my review of A Song From Dead Lips here

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. www.williamshaw.com Twitter@william1shaw

(With thanks to Quercus for the ARC)


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