The latest novel in Shaw’s deceptively tense series has Cathal “Paddy” Breen recuperating for a week on Helen Tozer’s family farm in Devon soon after the terrible events that took place at the end of the previous book. Paddy is just beginning to surface from the dark, recuperating from the gunshot wound in his shoulder. The Tozer family are still haunted by the violent murder of their youngest daughter, Alexandra, several years earlier.
Subjected to violent torture, Alex’s body was found down at the spinney, a valley just down the hill from the farmhouse.
The local Torquay Constabulary has remained at a loss at how a sixteen-year-old school girl could have been murdered in the middle of the farm without someone noticing.
Paddy, perhaps through boredom at country life or perhaps because of his loyalty to Helen and her memory of Alex, decides to take on the case. To Torquay Police
Station he goes, looking into the quality of the original investigation and plunging with gusto into Alex’s file
of colored paper and yellowing photos. The pathologist’s report is detailed and ugly; the facts of Helen’s sister’s perverse death are horrible. At the time, all the suspects had alibis, so the police had eliminated every single one. But ever the astute investigator, Paddy notices one important file has gone missing: James Fletchet’s, initially removed by his friend, Sergeant Bill Milkwood. Milkwood has since been transferred to London to work for the Scotland Yard, and James--a member of the local gentry, along with his Italian wife, Eloisa--had staunch alibis for the day Alex was murdered.
Clearly something evil is lurking in the dark in Devon. An ever-frustrated Helen is veering from chronic angst to irritation at her parents over their obsession with their dead daughter.
Despite the flicker in her mother’s eyes and the long silences at the dinner table, no one actually talks about Alex. While not a day goes by when Alex is not present, Helen’s father has formed a connection to Hibou, a runaway ex-junkie whom Helen and Paddy have brought to Devon to give her a new life. The farm suits Hibou, and Mr. Tozer loves her.
However, Hibou remains an awful reminder: she would have been about the same age as Alex would have been when she died.
From the deceptively tranquil hedgerows, the image of Alex “naked in the copse” haunts Paddy. Although officially on sick-leave, he decides to enlist old buddy Detective Carmichael, telling him he’s gone though the files at the small Devon police station and has made a connection between Milkwood and Alex. The next step is London, the serpentine trail leading
him and Carmichael to the home of Milkwood and a possible London gang connection. Determined to nail this “drug squad copper, ” Paddy goes on the hunt for a man called Nicky Doyle (“traveler, drug dealer and mystic”).
As Paddy descends further into the case, going incognito to a hippy concern in Camden, he discovers something running deep: that all of the suspects have a weird connection to colonial violence in
1950s Kenya. Breen must utilize every aspect of his special style of policing as well as feisty and determined Helen, who proves to be more than Paddy’s match.
Her revelation in the middle of the novel gives Breen a new outlook on life and makes him feel as if he’s finally joining the world, perhaps moving forwards after years of being still.
Exquisitely paced given the specific time period the story encompasses, Shaw’s thriller--like his previous two outings--presents a crime-ridden, rapidly transforming London at the end of the 1960s. The bourgeoning counter-cultural revolution of the hippies
and their rock music is held in stark contrast to Breen’s working-class world with its often narrow-minded mores. Primarily recounted by Paddy, the narrative flows relentlessly on, tidily accented by Helen. The overarching tension ratchets up incrementally but steeply, notch by scary notch. Shaw plays cannily with allusions to a myriad of cultural flashpoints--from the era’s clothes and food and drugs to the casual racism and misogyny perpetuated by a number of supporting characters, both the police and civilians. The setting, in its supporting-character role
(particularly Devon) is remote, beautiful, and spectacular, with its rugged farm life and its sense of struggle. Here Paddy finds himself facing a torturer in a climax that drives home the novel’s chilling atmosphere.
In the end, the past and the present come together. Everything that had happened to Alex in that summer of 1964 is once again made vivid. While Paddy methodically sifts through the past towards the evidence, Shaw imbues him and his colleagues with a realistic and empathetic blend of human strengths and frailties. Helen, in particular--baggage, rough spots, and all--is a compelling character from the get-go,. Shaw’s knowing touch ensures that she’s worth following around the wilds of Devon as she races against time to save Paddy from the cold clutches of a killer.