The Kings of London
William Shaw
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The Kings of London
William Shaw
Mulholland Books
416 pages
December 2015
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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It is autumn 1968, and “London is always London” where the rain falls all summer. DS Cathal Breen’s father has just died, but Breen barely has time to mourn him. Called to a derelict house, one of a row of houses bombed out during the war, Breen stares at a different body, “one as black as the room it as found in.” The sleek Welsh police officer proves as grimly determined as ever as he works to uncover the events surrounding the identity of the dead man in this guttered, burnt-out room.

“It went up bloody quick by the look of it,” says one of the first constables on the scene. While Breen himself looks at a charred corpse from which most of the skin on the face has been burned away, he ponders whether the man is just one of thousands of Irish laborers flooding into central London, “real men who have died in fights and robberies whom nobody would miss.” There’s no obvious signs of a crime of passion, but the mystery deepens when it is revealed that the victim was Francis Pugh, the son of Rhodri Pugh, Under Secretary of State in the Home Department. How could the son of a senior politician have come to such a bloody and violent end? As Breen uncovers Francis’s last weeks, it is revealed that he was a dandy, one of the beautiful people in swinging London. Although the counter-culture is but a small, exclusive part of the city, Francis was either part of it or badly wanted to be.

In a rapidly changing London riddled with drugs and corruption, Breen’s own department is in danger of being scandalized by sleaze, bribery, and police brutality. Breen is a constant outsider who tries to stay as moral and compassionate as he can in a world characterized by chaos. His only true friend is Temporary DC Helen Tozer, who joined the CID women’s section as a probationer, hoping to do more than just “interview women and children or direct traffic.” Although Breen has asked Helen to stay and help with the investigation into Francis Pugh’s death, she makes it clear that she’s fed up with the Metropolitan Force’s entrenched misogyny and wants to go back to Devon to work on the family farm.

In this second novel featuring the courageous Sergeant, Shaw pushes his damaged and lonely hero to beyond the limits of what he can endure with a series of excessively brutal set pieces that reflect this new Britain of “sexual liberation and “permissiveness.” The young think they can “have whatever they want,” and the current labor party are full of “self-made men”--trade unionists and party men born into working-class families, men who have crossed the English class lines.

From the sudden resignation of Breen’s colleague, Michael Prosser, to the machinations of artist Robert Fraser, once sentenced to six months for drug offenses, to a series of “bent coppers” stuck in the past, Breen breaks out of Britain’s predictable grays and browns into something bigger and stranger in an landscape where everything is changing. In this new kaleidoscopic world, Beatniks, bohemians, and pop stars fight for media coverage among sex and scandal, and drug enforcement--particularly heroin--has been taken from the purview of London’s medical practitioners and thrust into jurisdiction of London’s police force.

Nobody seems to know who Francis Pugh’s friends were--and more troublesome is that no one has had come forward to offer any useful information. Breen remains in the dark over why someone would go to such extraordinary lengths to cover up why Pugh died. Faced with an demanding case, Breen finds solace in Prosser’s wife, Shirley, and her disabled son, Charlie. An attractive but shy young woman, Shirley is Breen’s age. At first Shirley comes across as a more responsible woman, who like Breen knows what it means to actually care for someone.

Shaw weaves his serpentine, complicated plot, moving Breen and Helen closer to uncovering the motive for Francis’s murder, a motive somehow tied to Abbey Gardens and its terrace of four-story Victorian houses. From a house that backs on to the dead man’s garden to a group of hippies led by a strange man called Jayakrishna, Breen comes to understand there will be small deals here and there, perhaps even “a whisper and a nudge.”

London is caught in one more downpour. Weary, battle-scarred Breen is drenched and bruised, isolated and blindsided by the high level of police corruption as he grapples with yet another violent death. With his uncanny ability to portray time and place, Shaw gets right to the heart of his embattled Sergeant, determined to sweep his hero off the edge along with all notions of childhood and what it means to be innocent.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2015

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