Play with Fire
William Shaw
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Buy *Play with Fire (A Breen and Tozer Mystery)* by William Shaw online

Play with Fire (A Breen and Tozer Mystery)
William Shaw
Mulholland Books
448 pages
August 2019
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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In Shaw's latest mystery, Helen Tozer is pregnant, and Cathal Breen is working hard in London's murder squad. The mystery accelerates when the police discover the lone body of a young man floating in the water at the house of a rich young rock star. The twist transforms what is essentially a story about the murder of a prostitute into a reflection on the Soviet spy network, Breen's personal challenges as he faces the complexities of a murder investigation, and the changing social mores of Sixties London.

The story begins on a summer evening as Helen, her best friend, Elfie, and Cathal attend a Rolling Stones concert at Oxford Circus. Call girl Julie Teenager has been found dead, badly beaten before she was killed. According to DI Creamer, Breen's new boss, the victim's real name is Miss Lena Bobienski. Haas, the building's caretaker, found her lying on her back, arched over some machinery at the top of the elevator, her head tipped backwards. Haas thought she was a "tart"; something in the girl was easy to dislike. She also modeled for art schools.

Julie symbolizes a facet of Swinging London, tailoring her business to a particular type of male clientele. She was a specialist: "she knew how much you English men liked young girls." Breen's new colleague, Constable Mint, interviews residents, trying to build a list of Lena's clients. Breen himself goes door to door, examining the records of any local deviants. Breen urgently needs to track down Lena's father, a Polish refugee who joined the RAF. With Creamer barely interfering, there are too many sides to this case but no distinct shape--though in cases involving murdered prostitutes, "the guilty are easy to find."

Thanks to Mint's inquiries, the focus is on the men who visited Julie the week before her murder. Helen, meanwhile, is frustrated that she can't be of more use in the investigation. Her instinct is to help Cathal by following a series of clues. Scotland Yard doesn't have a file on either Julie Teenager or Lena Bobienski. In terms of the residents of the house, the only possible suspects are Haas, Julie's maid and Julie's clients: "he must have been having sex with someone really important, otherwise why would she want to keep it quiet."

As they walk the streets of Soho, a rapidly changing City firmly snares Breen and Tozer in its web. Metaphorical skeletons connect Lena to journalist Ronald Russell, a Soviet specialist who writes for the Sunday Times. Ronald tells Breen that Lena hated Russians, that they had murdered her parents. With his trademark low-key style, Shaw creates a secretive sense of danger: Florence Caulk's connection to Lena; the driver who waits outside Lina's flat; Breen's visit to Keylock, where he becomes more convinced than ever that the two assaults on Helen and Kay Fitzpatrick, the murder of Julie Teenager and then Florence Caulk are connected. Were they all by the same man, as Helen originally believed?

From the smoke-filled CID room, the casual misogyny of Breen's male colleagues and the darkness of Julie's trade, Breen descends into a shadow world of Russian spies, including a Soviet trade attaché who claims to be selling cameras to the West while visiting nightclubs and casinos to ingratiate himself with the rich and powerful. The presence of a policeman among Lena's customers and the all-round duplicity of the men who paid her further complicate things. It is largely left to readers to thread together the pieces of Lena's past and the riddle behind Ronald Russell's hidden life.

Murder elements aside, Shaw gives us a sense that time is moving on for Breen. After Helen is brutally attacked and he spends an hour on his hands and knees trying to soak up her blood, his love for her seems to finally blossom, shaped by their impending child as well as the losses and mysteries that Breen has yet to live with.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2020

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