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Saturday, January 24, 2015

Kings of London by William Shaw

Mulholland Books, 400 pages, $26 (release date - 1/27/2015)

Set in 1968-69, “Kings of London” is a blast from the past. Thirty-two-year-old Marylebone CID Detective Sergeant Cathal Breen is just a one-half step over the line to the right of the music and pop revolution that encompassed London, and then a lot of the rest of the world, at that time. He’s square, doesn’t know the new pop music, is not sure he would recognize Donovan if he stepped on him, silently tut-tuts if a policeman has hair slightly longer than regulation.

Breen is also the square peg trying to fit in a round hole in his precinct office. Half the office seems to be corrupt or negligent, prisoners unexpectedly die in their cells, and women officers are objects of amusement. Breen tries to call the attention of higher ups to the nonsense he sees, but there are a lot of deaf ears.

Breen had spent the last few years caring for his invalid father, at the expense of being a young man enjoying living in London at a time of change. As Breen contemplates just what he should be feeling when his father dies, a new case is given to him. A man has been found burned beyond recognition. A few weeks later, another burn victim is found, but this time he is identified. He is the son of a Welsh government minister. Bizarrely, the son has been partly flayed and drained of blood. Besides the similarity of being burned, Breen cannot identify any connection between the two, and the first case begins to languish.

With the help of temporary Detective Constable Helen Tozer, a young woman set to depart the police department for good in a few weeks to take care of her family’s farm, Breen runs down a few clues to the minister’s son’s death. It seems, however, that the more information Breen turns up, the more it twists to dead ends, pushed there, it seems, by people within the police hierarchy. What is Breen close to uncovering?

Author William Shaw’s writing style is very clever. His scenes are sometimes flash-cut in an abrupt cinematic fashion. Also, it is not obvious that a piece of narrative is missing until Shaw chooses to reveal that missing part. It is not until almost the end that Shaw first writes about the “kings of London,” just before it becomes obvious that the kings (metaphorically speaking) are dead; long live the kings. Very original and slyly slow-moving.

Shaw’s hero is an original, too. (At the same time, I should say that if you have seen the television series, “Endeavour,” you, too, may picture the young Morse as the not-so-young Breen.) Breen evinces an emotional flatness and is unsure exactly what he is feeling, what his motivations are. He can be obstinate and single-minded when trying to make others see things his way. He is aware of and embarrassed by his fears. He’s lonely but not willing to adjust his moral code to fit in with his colleagues. Tozer’s youth and embrace of pop culture confound him. Her world shows him what a fuddy-duddy he has become. 

And then there’s the slam-bang denouement, giving this book a lot to recommend it.

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