She begins to howl up a storm

A Song from Dead Lips chronicles the investigation into the sad, grotty end of a young woman’s life in late-60s London, where the music of The Beatles is ever-present and social unrest bubbles beneath the surface of a culture still clinging to more repressive times. Step up Detective Sergeant Cathal Breen and WPC Helen Tozer, the first woman assigned to the murder squad and whose coming struggles are hardly helped by being championed by an officer who has recently ruined his own reputation amongst their colleagues. In an era where the principle on-the-job requirements of a female are typing, tea-making and a pleasing figure, Tozer’s unexpected competence and insight are overlooked in favour of crass assumptions about their “professional relationship”, something Breen, who has his own problems to deal with, seems largely oblivious to. And then there is the simple matter of figuring out who killed the girl as well…


William Shaw (who in the interests of full disclosure is an online acquaintance of mine) has produced a good, solid piece of crime fiction for his début novel. The British aesthetic and the dynamic between the protagonists is reminiscent of Stephen Booth’s Black Dog, while the plain, unadorned rendering of police work’s mundane procedures and the flaws of the culture they are in service to brought to mind Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series, the highest praise I know to give.

It’s not a perfect work–I found some of Breen’s occasionally angst-ridden, occasionally melancholic ruminations a bit “on the nose”, for example–but the mystery kept me reading and the glimpse at the world lurking in the dark behind the curtain of Beatle-mania is a rare one. This is a tale that earns its place alongside the other titles on your crime shelf.

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