Framing the Swinging Sixties and a rapidly changing Britain around a bracing murder mystery, Shaw’s novel centers on the trials of DI Cathal Breen, who works with a small team of officers at the Marylebone Police Headquarters. Lonely and conflicted since the death of his father, Breen has undergone a self-imposed emotional exile, living in a basement flat on a cul-de-sac, surrounded by his father’s things. We first meet Breen as he reels from a case gone wrong and an incident with a colleague that has threatened to wreck his career for ever.
Barely recognizing the force he joined these days in a world characterized by “enmity and division,”Breen’s officious and belligerent boss, Superintendent Bailey, encourages him to some take off time off. Breen thus spends many of his working hours fielding off-color insults from fellow detectives, especially first-class misogynists and racists Jones and Carmichael. Office typist Marilyn, with her bleached hair and heavy eyeliner, carries a silent flame for Breen, hoping that one day he’ll pay her the attention she craves.
Breen’s England is dividing itself along new lines within the context of the economic, social, and multicultural forces of the late 1960s. A new landscape is taking root, and many like Breen are beginning to feel cheated in this country where “everything you once stood for is now seen as ridiculous.” When the body of a young girl is found in an alleyway near St. John’s Wood subway station, the crime quickly becomes a catalyst for Breen, reinforcing his tender emotional state and propelling his desire to change the way the police force works.
Lying awkwardly with her head jammed down into the earth and her legs tangled in a rusted bicycle frame, the girl “looks absurd in her nakedness.” As the drizzle trickles unevenly from her upturned bottom down into her pale dead back, the witnesses and the police squad descend to feast upon the sadness of the scene. Only Miss Shankley, who lives on Cora Mansions’ second floor, can attest to the fact that the girl may have been a prostitute.
Shaw proves to be talented storyteller who can leap from one thread to another, juxtaposing each episode with the skill of a master seamster. As the hunt for the killer takes on a life of its own, Shaw rolls out Breen’s insecurities in a series of interconnected episodes while. The crime itself leads Breen to Abbey Road, a “genteel street of mansion houses and dull apartment blocks” which serves as a meeting place for young girls looking to catch a glimpse of The Beatles.
When Breen meets ex-farm girl Helen Tozer, the squad’s first woman constable, its not surprising that the two hit it off—both are outsiders of sorts. While Helen finds herself up against the Force’s blatant misogyny, her naked desire to prove herself and help Breen work the case assuages her bitterness over death of her sister and her anger that no murderer was ever apprehended. From a friend to perhaps a lover, Helen’s presence forces Breen to question not just current police policy but also his own standing in the grand scheme of things.
Faced with a pressing anxiety, Breen and Tozer line up the various suspects: Mr. Rider, a retired widower who lives alone on the ground floor of dilapidated Cora Mansions, and Mr. Ezeoke, a surgeon from Biafra who lives close to where the body was found. Shaw rolls out a complex subplot detailing a hardened and cynical Ezeoke, who resents the many unpunished crimes against Africans. While Ezeoke remains “desperate to be African,” Breen feels surprising sympathy for a man who feels out of place.
The book is filled with many starkly real moments, the author capturing all that is ‘60s London: from Miss Shankley’s “single-minded bigotry” to Breen’s observations of colorful West London, each year “getting louder” with girls in green leather miniskirts and boys in paisley shirts, to Clerkenwell where the color fades and the old monochromes of post-war London return, (“still flat-capped and gray”). Events quickly cascade around Breen and Tozer, the trail leading them to bucolic Exeter and onto Fonthill House, the privileged home of Major and Mrs. Sullivan, who Breen realizes may hold the key to the mystery.
While murder shadows the basic innocence of the novel, what really makes this book such a compelling read is the setting of the tale in a landscape so bleak, insular and unabashedly prejudiced, yet with subtle splashes of color hinting of change to come. By the time the crime is resolved, the murderer has bred more violence and upheaval, leaving Breen and Tozer, two incredibly resourceful survivors, to deal with the fallout, somehow fortified by a newfound respect at their place in the current scheme of things.