Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes. The style echoes this: rustic charm masking horror.
The sixties were swinging only for the young, for others it was a confusing time as society woke up to a dawning sexual revolution. Meanwhile three thousand miles away communities were being massacred; former African colonies were in chaos and the Biafran War raged in Nigeria. In London these disparate worlds converged and the body of a girl was found, strangled and dumped in St John’s Wood.
Enter D.S. Cathal Breen, born and raised in London by his Irish father, inheriting high principles and emotional volatility. Untutored and awkward with women, repressed around cops, he is a loner in a canteen culture of misogyny and prurience, racism and corruption. Already under a cloud having deserted a colleague threatened by an armed thief, Breen is assigned the new but routine case (“just another naked bird”), and – further slight – a female probationer. However, Helen Tozer is an earthy farm girl and flexible. She has taken to the urban scene of Beatlemania, Carnaby Street and groupies like a duck to water and complements her imaginative but bemused boss to mould a maverick team.
This is not a story featuring the Beatles or Biafra or even the evils spawned by colonialism but the characters who live on the fringes: orbiting stars. Groupies predominate, and their parents: confused, angry, submissive, domineering. It’s about gradations of class before the sudden acquisition of wealth had yet to blur the edges; about race when even a black hospital consultant could be referred to obscenely (and not long since landladies refused to accept dogs and Irish). All is impeccably researched. Shaw has imbued his London and its people: natives, incomers, transients, with the crude and frenetic aura of a decade, a time when pop culture was only the face of revolt, when, behind the façade, the old guard attempted to shore up the barricades, and people died violently. Breen and Tozer picked up some of the pieces: society’s bin men.In the end we lose the gawky Tozer but Breen remains in place, which is a boon for the reader who finds him an absorbing character. There are two more Breens in the offing; Shaw will have to be very wily even to match this one but he’s new to the genre. The best of them keep it up for at least a dozen more. Look at Leon and Hillerman. We have a new detective to join Brunetti and Sergeant Chee, and a debut to celebrate.
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