Imagine an episode of Heartbeat as directed by Stanley Kubrick, and you get something of the flavour of A House Of Knives, by William Shaw. It’s the second in his trilogy of books set at the arse end of the Sixties, featuring his coppers Breen and Tozer.
The blurb asks why, why, why:
London, November 1968. The decade is drawing its last breath. In Marylebone CID, suspects are beaten in the cells and the only woman has resigned. Detective Sergeant Breen has a death threat in his in tray and two burned bodies on his hands. One is an unidentified, unmourned vagrant; the other the wayward son of a rising politician. One case suffers the apathy of a depleted police force; the other obstructed by a PR-conscious father with the ear of the Home Office.
But they can’t stop him talking to Robert ‘Groovy Bob’ Fraser – whose glamorous Pop Art parties mask a spreading heroin addiction among London’s young and beautiful – nor to a hippy squat that risks exposing it. Then the potential perpetrator of his death threats is murdered and Breen becomes a suspect. Out in the cold, banished from a corrupt and mercilessly changing system, Breen is finally forced to fight fire with fire.
Writers love getting some of that Sixties action, and you can see why – it’s an evocative decade when Britain was at a tipping-point between post-war austerity and regeneration, and when a buttoned-down populace strained to break free from the old ways. A House of Knives covers some familiar crime fiction territory associated with the 60s. There are secretive government officials, corrupt coppers, metropolitan arty types and hippy communes.
But Shaw’s novel paints that period with a sly and sour wit. He recognizes that for the vast majority of people, the Sixties sure as hell didn’t swing. Shaw’s London is a parochial hell, all browns and greys, cold and wet in the depths of winter. Music pumps through thin walls. Thousands of working class homes, whole streets, are being flattened to make way for large building projects like the Westway.
And like the shit that Breen discovers has been placed in the bottom drawer of his desk, poisonous corruption and dishonesty pulses below the surface of polite society. Cheerful racism, sexism and bigotry pervades every page of this book. There’s a real sense of a jaded society that really isn’t at ease with itself: from the idealistic hippy commune preying on vulnerable women, to the nudge-and-a-wink freemasons running CID, the secretive government interference, and the violent coppers who regard beating up drunks in the cells as a perk of the job.
Shaw’s protag, Detective Sergeant Cathal Breen, is a complex, alienated young man, a morally upright outsider, who struggles to remain uncompromised as his investigation chips away at unpalatable truths. He’s aided by Detective Constable Helen Tozer, a perky Georgy Girl-type, who provides a wry commentary on the glass-ceiling that holds her back at every turn.
It all sounds a bit grim, but it’s not. It’s actually very funny. Shaw’s prose is clean and sharp, and ironically distanced from the action, giving the story a slightly hallucinatory aspect. He’s got an Ealing eye for detail – such as the Bridget Riley painting that hangs incongruously in Breen’s grim lodgings – and a cynical set-piece.
I loved the dismal police Christmas party which descends into violence as Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen play on stage; and the chorus of complaints when John and Yoko arrive at a meeting of progressives at the Royal Albert Hall. Breen’s investigations are forever interrupted by petty officials shouting the odds in the background, desperately straining to be heard – like extras in an Richard Lester movie – and the damaged post-war characters who carry chips on their shoulders as tall as beehive hairdos.
There’s a lot to enjoy in A House of Knives – it’s the second in a series, but is perfectly readable as a stand-alone – and it’s a reminder that in these nostalgic times, the past doesn’t always provide the tidy answers we’re looking for.
Thanks to Quercus for the review copy of A House Of Knives. It’s out in hardcover tomorrow — and is available on kindle already.
And guess what – we’ve got another Guest Post coming up! William Shaw will be writing about the trials and tribulations of writing a thriller. Look out for that, later in the week. Oh, how I spoil you.