The Kings of London by William Shaw (Mulholland, Jan.27th, 2015)-In The Kings of London, William Shaw rejoins DS Cathal “Paddy” Breen and policewoman Helen Tozer as they investigate a series of deaths joined by fire. Breen is a bit adrift after his father’s death, after caring for him for so long and he’s still feeling the fallout after forcing a fellow officer out after discovering he was on the take. Someone is leaving threatening messages in his inbox and even worse in his desk drawers, but Breen is determined to stay quiet and do his job, even if there are those that would prefer to see him fired, or worse. Tozer is two weeks away from heading back to her family’s farm to help care for her father, and Breen finds himself conflicted about this. He thinks she’s a good cop, but she keeps insisting it’s not the job for her, and even though they have a bit of a romantic entanglement, Tozer seems to be much more casual about it than Breen. So, it’s with some heavy weight that Breen attempts to get to the bottom of the death of a man that appears to have been mutilated before an attempt to burn down the evidence, after finding another burned body, assumed to be a derelict. Unfortunately, further investigation begins to lead to people in high places (the mutilated man turns out to be the free spirited son of a prominent government official), but Breen’s concern is with the dead, and finding out the truth, at any cost.
Paddy Breen is one of the most fascinating creations to pop up in crime fiction in a long time. He’s young, in his early thirties, but he lives in a time of great change, and he’s right on the cusp of tradition and being accepting of radical ideas being put forth by the free love movement just gaining traction in late 60s London. One of the best scenes in the book is set at the very real ‘Alchemical Wedding’ at the Royal Albert Hall, where John Lennon and Yoko Ono famously put on a demonstration of “bagism” which involved wearing a bag over their entire bodies, claiming that by living in a bag, a person couldn’t be judged by skin color , gender, age, etc. The sights and sounds of the Alchemical Wedding are almost more than Breen can take, and his shock is simultaneously amusing and very human. While he’s open minded in some ways, he’s also very traditional in others, and it makes for a fascinating combination.
The Kings of London, as with She’s Leaving Home, works on two levels: as procedural, and as an exploration of a hugely transitional time in London, when there was very real tension brewing between police and civilians, and dangerous drug use was on the rise. Breen’s puzzlement in the face of the bohemian, free love lifestyle (a communal living situation figures largely in the story) is in contrast to Tozer’s more go-with-the flow approach, and she proves indispensable in that aspect of the investigation. Shaw’s sense of time and place is impeccable, and a taste of London’s burgeoning modern art scene adds even more flavor. He imbues Breen with an enduring sense of melancholy as he struggles with the demands of his job and his personal life. He’s not perfect, but I like that about him, and it’s really his imperfections, and also his compassion (which can sometimes work against him), that makes him the compelling figure that he is. If you love crime fiction set amongst very real historical events and you haven’t discovered this series, now’s the perfect time.