The generally accepted definition of “historical fiction” of any genre includes the provision that the work is set in a time period at least 25 years prior to the novel’s publication. It is difficult for those of a certain age who remember specific events in the remote past to classify them as “historical.” So it is with SHE’S LEAVING HOME, a remarkable debut mystery by William Shaw set in 1968 London, which at the time was an influential hotbed of cultural change. The Beatles were the major reason for this; as one might expect from the title of this exquisitely layered mystery, the band exerts a subtle role in the proceedings without making a direct appearance in them (other than for one very brief moment).
The primary mover in SHE’S LEAVING HOME is Detective Sergeant Cathal “Paddy” Breen, who is off of his feed for a number of reasons. Still reeling from the death of his invalid father, who had raised him from his early childhood, Breen finds himself newly and overly sensitive to some of the less appetizing aspects of criminal investigation. He is not particularly well liked by his colleagues to begin with; his latest offense --- deserting a fellow officer who came under attack in the midst of a shop burglary --- makes things even worse.
"Shaw is highly respected as a commentator on popular culture, but one hopes from the depth of SHE’S LEAVING HOME that his foray into the mystery genre is not a solitary one. Breen is a complicated character, and further explorations into his personality would certainly be most welcome."
So it is that when Breen is paired with WPC Helen Tozer --- this at a time when female officers were a rarity and regarded as anything but equal to and by their male counterparts --- it is difficult to see the assignment as anything other than a form of subtle punishment, particularly by Breen himself. Tozer is not exactly a shrinking violet and does not mix well with the boys, so to speak.
Breen gradually warms to Tozer over the course of a homicide investigation. The murder victim is a young woman who is found strangled in a residential area near the Abbey Road Studios where the Beatles frequently record. No one seems to know who the girl is, at least until Tozer uses the possible connection to the band’s fan base (she is a fan, but Breen is almost totally unfamiliar with them) as a means of identifying the victim. After two more violent deaths occur, the case appears to be solved. Breen, though, is uncomfortable with the conclusion and continues to press the investigation onward, even as another case puts demands upon his attention.
Tozer continues the unofficial investigation with Breen, even after she is assigned elsewhere. She wants to see justice done for the victim, a feeling that is motivated in part by her own history, which includes the still-unsolved murder of her younger sister that occurred some years before. As Breen and Tozer follow a tenuous evidentiary trail to a surprising and tragic conclusion, they learn something about themselves and each other.
Shaw is highly respected as a commentator on popular culture, but one hopes from the depth of SHE’S LEAVING HOME that his foray into the mystery genre is not a solitary one. Breen is a complicated character, and further explorations into his personality would certainly be most welcome. The book leaves two secondary mysteries unsolved at its conclusion, either or both of which could provide fodder for an additional volume or two in the series. Fingers crossed.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on February 28, 2014