This is my review of A House of Knives: Breen & Tozer 2 (Breen and Tozer) by William Shaw.
This picks up the plot straight from end of "A Song from Dead Lips" (also titled "She's leaving home") with a limited recap to help those who have not previously read the first book in the trilogy featuring DS Breen, which I would recommend to get the most out of this story.
The discovery of a corpse following a domestic gas explosion reminds Breen of an unresolved case which haunted him in the previous novel. As before, this is tightly plotted, alternating fast-paced action with a sense of the frustration, even tedium, of criminal investigations. Breen is developing as a character, moving beyond being stereotypically dysfunctional to proving himself a methodical and tenacious operator, a decent, thoughtful even sensitive man – so that it is hard to understand how he tolerates the corruption and crassness of his work colleagues.
What marks this series out is the portrayal of the late sixties. It is fascinating to be reminded of or perhaps discover for the first time what this period was like – the now jaw-dropping lack of any awareness of equality, the smoke-ridden offices, the gulf between the old and young, as free love, hippiedom and drugs took hold, the embrace of modern art by a wealthy few, perhaps only to prove themselves followers of fashion, the brew of idealism, brutalism and corruption in the form of concrete flyovers and tower blocks, heralded as solutions for congestion and slum clearance without anyone fully considering the adverse effects. William Shaw makes some interesting points, such as that the legal change preventing drug addicts from obtaining drugs like heroin from their GPs merely pushed them into the hands of dealers, often selling far less pure and so more deadly substances.
Shaw's style is deceptively simple and direct. I like his often funny Pinterish dialogues in which several conversations are being carried on at once. He is good at poignancy, wry humour and unexpected twists, but some of the potentially most dramatic moments lack a certain tension and are not quite convincing, like the final denouement which serves mainly as an opportunity to provide the reader with details which should mostly have been grasped already. This comment sets the bar high for an otherwise very talented writer. I accept that some very dangerous situations may feel oddly banal at times, which may be what he wishes to convey. Very occasionally there seems to be a small glitch suggesting a lack of thorough editing, and the title is clearly aimed at ghoulish attraction of readers rather than relevance to the story. Although these books lend themselves to film adaptations, one of the strongest aspects will be lost in the process, namely Breen's chains of thought, his reactions and sensitive introspection.
Overall, I recommend this series and will make a point of reading the last of the trilogy – which may not be the end of Breen and his unconventional sidekick Tozer.