The Price of Torture

This is my review of A Book of Scars: Breen & Tozer 3 (Breen and Tozer) by William Shaw.

It is advisable to have read the previous novels “A Song from Dead Lips” and “House of Knives” before embarking on “A Book of Scars”. Described as the third part of a trilogy, this will probably not be our last encounter with Detective Sergeant Cathal Breen, since the author continues his ploy of including a loose end or two in the final chapter.

The two main hooks in this novel are the unresolved murder case of Alexandra, younger sister of Breen’s sometime work colleague Helen Tozer, plus the question of whether Breen and Tozer will ever achieve a proper relationship. Since Helen is, perhaps understandably, capricious, foul-mouthed and given to drinking too much, the decent, conscientious Breen who has led a rather sad life seems to deserve someone a little more appealing.

What first drew me to this series is the portrayal of life in late 1960s London, which evokes a sense of shocked disbelief to recall a world that seems a little unreal in its casual sexism, racism and lack of any sense of “political correctness”. I am not sure William Shaw is old enough to have experienced this first-hand, but he does quite an effective reconstruction. There is a serious thread underlying his work, since he likes to use as a background major overseas events of the day, such as the Biafran War in the first novel and the aftermath of the Mau Mau rebellion in this one.

Perhaps the novelty has worn off, but I did not enjoy this book as much as the first one. I was continually madecaware that it is not very well written, with some staccato, disjointed passages as if it has been thrown together in a hurry to meet a publisher’s deadline. Many of the characters are stereotyped and two-dimensional. I know that people aged sooner in the ‘60s, but Helen’s parents seem too old for their years – unlikely to be more than in their fifties – and I grew tired of reading about “old man Tozer”. I would have liked more psychological development, such as Helen’s resentment when her father is ironically shaken out of his grief-induced lethargy because the girl Helen has brought to help out on the farm reminds him of Alexandra. Some of the most convincing scenes are at the police station, with the counterproductive rivalry between different teams, and laughable attempts to dress up as hippies for undercover work.

“A Book of Scars” strikes me as formulaic in the steady accumulation of evidence, largely through interviews, culminating in a scene of gruesome and arguably gratuitous violence. Not for the first time, Breen takes an implausibly rash action from which he seems unlikely to emerge unscathed, which at least creates some gritty tension to offset any final cosy conclusion.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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