Salt Lane by William Shaw
This is the first book by William Shaw that I’ve read – he is the author of three crime novels set in the 1960s known as the ‘Breen & Tozer’ trilogy (watch out though – they have different titles in the US and UK, and there are now four in the series). I’ve yet to read them, but Guy Savage is a fan, and they’re on my shelves via his recommendation.
Last year, Shaw published a new contemporary crime novel, The Birdwatcher which featured a subsidiary character DS Alexandra Cupidi, relocated from the Met down to Kent with a whiff of scandal attached. Again, I’ve yet to read The Birdwatcher, (although I own a copy – natch!), Shaw evidently liked DS Cupidi enough to make her the focus of his next crime novel – and as it’s billed as the first in a series, I assume we’ll get more of this feisty detective.
Cupidi left London for Kent, after her affair with a colleague who was destined for greater things came to light. She relocated to Kent with her teenaged daughter and is living in a house in Dungeness – that liminal area of land between the sea and the marshes, home to many birds and the power station. London’s loss is the understaffed Kent Constabulary’s gain for two murders happen in fairly quick succession.
The body of a middle-aged woman is found naked in a drainage ditch on the marsh. There are no clues as to how she died, except that it happened before she was put in the ditch. She is identified as Hilary Keen from her dental records. Cupidi and DC Jill Ferriter go to London to break the news to her son. Except that it can’t be his mother… for a tramp had shown up on Julian Keen’s doorstep last night – and she had said she was his mother. He hadn’t seen her for thirty years, but invited her in, to stay the night even, except that she didn’t stay, she was gone by the morning. Julian’s wife Lulu hadn’t believed her. They can’t be the same woman – were either of them Julian’s mother?
Cupidi and Ferriter get going on investigating this murder, when another happens. The body of a migrant worker is found in a slurry tank on a farm – he’d died an awful death. He was North African and not on the gangmaster’s books of fruit pickers. Surely the two murders can’t be related…
Of course they are, but the path forward is terribly convoluted. The lines of investigation into the woman’s identity are difficult, not helped by her rascal of a landlord overreacting and ending up with the riot squad surrounding his property. A cold case from 1995 which appears in the book’s prologue also comes into play. Then Cupidi and Ferriter have to delve into the murky world of illegal migrant labour – they discover that the daytime legal fruit picking economy is only half the story. It’s dangerous territory, and Cupidi is a bit over-confident, wading in without proper back-up, and she ends up nearly dead…
Shaw is terribly good at describing the strange environment on the Kentish coast. It’s attractive and dangerous in equal measure, not a place to be out alone in at night, but strangely beautiful in the light. Cupidi’s daughter Zoe has taken up birdwatching, cycling miles and using the hides on the marshes, always forgetting to take her phone, which leads to some very anxious moments indeed for Alexandra, especially once the second murder occurs. Cupidi’s relationship with her daughter is slightly cool after her affair which her daughter disapproved of, and similarly she’s not close to her own mother either, whom she invites down to look after Zoe while she’s so involved in the investigation. Cupidi’s mother hadn’t been there for a large part of her childhood, and as we’ll find out, she has much to add to the investigation too. Mothers and daughters need to find a way to make good their bonds.
As I said, the story gets very complex, and in the second half of the book, there are many minor supporting characters who confuse the issues still more. Although Shaw features the migrant workers and gangmasters, this side of the story felt a little underdeveloped and unpolitical. But despite this, Salt Lane is a real page-turner and I sped through its 450 pages of fairly big, well-spaced print. Cupidi is indeed a feisty policewoman, and her apprentice Jill proves a strong sidekick. Their co-star is really the location though, and I sense that the Kentish marshes will be home to many more crimes to come. Very enjoyable and I look forward to catching up with his other books. (8.5/10)
Source: Review copy
William Shaw, Salt Lane (Riverrun, May 2018) hardback, 464 pages.
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