Salt Lane by William Shaw
1995. A tragic fire. So begins the mystery novel Salt Lane by William Shaw.
Fast forward, twenty some years, to Julian Keen, his wife Lulu, and their son Teo, in London, England. A woman appears at the door, claiming to be Julian’s mother, Hillary Keen. Julian had been told, by the aunt and uncle who raised him, that his mother had died years before. This woman is obviously someone who has experienced a hard life of addiction and homelessness. Is she Julian’s mother or is she not? Julian wants to believe that she is – Lulu does not.
Meanwhile, Detective Sergeant Alexandra Cupidi, recently transferred from the London Metropolitan Police to the Kent coast, is investigating the discovery of a woman’s body in a drainage ditch.
If you read The Birdwatcher by William Shaw, released last year, you will have met Alex Cupidi. That book appeared to me to be a stand alone novel – you’ll know why if you’ve read it – so I was very pleased to find that it was not. Alex and her daughter, Zoe, now live in a remote bit of Dungeness, prime territory for bird watching, which Zoe has taken to with passion. Zoe at fifteen years old is at that awkward age between childhood and adulthood – attempting to find her own way in the world and causing her mother endless worry. Of course, Cupidi’s job does not help – she tries to be home for dinner and to make some sort of a family life for herself and her daughter but it is not always possible if she is to do her job.
The body in the drainage ditch is thought to be that of Hillary Keen – but since Hillary was in London only the night before, and this body has been in the water for some time, that is impossible. So, who is the woman who showed up at Julian Keen’s door – and who is the woman in the ditch? The investigation into her murder takes us back to the 1980s and Greenham Common and long ago relationships.
William Shaw does a good job of writing about time and place, and if you are of a certain (older) generation you will recognize the names of singers and events that you may have long forgotten. He uses devices, such as surveying a characters bookshelves – books from Allende to Joanna Trollope - to give us a sense of who a character is that is so simple but so astute. He includes interesting bits about the geography and history of the region giving us some sense of where his novels take place.
The next body is found in a farm sewage tank – an awful discovery and the beginning of an investigation into illegal migrant workers. An investigation that turns very nasty and puts everyone involved in extreme danger.
Salt Lane gives mystery readers all the goods – detectives whose personal and professional lives are interesting – murder victims that have more history to them than is at first apparent – continuing development of the main characters, moving them all along to a place that the next installment can continue. In Salt Lane it is especially Cupidi’s relationship with those she works with, and with her mother and her daughter that are most well developed and perceptive.
I discovered the novels of William Shaw last year, and read The Birdwatcher, and then a trilogy set in 1960s London featuring Detectives Tozer and Breen. There is now a fourth book in that series in my “to read” pile. And, you’ll find a very satisfying connection between that series and Salt Lane. These are both terrific series - I can say “read one and you’ll read them all” and feel entirely confident that you will agree.