The recent commemorations of Beatlemania, tied to the 50th anniversary of the Fab Four's maiden voyage on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1964, have produced hours of TV documentaries and a groaning shelf of new books. These last include a murder mystery, William Shaw's "She's Leaving Home," set in 1968 on — or "in," as the British say — Abbey Road, near the famous studio where the lads recorded "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," one of whose tracks gives this mostly excellent debut novel its title.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
Well, why not? Surely even the worst literary snobs will agree by now that in the right hands, such as those of P.D. James, Scott Turow, Richard Price or Dennis Lehane, crime fiction is just as capable of holding up a mirror to the world as more conspicuously high-minded literature. At its best, the murder mystery is far more than the investigation of a crime; it's an inquiry into the darker regions of human character, and the results can be as illuminating as they are appalling.
Not that Shaw, an English pop-culture journalist with an impressive list of publications on both sides of the Atlantic, is in the same league with James, Turow et al. Not yet. But "She's Leaving Home," set just as the idealism of the mid-'60s was beginning to sour with the realization that we need a good deal more than love, is a fine start to what promises to be a rich new detective series.
The sleuth in question is Detective Sgt. Cathal "Paddy" Breen, an introspective, somewhat morose fellow who is, in the time-tested way of the genre, damaged goods. His elderly father has recently died, leaving Breen a bit brittle, which may explain why he committed an act of cowardice that has left him on the outs with his raucous fellow coppers. When a young woman's body is found strangled and dumped on Abbey Road, Breen is assigned the case as a path to redemption — a path complicated by the fact that he's to be assisted by a then-rare female constable, Helen Tozer, whose talkative, headstrong approach is anathema to the buttoned-down Breen.
Their inquiries soon lead them to suspect that the victim, a teenager named Morwenna Sullivan, may have been one of the rabid female fans who loitered around Abbey Road Studios and the various homes of the Beatles, hoping for a glimpse of their idols. It turns out that Wenna, as she was called, fancied George Harrison, with whom she once had a memorably tense encounter on the street outside his house. John Lennon, on his way to a courtroom to face drug possession charges, also makes a brief appearance.
Along the way, Paddy and Helen must contend with corrupt cops, sexism and racism, homophobia, xenophobia and the fallout of the Biafran-Nigerian civil war then playing out in Africa. It sounds like a lot, and it is; thematic overstuffing is a problem here. But it all feeds into an overall sense of the detectives caught up in the tumult of the times, in which the old order, so central to the British identity, is buffeted by forces on all sides and from every direction.
To some extent, Breen and Tozer are a microcosm of that struggle, their cultural and countercultural sensibilities in nearly constant conflict, at least early on. (The dynamic between them shifts as the lonely Breen finds himself drawn to Tozer, who is lugging around her own emotional baggage — freight that it's impossible not to suspect will be explored in a sequel.) The quietest, loveliest scenes in the novel occur during a visit to the English countryside, where Tozer's backstory is developed and the two detectives, beset by doubts and sorrow, lean toward each other, as people do in the eye of the storm.
Shaw is a bit heavy-handed here and there, laying on the sexist buffoonery with a full trowel. He wants to show us how much women — and women detectives, in particular — had to deal with in those days, but a subtler approach would have been more effective. The racism gong is also struck a bit too hard and too often. But as the series develops and Shaw comes to trust himself and his readers more fully, this will abate, as it should.
If the author keeps his cool, he will have an excellent crime-fiction franchise along the lines of the Quirke series, set in Dublin in the 1950s, by the Irish novelist John Banville writing as Benjamin Black. It's a lip-smacking prospect. But will the Beatles, who broke up soon after the events of "She's Leaving Home," still figure in the story? Their fans can only hope.
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer and photographer. Twitter: @KevinNance1.
"She's Leaving Home"
By William Shaw, Mulholland, 422 pages, $26Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun