The Kings of London by William Shaw – Det. Sgt. Cathal “Paddy” Breen has been enduring life. His father, Tomas, had a long slow dementia descent. Work and caring for his father have occupied all his time. The swinging London scene of 1968 is far from his gritty London life.
When his father dies alone in hospital while Breen is investigating a death there is a guilt that will last his lifetime.
The death is unusual in that the deceased was badly burned in a fire at a derelict home. His superiors are content with it being ruled an accidental death of “some drunken vagrant attempting to light a fire to keep himself warm in the wet weather”.
Breen is troubled by the circumstances which do not seem accidental and by the inability of the police to identify the deceased. To the frustration of his detachment he keeps photos of the deceased in his desk drawer.
Change is coming to London police. Temporary Detective Constable Helen Tozer has been added to the detachment. While she has been hired her duties are highly restricted. She chafes at being limited to interviewing women and children. Her fellow officers are cruel and openly sexist. While she has the fortitude to cope with her workmates she is leaving the force out of frustration over the limits placed upon her.
Breen and Tozer jointly start an investigation of another unusual death. In a home badly damaged by a gas explosion they find the body of a young man. Skin has been peeled away from his legs and arms and his body has been drained of blood. It is a disturbing sight. He is soon identified as Francis Pugh, the son of Rhodi Pugh, a Minister in the Labour government of Harold Wilson. Breen is firmly advised the investigation will be conducted in a way to avoid publicity. It was still a time when the Establishment could conceal its secrets.
Adjacent to the younger Pugh’s home is a group of squatters. A group from the long haired new generation are living in a communal lifestyle rebelling against society. The “pigs” are their foes. The pigs are basically puzzled by the squatters.
Breen persists in his investigation. He is not a plodder but he is methodical and dogged in his pursuit of the truth. He has insights that are clever but not the blinding brilliance of Sherlockian deductions. There is a measured pace to the book that reflects Breen’s personality.
The detachment is hidebound in more than its treatment of women officers. There is rough, even brutal, enforcement of the law. It is striking how casually violent are the officers, the kings of London.
There was an excellent blend of police work and personal lives.
The story was almost too depressing but then there are moments of genuine joy. Breen enjoys an Irish family Christmas party.
I do wish at least one of the officers was reasonably happy with their life. I was 16 in 1968 and do not recall life in Canada as grim as the London of The Kings of London.
The Kings of London is a solid police procedural and Breen is a man of integrity.