I really like Deadland by William Shaw, it’s a cut above the usual police procedural. Shaw’s writing is dark and edgy, and this novel has a gritty realistic feel because of the way it deals in contemporary issues. The thing that makes it stand out the most is the level of social commentary Shaw revels in, a lot of British writers shy away from this kind of depth but it turns an interesting read into a thought provoking one. Of course, Deadland is every bit as exciting as a novel that focuses solely on a crime and an investigation. As a police procedural this is up there with the best of the current crop, if you want a page turning crime novel Deadland fits the bill. But for me though there has to be more, I want a novel that examines the links between society, lifestyle, background and crime and I love the energy and drive of Deadland (this was evident in Shaw’s previous two novels as well). This second novel in the DS Alexandra Cupidi Investigations series is an excellent read. The first novel, Salt Lane (2018), set the bar high and although I don’t think this is quite at that level you won’t find many better police procedurals out there. The Alexandra Cupidi novels are a spin off of The Birdwatcher which introduced her to readers.

I’m glad I finally caught up with William Shaw’s Deadland, his seventh novel. As a fan of crime fiction I was aware of The Birdwatcher (2017) and Salt Lane (2018), they were on my radar but I just never got round to buying them. That is until I read Deadland, I was a few pages in when I had to get the two earlier books. I’ve since read Salt Lane and I would urge you to do the same, but if you don’t here’s the essential info to allow you to hit the ground running when you tackle Deadland. The story so far:

In The Birdwatcher and Salt Lane William South and Alexandra Cupidi are colleagues from the Kent police force. In the course of investigations into a murder with roots in sectarian issues dating back to the troubles and a brutal case of people trafficking, Cupidi discovers that South killed his own father, a brutal bully. An offence she turned him in for. At the start of Deadland he is just about to get out of gaol after serving two years. The novel opens with two seventeen-year-old boys:

“The first time they tried to steal a phone, it went arse-tit. The second time, much worse.”

The two boys are sitting on a scooter trying to blend into the background outside a posh hotel, they’re waiting for the right mark but nothing seems to be happening so they move on to the Snack Box. A girl with her phone glued to her ear isn’t paying attention so they go for it. Sloth revs the scooter and shoots off, only they’re going so fast Tap knocks the phone out of the girl’s hand, it’s still flying through the air as they dodge traffic escaping the scene. Last chance; at the walk though by the train station there’s no CCTV. A man comes out of the station carrying an iPhone X, he finishes a call and puts it in his bag. The boys pounce, this time Tap snatches the bag and they’re off.

Straight round to Uncle Mikey’s on the estate. Of course, Mikey isn’t really Tap’s uncle, it’s just that he used to be with his mother – she’s not doing too well these days, back on the stuff again. The boys offer Mikey the phone for £100 but he says he’s going straight, so he’s not interested. He scoffs that they didn’t even have the sense to turn the phone off so it can’t be tracked. Then a message comes up on the screen offering £5,000 for the return of the bag no questions asked. Suddenly Mikey is interested, he rings the owner, fixes a meet and says he’ll handle it for the boys but he wants half the money. The boys go along with the older man’s plan and Mikey shoots off to the rendezvous. The boys trying following but they can’t keep up.

Ross Clough fancies himself an artist but he needs money so he’s working at the Turner Contemporary in Margate as a guide. Visitors keep complaining about the smell in the main exhibition hall. The place is thoroughly cleaned but the smell isn’t going away, then they find…

An arm, a human arm, rotting inside one of the exhibits.

Zoe Cupidi is seventeen, she really liked their neighbour William South, the policeman her mother worked with before she put him away. Zoe hasn’t forgiven her mother for that. South is coming home after spending two years in Maghaberry Prison in Belfast. Alexandra Cupidi doesn’t regret catching South, it was her duty, but she also liked him and she wants to welcome him home. That’s when she gets the call about the gruesome discovery which means she has to leave pronto.

The day after they took the phone the boys are cursing Mikey for not getting back to them with the money. Then they find out someone is looking for them. Using Tap’s name and with a pretty accurate description of the boys a man keeps asking questions near their homes – they have no idea who it is. When they find out that Mikey Dillman has been shot dead they know they are in trouble. The rumour is it’s a gangland assassination but the boys know it’s that damn phone. Now they are being hunted.

Deadland is an atmospheric novel, there’s a sense of desolation that adds to the sombre tale. The mix of new policing methods and rural setting is brilliantly realised. The landscapes are vivid; the shadow of the power station, the coastal flatlands, it all weighs on the novel. Cupidi is a really interesting character, a loner with a highly defined sense of duty, trying to bring up a teenager in an environment that is new to both of them. The relationship with her neighbour, William South, the man she put in gaol, is unusual and complex, South’s connection to Alexandra and Zoe is an interesting part of the plot. The fact that Alexandra Cupidi’s daughter, Zoe is seventeen, as are the two young boys at the heart of the novel provides plenty of scope for contrast and comparison.

William Shaw is the author of the acclaimed Breen and Tozer series set in London in the 1960s, which began with A Song from Dead Lips in 2013. I may have to track them down too.

Paul Burke 4/4

Deadland by William Shaw
riverrun 9781786486608 hbk May 2019