Grave’s End is William Shaw’s latest release and has had fantastic feedback in the short time since its publication. NB reviewer Philippa Coughlan met with him (virtually of course) to ask him some questions about the themes in his novel, his childhood in Nigeria, and plans for upcoming books.
To have one successful crime series is great, but to have two best selling series is brilliant! Let’s begin with DS Cathal Breen in the ‘Breen & Tozer’’ books set in late 1960s London. How did he evolve in your writing and have you any Irish connections?
I hope my books aren’t always serious, but these are some of the best questions I’ve had in a long time, and I’m going to give you long, wordy, serious answers, I’m afraid… I wanted to write about the sixties with a dispassionate eye and I needed a character who was removed from the dominant culture in some way. Irish immigrants were still thought of as very foreign in the 50s and 60s – it was the time of No Blacks, No Irish – and it seemed like an interesting perspective. Plus there’s a lot of Irish in my family. My dad’s originally from Belfast and I married into a London Irish family. How did he evolve? I kind of didn’t really know who he was when I started the series – which I now realise is a good thing! I figure out a little more about him each time.
Politics and contemporary issues feature regularly in your plots. In the 1960s you cover the Biafran War, Soviet spies, sexism and racism and in modern Kent the exploitation of migrant workers and teenage drug taking amongst many. Is it important to weave real stories into your novels?
All sorts of reasons for this. One, I just love having an excuse to research stuff. And two, I think crime fiction has developed into a remarkable genre that deals with real stuff in a very curious way. In real life, murders are rare – especially the kind of murders that make a decent story. To convince readers our murders are real we have to build a plausible world around them. Crime fiction often does that by bringing the real world and its issues into he plot. Detective fiction at its best is not just an examination into one or two murders; it’s about detecting something bigger about the world. At least, that’s the bit I really, really enjoy.
The characters of Helen Tozer and Alex Cupidi are determined police officers making their way in a profession very much, even now perhaps, dominated by men. Did you ask female officers about their own work experiences in researching those two excellent characters?
When I created Helen Tozer, who we first meet as a constable who wants to join CID, I contacted two former officers who had been in the same Met police division as her in 1968. They set me straight about a lot of things! It was great. I didn’t even know that women officers weren’t allowed to drive police cars back then. Likewise, with Deadland in particular I spoke to a friend and colleague, Lisa Cutts, a fine writer who also works for Kent Police’s Serious Crime unit, and the stuff she told me about the mindset of women officers was hugely relevant to that book in particular. But they are two very different police forces; today’s force is by no means perfect, but they’re often more progressive on issues like gender rights than many other workplaces today. Back in the sixties, not so much…
The art world has popped up a couple of times in your novels with artists, dealers and galleries. Are you an art fan yourself? Favourite artist perhaps?
I love the way contemporary artists think. I work with words and my thinking tends to be quite ploddy. One word after another.
Artists come at things in so many different ways and I think that’s thrilling. In my lifetime, contemporary artists turned into the new rock gods. It’s wonderful that people flock in tens of thousands to see work by people like Ai Wei Wei and Olafur Eliasson – even when it’s political, serious art. I lived in Hackney when Rachel Whiteread cast the interior of a house on Mile End Road, not far from where we lived – and that won the Turner Prize that year. It was such a big, bold, crazy thing to do, but also a really interesting way to make people think about that area. In the sixties series I wanted to write about the art dealer Robert Fraser – who worked with The Beatles and Yoko and was a drug pal of The Rolling Stones – because I think he was the first person in Britain to really see this new kind of conceptual art coming; a genuine visionary who deserves to be celebrated. I don’t really have favourite artists, but I thought Year Three by Steve McQueen, which was one of the last big things I saw before lockdown, was very moving; my favourite contemporary artwork is something called Dawn Chorus by Marcus Coates. It’s nuts. https://youtu.be/RsFdO_kvfIM
‘Birdwatcher’ was a standalone novel that won many new fans to your work. How did it reach a point to then develop the intriguing series with DS Alex Cupidi and her teenage daughter Zoe?
I had never intended to write Alex Cupidi as a major character, but I remember being really curious about how people reacted to her when the book came out. People loved the main character, William South, but they really didn’t like her so much. Some people not at all! And I thought, that’s kind of interesting. I had written two gentle, unworldly male main characters in Cathal Breen and William South. I thought, what if I write someone who has a little bit more steel; someone who doesn’t always do likeable stuff?
In ‘A House of Knives’ in the ‘Breen & Tozer’ series the architecture and housing stock and its evolvement in 1960s London are a vital backdrop, as is the wilder, deserted landscape of Dungeness in your ‘DS Cupidi’ Humans challenge space to build on or murder in perhaps? Is it harder to place crime in a city or the countryside?
This is such a great question. The sixties were much more ambitious than we are now about housing. Back then they were genuinely attempting to solve the housing crisis by building big social projects. Unfortunately that came with a lot of bad housing and some big old-style corruption. Now it’s a different – and much worse – because we only allow private developers to build houses. Developers have no interest in solving the housing crisis. If you think about it, it’s actually the last thing they want to achieve. It’s in their interest to keep housing scarce and prices high. And the corruption is much bigger now, and much more pernicious than it was in the sixties, because it’s all about cronyism. Through lobbying, the old boy network and by becoming party donors, developers have acquired huge power over the planning system which has allowed them to carve up large chunks of greenfield land – which is much cheaper to build on than urban land and they can pull out much higher profits. Much of the Kent landscape has been ruined by this. It’s not harder putting crime there though! I’ve always thought the English countryside is full of very dangerous people!
‘Grave’s End’ begins with a badger finding human remains which is integral to the plot. Wildlife below and humans above weave through the novel. Did you know how prominent the badger’s role would be at the start?
Yes! Badgers were where I started this book. One of my favourite books ever is Graham Swift’s Waterland, which is about a murder and also about the strange natural history of the eel. I was trying to copy him, can’t tell a lie. What I didn’t realise was how fascinating badgers actually were.
You also tapped into dodgy politicians and the corrupt world of housing development. Was that a premonition of recent events! Or are those two areas easy targets for criminal activity?
I know! Kind of a bit of both. Cronyism in politics is massive right now. The cronyism in Grave’s End is based on a real development I looked into in which the government advisor who had helped create the latest ‘streamlining’ of planning law also happened to be on the board of the development company. But Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick giving the nod to former pornography publisher and party donor Richard Desmond to build a £1 billion development on the Isle of Dogs and avoid paying tens of millions in infrastructure levies – for a development which had previously been turned down by the Inspectorate because of its lack of affordable housing – is as naked as it gets. And yet, though that’s ‘unlawful’ Jenrick himself has done nothing illegal. It stinks to high heaven but it goes on. This is classic crime fiction territory, no?
Your descriptions of dead bodies I find very moving. Despite the horror you portray them often as ethereal beings. How shocking should death be in crime novels?
I hadn’t thought of that. I suppose because they are the most shocking bit for me. I’m really not that interested in violence itself, which is probably not something a crime writer should be admitting! But the aftermath of it is devastating. Perhaps I think that should be the shocking bit…
In your biography it states you were raised in Nigeria. Is that a time you might like to write about? I also sense you feel it may be time to revisit the ‘Breen & Tozer’ series again. If so, I’d be delighted. What are future writing plans?
I would love to write about Nigeria but my own bit of Nigeria was a tiny historical moment in a post-colonial world. I’m aware that Nigeria has some of the best writers in the world writing about it, and some of the very best of them are from south-eastern Nigeria where I grew up Chigozie Obioma, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Akweke Emezi. Nigerian Igbos have an extraordinarily powerful literary tradition that stretches back to Chinua Achebe. I think what’s great is that there are so many voices talking about that stuff now.
On future writing plans, I’m writing another standalone, this one set almost entirely at sea. I’ve just finished the next Cupidi too which I’m really happy with which involved me going out on a fishing trawler – and I’m really hoping to find time to write another Breen and Tozer.
If you enjoyed this interview and fancy reading Philippa’s review of Grave’s End, head here