Monday, 5 October 2015

"A Song from Dead Lips" by William Shaw - October 2015

This was another bookset we won from the Reading Agency:

This first instalment of a trilogy of crime novels set in 1960's London with detectives Breen and Tozer had most of the reading group members pretty hooked. It was an easy read, and provided several social and political themes that were really interesting to debate. As a result, we didn't focus so much on the murder story, the 'whodunnit' aspect, but more on the novel's depiction of the racism, sexism, and the political and social norms of 1968's London as well as (later on in the novel) the contrast with life in the countryside.

It was so interesting to hear the group members' personal experiences of the times. People agreed that especially sexism was exactly as widespread and normative as the novel describes, with some saying it was usually more subtle, more pervasive, than the novel's dialogue suggested. The younger, female character, Tozer, is pretty blatantly verbally abused within the male-dominated police department, and gives as good as she gets; people remembered a slightly more unspoken (and less comical) enforcement of the social code at the times. We discussed how much attitudes have changed especially with regards to sexism, but also recalled instances of ignorance that are still observed today, for exqample police vans being called "Paddywaggons" even recently, without people realising that this is a remnant of a slight to Irish people. We discussed examples of sexism and people's personal observations then and now - one group member's father told her never to learn to type, because he feared that people would too quickly assume and expect her to take on secretarial duties. A member cited a -contemporary- report by people in the medical profession that stated that tea-making is still first and foremost expected from women within a group. But we also marvelled at the changes between then and now - people in the group vividly remembered TV programmes such as the Black Minstrel Show, and comedians such as Jim Davidson and Bernhard Manning being mainstream entertainment. We commented that the novel is set even before the Equal Pay Act came into force. People remembered social changes being driven by things like new magazines and TV programmes, eg. "The Bill", but also said that things like "The Bill" could also change people's attitudes to be more sexist rather than less, depicting women as much more "easy" than they had previously been allowed to be (or to be portrayed).

The racism experienced by the Irish detective Breen, and by the African family in the novel, was shocking in its accepted normality, and we agreed with the author on the depiction, and we enjoyed how strongly the author brought all of these aspects to the novel. Some members did remark that the dialogue wasn't always satisfying - a lot of characters and some places appear and disappear quickly in the plot, without contributing much atmosphere or interest, like the pathologist in the novel, and the Bagel cafe that Breen frequents. Was this planned by the author from the start, as he set up his trilogy? Some of the group members had gone straight on and read the second novel in the series, "A House of Knives", and did report that some characters and situations are indeed picked back up and treated to a bit more exposition. However, it did leave the first novel a bit frustrating. Also, the dialogue felt to some to be a bit more stuck in the 50's - again, was that deliberate, to show that in a lot of ways 1968 didn't touch the majority of England so much, but concentrated on a minority bubble of 20-somethings in London (of which Tozer is a part, but Breen is not)?

A member commented that Breen is a great new serial detective, as he's just a normal bloke, not an alcoholic, schizophrenic, or burdened with any other extraordinary character traits. We liked his quiet character, a bit apart from the rest of the blokes, trying to deal wiht his own normal-life tragedies. We enjoyed his partner Tozer a lot as well, as an incredibly fearless, outspoken female character who dares to be very direct with Breen and her superiors. We appreciated that she is a fresh breeze, a counterpoint to a musty and backwards system and way of thinking, but it did make her character act in some very stark, brazen ways (driving off in the car without informing her partner, for example) that seemed a bit improbable. But overall we really enjoyed the novel for its characters, its plot, but mostly the depiction of 1968 London society.
By Cordula