Not quite four years ago I was struck down by the E. coli bug. Fortunately, I’m not yet in a position to tell you whether or not that was a better or worse experience than having the current virus, but I can tell you that you really don’t want to contract E. coli. The first day that I felt like getting out of bed and managing some concentrated reading I picked up William Shaw’s The Birdwatcher. I’d very much enjoyed his series set in the 1960s and featuring DS Breen and WPC Tozer, three of which were available at the time. His new novel, as far as I could see, was a standalone set in present day Kent and built around Police Sergeant William South, a community police officer situated on the coast near Dungeness. South was joined in that particular investigation by DS Alexandra Cupidi, newly arrived on the Kent force from London with her teenage daughter, Zoë. I don’t usually get on very well with standalone crime novels and I wasn’t exactly up to spec on that particular day, but I was so gripped by the story I read without stopping and finished the book in one sitting. The very fact that I can remember exactly where I was and why when I read the novel speaks volumes for its worth.
Well, it turned out that it wasn’t a standalone novel and Graves End is now the fourth in a series in which each one has continued to be as well written and well told as that first episode. Cupidi has, perhaps, moved more centre stage and in this book she finds herself called to investigate the circumstances behind the discovery of a body in a freezer located in the garage of a house that is up for sale. When the body is identified it turns out to be that of a local activist well known among the wildlife enthusiast circle to which both William South and Zoë, Cupidi’s daughter, belong. Vinnie Gibbons has been one of a number of people concerned about a new housing development, Whitelands Fields, which will destroy a landscape in which badgers have lived for many centuries. There is much local opposition to the project but the company behind it, September Homes, are confident that they are going to get both planning permission and the necessary financial backing.
The author intercuts his narrative with commentary from the viewpoint of one of the old male badgers living beneath the disputed land site and if that sounds as though it might be a bit on the twee side, believe me it isn’t. Shaw uses it to make a very serious point about the way in which all of us, humankind and badger alike, will fight to defend our territory, our families and the way of life to which we are used. Gibbons has previously been a key witness in a trial against a group of men accused of badger baiting, something which they see as part of the tradition of the land, and initially, Cupidi and her DC, Jill Ferriter, suspect the remaining members of the group every bit as much as they question the involvement of the developers. However, the discovery of human remains, helpfully excavated by the badger, forces them to look in yet another direction.
Like most of the best in crime fiction, Shaw uses his novels to explore issues of current interest and concern. Here, as well as focusing on the grievances felt by those who consider that their long-standing traditions and way of life are being threatened by political correctness, he is also putting the debate about the need for more housing versus the destruction of the environment under the spotlight.
The bloody housebuilding lobby. They have the government wrapped around their finger. So in this region we’re expected to identify locations in which to build three hundred and fifty new homes a year. And when the housing developers get planning permission on those bits of land almost on the nod, half the time they don’t even build. They just bank the land because it’s now worth many times more because it has planning permission on it, which forces the District Council to allocate even more land for housebuilding in order to comply with government targets, which frees up more land for the money-men to buy…It’s a giant scam. It’s about ruining the English countryside for profit. It makes me furious.
But the housing developers aren’t about to get it all their own way as Cupidi discovers when she finds herself involved with one of the politicians concerned, Howard Roteman. Roteman is clearly doing all he can, without being too obvious, to make sure that the proposed development doesn’t receive the backing that September Homes are so desperately seeking and when it becomes apparent that he appears to have what might be considered suspicious connections to both the potential building site and the human remains that have been discovered there yet a third possible motive for murder raises its head.
To my mind, Shaw is one of the very best current crime writers. He plots well, he draws fine characters and he is particularly good at invoking the setting in which his stories take place. I think this is probably the best of the four Cupidi novels and if you haven’t already discovered this author’s work then I recommend him to you most strongly.
With thanks to Quercus Books and NetGalley for a review copy.