The glory of the historical mystery is in recreating a time and place both familiar and new. Too often (for me, at least), I find the details in historical fiction maddening and anachronistic, a result of superficial research or the easy belief in old tropes about a period.
Happily, William Shaw has avoided these traps in his Breen and Tozer series, set in the much documented days of Swinging London. Shaw cannily makes his two detectives—Cathal “Paddy” Breen, a man bewildered by the social and political changes of the 1960s; and Helen Tozer, a rock and roll fan and a pioneering female police officer in the conservative Met—excellent foils for one another and keen observers of their time.
A former music journalist, Shaw integrates the uprising of British youth and the surging popularity of rock and roll into his trilogy: She’s Leaving Home, The Kings of London, and the recent A Song for the Brokenhearted. I asked Shaw about his research and his relationship to music, in his work and his life.
LISA: The first book especially revolves around the girls who hung around outside Abbey Road studios and the Beatles' homes. How did you dig up information about them? The name Apple Scruffs must have come a bit later, right? I was fascinated by the glimpse into what feels like the first fan culture, something we take for granted now with the Internet and a zillion conventions.
WILLIAM: The Apple Scruffs were amazing. They got their name from hanging out outside the Apple Corps HQ at 3 Saville Row, which the Beatles moved into back in the summer of ’68. They were fans from a time when it was hard to be a fan. They used to phone each other up from coin boxes around London to pass on news of where The Beatles were. That was a costly thing to be doing in those days. But I suppose also, bands hadn’t started to fear fans, either, so in other ways it was easier. They were like a gang of really wild, cool girls.
I think the fact that they became extraordinarily close to the group was a lot to do with the fact that from that time onwards, The Beatles were falling apart. They had all sorts of business arguments. John and Ono were in their own world of addiction. The fans and their ongoing faith in the band, come rain or shine, represented something of the early innocence of the band still. There was a book called Waiting for The Beatles written by one of them, which gave great insight into their lives. I lifted various bits from that and imagined the rest. After the book came out, I got in touch with one of the original Scruffs and checked that I hadn’t offended any of them. I don’t think I did! Fandom is such a great milieu to write about.
LISA: Who are your musical (or other) heroes? What's the most extreme thing you've ever done to meet someone you admired?
WILLIAM: I confess I was always a big McCartney man, though as a teenager I loathed Wings. I’m really not one for heroes though. I’ve never understood that. I’ve never bought a complete set of albums by someone. Not once. I have only asked for three autographs from musicians in my entire life and I used to meet a lot of quite famous people when I worked for music magazines.
I still have a signed photograph which Little Richard gave me. I certainly was in awe of him. He’s phenomenal. At the time I was a real post-punk and had a big floppy Flock of Seagulls fringe. He spent the entire interview talking about how much he liked my hair. The other was of a brilliant jazz musician called Slim Gaillard. When I wrote articles anonymously, I used to use the byline Duncan Bagel which was stolen from a song he’d written called “Dunkin’ Bagels.” I made him sign the album “To Duncan Bagel.” I still have it in the loft. The third one was from the the great Dizzee Rascal, which was for a really talented young boy I used to know who was a huge fan; the boy since grew up and became a pop star himself in a group called Rizzle Kicks. So boringly, I’ve never done anything extreme to meet anyone I admired.
LISA: In the series, the older Breen seems bewildered by the changes of the 1960s, including the music, the fashion, the art, and the introduction of women like Tozer into the Met. Why did you choose to have a protagonist who is alienated by his times?
WILLIAM: Because everybody’s already written about the sixties as if they were the coolest time ever. But a lot of people—people from my dad’s generation—were alienated by it. I thought it would turn the whole conventional perspective of the sixties on its head if you had a narrator who didn’t think that everything was great. Who thought the music was moronic compared to the jazz he grew up with. Who thought they were selfish and dressed badly. It’s why I invented Tozer. She understands what’s great about rock music.
LISA: Can you say a bit about how you researched the books? I'm especially interested in the Happening Breen attends.
WILLIAM: There’s just so much great stuff out there. And you can still talk to people because they’re alive! Caroline Coon, a great old music journalist whose a painter now, was there setting up the first British charity to deal with drug users who got in trouble with the law. I spoke to her for a while. All the stuff about the hippie trails of the time, through Asia and North Africa—there are still loads of people around who talk about what that was like. The happenings though come from reading International Times and OZ magazines, mostly. They're the two big London “alternative press” magazines of the time, full of fantastic old hippie stuff, and they’re both available digitally. And you have to remember that everybody there was usually off their faces, which means there’s lots of space to make stuff up. Historical fiction thrives in the bits that people can’t quite remember.
LISA: Besides the Beatles, if you were making a soundtrack for the trilogy who would be included?
WILLIAM: The Kinks. Definitely them. And Hendrix. I’m not a great Stones fan, but they were really coming into their own in 1968-69 and “Street Fighting Man” is a great noise. I’d like to put in a bit of early Tyrannosaurs Rex, like “One Inch Rock,” because Marc Bolan was just emerging on the scene, and probably David Bowie’s “London Bye Ta-Ta,” which was long before he became famous. There’s also a kind of rural element to the books for when they go down to Devon, so I’d probably put in some Incredible String Band or Fairport Convention to get the folkier stuff in there. Maybe Soft Machine too, or early Pink Floyd; they were playing at those Happenings at the Roundhouse in London around the time I was setting the books.
LISA: In accounts of the Swinging Sixties it's easy to forget what's happening in the world, but you are careful to remind the reader that this is also the period of the decline of the empire, especially in Africa. Why was this context important for you to include in the books, and specifically, as background for the crimes?
WILLIAM: That’s a really good point. We have forgotten what else went on. But in 1968-69 in London, you were just as likely to come across a demonstration about the Biafran War as you were about Vietnam. John Lennon handed back his MBE medal that the Queen had given him as a protest about Biafra. But all that’s been forgotten. I think it’s because Britain is a post-imperial country and it’s not convenient to remember that any more. So a lot of things that were on the cultural radar in the 60s have been airbrushed out. I like to put them back in.
LISA: Is the information about the Drug Squad performing high-profile raids on musicians something you researched as well? I've read about it from the musicians' perspective, but had never thought about it from the police point-of-view.
WILLIAM: Oh yes. But I’ve never found any police who’ll talk about it. Most of them were purged in the police reforms of the 70s so they’re harder to find. There was a great book about Metropolitan Police corruption written in the 1970s called The Fall of Scotland Yard which has some of it, but mostly I read those same stories you are talking about. There are good accounts of the raids on Keith Richards's house, plus all the ones led by the infamous “Nobby” Pilcher—the arrests of people like Brian Jones, Donovan, John Lennon, and George Harrison. So there is quite a lot of material out there in various books if you look.
LISA: What’s the connection in your mind between crime fiction and music?
WILLIAM: There are a couple of ways of talking about that. I love crime fiction that has a clear setting. Chandler’s Los Angeles, Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh, Robert B. Parker’s Massachusetts, Henning Mankell’s Sweden. It is going to sound massively pretentious, but in these books, I was trying to make the setting a cultural one as much as a geographical one. So music has to be part of the setting.
But, I’m also an amateur musician too. And there are, I think, similarities. Crime fiction has a structure. Like a 12-bar blues or a 32-bar jig, there are certain things the tune has to do. But once you’ve accepted those strictures, you suddenly have this huge freedom to create. That’s really the way I feel about crime fiction. I wrote two (unpublished) novels before I started writing crime, and when I started a third, I realized it was a police procedural. I suddenly felt set free. It was a great moment for me. And writing can be like playing music. You need to relax into it. If you try too hard, it doesn’t work.
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Lisa Levy is the former EIC of The Life Sentence and the former Mystery/Noir editor at the LA Review of Books. She also has written about less nefarious topics for Pacific Standard, Dame, The Believer, Slate, Salon, and other publications. She is also a contributing editor and columnist at Literary Hub.
William Shaw writes the critically acclaimed Breen and Tozer crime fiction series. Set in London in 1968-9 they include She's Leaving Home and The Kings of London. The third, A Song for The Brokenhearted, will be followed in 2017 by The Birdwatcher, a standalone novel. Before writing fiction, William Shaw was the author of several non-fiction books including Westside, about a year spent with the young men of South Central Los Angeles, and A Superhero For Hire, a compilation of columns in the Observer Magazine.