Review published on May 13, 2018.
This is the second novel of William Shaw’s that I’ve read and, while it’s the start of a new series, it follows on somewhat from the previous novel of his that I read, The Birdwatcher. In that novel, DS Alexander Cupidi was a secondary character, but here she steps centre stage. When the body of a woman is found in a body of water in the titular marshland of Salt Lane, the Kent police are somewhat stumped. She doesn’t appear to have drowned and nor does the body have any obvious injuries that might account for her death. When a second body, that of an illegal immigrant, is found in a cesspit, they are at first unsure whether the cases are linked. Cupidi and her team investigate and are soon drawn into the twilight world of illegal immigration, gangmasters, and exploitation.
Salt Lane is both a police procedural and a slice of social commentary. The procedural element works well, the author avoids the mistake of some writers who have their protagonist do all the work and solve the crime alone. Murder investigations, in the UK at any rate, are team efforts and this is depicted well. While DS Cupidi has a touch of that well-trodden trope – the maverick who finds it hard to play by the rules – this isn’t overly done. Rather she’s a believable character, likeable and committed.
The police procedure element of the novel is also handled adeptly; it didn’t surprise me to learn when reading the acknowledgments at the back, that the author consulted Graham Bartlett in the course of researching the novel. Bartlett being a former police officer in Brighton who has long advised the author Peter James. This then made it all the more galling when in the narrative a female officer is referred to as a WPC. The use of the term WPC (Woman Police Constable) is archaic and has long been consigned to the dustbin. All officers are now just PCs (unless they’re in the detective branch of course, when the P is swapped for a D for detective). While this only occurs twice and on the same page, the use of such an antiquated term, especially when the novel has been so thoroughly researched, did stick in my craw somewhat.
As mentioned, Salt Lane has a strong element of social commentary. Once again, the author has researched this thoroughly, as I can attest to from my career researching current affairs documentaries for Channel 4. Many a film I worked on looked at immigration and the twilight world of illegal immigrants who prop up the economy, often doing the hard, hazardous and underpaid work that other workers balk at. Salt Lane depicts this world powerfully. Whole swathes of the UK’s agricultural sector operate on the sweat of these workers and it is doubtful we would enjoy the cheap food that stocks our supermarket shelves without them.
Salt Lane is an excellent start to a new series. This is a long novel, running at 464 pages, which allows Shaw to weave through various sub-plots and flesh out Cupidi’s complicated family life, which I’m sure will develop further in future outings. While I enjoyed the novel, I have to confess to be a little jaded by police procedurals and preferring something a little more to the noir end of crime fiction. That said, this is an enjoyable novel and I will certainly read the next volume in the series when it hits the bookshelves.
James Pierson 4/4
Salt Lane by William Shaw
riverrun 9781786486578 hbk May 2018
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