Detective South hates murder cases, particularly the one he’s been ducking for 40 years.
Shaw’s (A Song for the Brokenhearted, 2016, etc.) downbeat detective story follows the investigation of a brutal murder in the bleak, remote Kentish marshlands of southeastern England. Sgt. William South, assigned to the task force, knew the victim—a quiet, private neighbor who accompanied the policeman on birding expeditions—and aspects of the crime echo a shameful incident from South’s own past. As the case grows increasingly personal, South must reckon with his own long-buried sins to bring his friend’s killer to justice and break free of the isolating shell of secrecy that has stranded him, lonely and adrift, in a life of anonymous, penitential service. South is a sour and guarded personality, but Shaw makes him an unusually compelling narrator, deftly evoking the watchfulness, intelligence, and wounded decency in the man, with frequent flashbacks to South’s tragic youth mired in the Troubles of Northern Ireland providing an emotional baseline for the older South’s doggedly stoic efforts. Further complicating South’s routine is the arrival of Alexandra Cupidi, a hotshot female investigator fresh from London, eager to prove herself in her new parochial surroundings, and Alex’s troubled teenage daughter, Zoë, who touchingly takes up birding in an effort to bond with South, sensing a kindred lonely soul. All the pieces then are in place for a tidy redemption arc, but Shaw has something a bit more nuanced in mind; this is a character study as much as it is a (very competent) procedural, and the author imbues his cast with enough rough edges, private drives, and emotional messiness to make pat resolutions untenable. Shaw delivers something more satisfying: a juicy suburban crime story limned with authentic feeling and sensitivity for the poor doomed souls in its grip.
A grimly effective crime drama distinguished by its richly drawn protagonist and empathetic understanding of human behavior, be it saintly or profane.