Unforgettable Fictional Friends


We read novels because we care about the people who live between their pages.

William Shaw develops fascinating characters. Each person is vulnerable and brilliant in his or her own way, including the cast of The Birdwatcher.

Police Sergeant William South serves as Neighborhood Officer in the coastal patch of Kent in Southeastern England near Dungeness. He’s a first responder and the man who tracks down an elder who has lost his way. He keeps an eye on the local drug scene and chases shoplifters. A solitary man, South spends hours along the beaches and bogs looking for unusual birds.

On page one, when Sergeant South is ordered to assist in a murder investigation, he begs off because it’s October and prime birdwatching season and although no one else knows, William South is a murderer.

Luck abandons the Sergeant. The Dungeness victim happens to be his next-door neighbor and fellow birdwatcher. He’s torn between exposure and helping the Serious Crime Directorate find his friend’s murderer. He could leave the investigation in its early stages or later when told to stay away. Call it fate, but even official duties and ordinary acts like shopping or helping a friend, drag him deeper into the mystery. Each involvement redoubles his risk of exposure and even death.

Detective Sergeant Alexandra Cupidi’s past drives her from the Metropolitan Police and London. She’s desperate to make a strong first impression in Kent. A guilt-ridden single mother, she weighs professional success against her daughter Zoe’s adjustment to Kent.

Cupidi sees Neighborhood Officer South as an asset in her investigation. He knows the victim, the territory, and the shortcuts. Their relationship deepens as South eases tensions between Cupidi and Zoe. He rescues Zoe from bullies at her new school and hides her indiscretions.

Zoe is mature beyond her age—an adult trapped in the life of a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl. She loves and understands her mother. At the same time, Zoe compromises Alexandra’s professional and personal life. She can’t talk to her mother or the “cows” at school. Surprisingly, she confides in William South and plays matchmaker between him and her mother. Bored, Zoe gives birdwatching a try. Her drawings of birds in flight capture their jizz, amazing the experienced South.

The murderer lurks in the shadows and hides in plain sight. He or she may be stalking Cupidi, Zoe, or South. Cupidi believes that it must be a man. A woman could never kill with such violence and frequency, “Someone who literally cannot control themselves, or doesn’t want to. Someone so consumed with anger they cannot stop.”

Cupidi is anxious to close the case and secure her place in the Kent Serious Crime Directorate. When someone fits her image of the killer, South challenges her conclusions. His experience as a murderer suggests someone else is guilty.

Birds and birdwatching add color and plot twists. Birdwatching focuses on the extraordinary visitors, not the local gulls and sparrows—migrating species and individuals blown off course by ocean storms. South’s birdwatching parallels his police work. The Sergeant scans for anything unusual—a broken window, an abandoned automobile, or a group of individuals camped on a beach. South applies his birdwatching techniques to the murder investigation—high power binoculars and stakeouts even the birds can’t detect.

The Birdwatcher is two stories in one. Each chapter ends with a snippet set in Northern Ireland during The Troubles. Parallels between the life of young Billy and adult William include their interest in birdwatching and their fear of murder investigations.

The first page of The Birdwatcher accuses William South. Could he get away with murder, suffer imprisonment, or fall prey to the Kentish murderer? He’s an engaging character with great potential. Does he have a future?



Moriarty Meets His Match: A Professor and Mrs. Moriarty Mystery (Book 1), by Anna Castle

When writers strain their brains for new ideas, they might consider revisiting an old idea. For instance, Gregory Maguire applied the rules of “alternative fiction,” in his retelling Frank Baum’s classic 1900 story the Wizard of Oz.  Forget Dorothy, Maguire wrote from the point of view of the Wicked Witch of the West. The result: the novel Wicked, which later appears on stage as a musical thanks to Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman, and still later as a movie of the same name.

Why not revisit Arthur Conan Doyle’s signature masterpiece and reveal Sherlock Holmes for the cad he is.

And who better than Anna Castle—with a keen eye for historical context and detail, and famous for her Francis Bacon Mystery series—to expose Holmes and rehabilitate the reputation of Professor James Moriarty.

In book one of her latest series, Moriarty Meets His Match; Castle tells a tale of fleecing wolves, not lambs.  It begins at the London International Exhibition of 1862. The plot then spins a web of lupine greed and arrogance.

“Society nobs (who) had plenty of twinkle with their unsalable family jewels, but very little crinkle—cash money—in their pocketbooks,” ensnare unwary investors in schemes that are designed to enrich the nobs and soak their stockholders.

To the rescue of the lambs, rides the “not entirely respectable,” Mrs. Angelina Gould, a member of a notorious family of confidence swindlers and actors. Call it love at first sight or her setting up a mark, Mrs. Gould crosses paths with and latches onto Professor James Moriarty, mustached, preacher’s son, mathematician, athletic, unassuming and vulnerable. He “radiate(s) integrity like a warm stove.”

With an axe of a nose, Holmes, consulting detective to Scotland Yard speaks in supercilious tones, ignores facts, and seems driven by his own prejudices “He longed for an opponent who could challenge him intellectually. Moriarty fit that bill. Therefore, Moriarty must be a suspect.” Holmes generates theories that fit the facts, although they lead to erroneous conclusions, placing Moriarty in jeopardy of swinging on the gallows for his enemy’s crime.

Anna Castle will please romance fans, those who love Victorian London, and most readers in search of an exciting mystery. She repeatedly places Moriarty and Mrs. Gould in horrible jeopardy from which few authors could extract them.

Anna Castle has recently launched the second book in the Professor and Mrs. Moriarty Mystery Series: Moriarty Takes His Medicine.

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger

“The United States is so powerful that the only country capable of destroying her might be the United States herself, which means that the ultimate terrorist strategy would be just to leave the country alone. That way, America’s ugliest partisan tendencies could emerge unimpeded by the unifying effects of war.”

Polarization, random violence, and racial injustice disturb the domestic tranquility. Sebastian Junger, the author of A Perfect Storm, points to root causes and possible solutions to a growing national fratricide. As a war correspondent, Junger regularly observes the formation of “tribes”— fiercely loyal, egalitarian, classless, aggregations of humans that align their attitudes and values for the survival of every member.

He recounts examples of how humans meet disaster with amazing courage, composure, and unity. During World War II, the London Blitz and the Allied bombings of German cities brought local civilians together in air-raid shelters, forming them into classless communities that not only survive but thrive. The rate of suicides drops below peacetime levels, and industrial production increases as the bombing continues. He notes that persons of different social classes and background forget their differences and unite for national survival.

Because of war and other traumas, local ad-hoc groups exhibit the collective effort typical of the tribes that flourished in North America before the European invasion. After the war, the denizens of bomb shelters often go back to their individual lives and the tribal connections fade. Although they hate the war, some miss the closeness they experienced in the shelters.

The traditional Indian grouping is the band or clan of about fifty individuals. Its members work to preserve tribal unity because, without it, they could not survive. Migratory bands limit their personal property to what they could carry from campsite to campsite, reducing their ability to develop class distinctions based on wealth. After the hunt, every band member receives an equal share of the quarry ensuring that all survive, but none accumulates more than the others. Hoarding or selfishness by a few individuals endangers the rest of the group, so it is not tolerated. Neither are slacking or bullying.

One of the modern equivalents of the tribe is the military platoon. Soldiers live together, fight the same enemy, and, at night, sleep under the same roof. They share everything in common and build an intense bond that despite the external dangers and privation gives the band of brothers and sisters a feeling of belonging. They share a common cause, the safety of their platoon and their country.

Unfortunately, when veterans return to their homes and families, they not only miss the comradery of their platoon, but some are made to feel unnecessary. They notice that civilians seem more intent on serving themselves than the society as a whole.

Junger relates the typical veteran’s homecoming experiences to PTSD, disaffection, and violence. He suggests several practical responses to the needs of returning veterans and more generalized recommendations that urge society to embrace stone-age tribal values as a solution to many of our information-age problems.

Although Junger does not mention it, the characteristics and harmony of stone-age tribal life continue to exist in both monasteries and the persecuted church—“See how they love one another.”

Americanah, by Chimamamda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah is a tale of two countries, Nigeria and the USA. The protagonist, Ifemelu invites the reader to sit with her at a braiding salon in Newark, New Jersey as she prepares to return to Nigeria after ten years in the USA. She chats candidly with the stylists and other customers—mostly Africans and West Indians. They poke fun at the American accent, argue that public education in Africa is better than in the USA, and bemoan the institution of racism.

At home, Ifemelu is an Igbo, a Nigerian, and an African. It’s only when she visits America that she becomes “Black.” Four hundred years of race-related baggage instantly burdens her. She reveals the subtle racial slights and prejudicial mindsets that she never experienced at home. They shape her interactions with whites and African-Americans. In the US, she could be herself only with a foreign student—national origins didn’t matter as long as they hail from somewhere else—Africa, Asia, Europe, or South America.

Ifemelu speaks her mind, earning rebukes and slaps. Her safest soapbox is her anonymous blog on “race, from the Non-American Black” point of view. As a homage to blogging, the novel appears as a series of blog posts. Between her opinion pieces and narrations, she reveals the secrets of her successful and eventually profitable blog.

With seemingly unconnected essays and short stories, the novel follows a loose plot line. Like a hidden electrical wire connecting a string of lights, the blog bulbs glow, but they derive their power from the story cord hiding in the background.

It’s a love story, but it is not necessarily a romance. Passion and tragedy abound. Denied an American visa, Obinze, Ifemelu’s college crush travels instead, to England where he ekes out an existence with the aid of a “rented identity.” He hopes that a sham marriage will allow him to stay. Meanwhile, Ifemelu’s partial scholarship barely covers her tuition. She desperately struggles to pay rent and feed herself in an America where she cannot legally earn money. Isolated and stressed, both Obinze and Ifemelu explore desperate alleyways to survival. Ifemelu’s shame and desolation lead to depression. The reader wonders if Obinze and Ifemelu have jaded too much to find happiness with each other.

The novel compares Nigeria and America, but focuses on Africa’s most populous and wealthy nation. Nigeria’s wealth, controlled by the few, temps the poor and middle class to cash in. Money becomes a religion to those who read books like Praying Your Way to Prosperity. Both the church-going and secular aspirants to wealth use flattery and other enticements to ingratiate themselves with the wealthy and powerful.

Americanah introduces Nigerians and American to each other as Nigeria’s star rises. Readers in both nations benefit from Adichie’s articulate if blunt description of how the values and mindsets in each country affect the understanding and appreciation required for fellowship and cooperation.

Murder as a Fine Art, by David Morrell


David Morrell blends horror, history and mystery, in his tale of narco-political terrorism, with a twist. The author opens with a narration by “The Artist,” the antagonist, who in 1854 savagely murders members of a London household near Ratcliffe Highway. This reenactment of of the 1811 Ratcliffe Highway killings presses the communal panic button. Armed and terrified vigilantes rove the night, groping through the London fog, soot and sewage stench—spurred on by news of the Ratcliffe Highway killings. They attack and slay anyone unfortunate enough to look suspicious, especially foreigners.

There’s a method to “the Artist’s” madness. What better way to destroy the British Empire than to turn the population against itself? “The Artist” resents the Empire’s immense revenue from the cultivation and distribution of opium. Domestically, almost every English house, pub and doctor’s office stocks laudanum—opium, dissolved in alcohol. Used as a pain medicine, a few too many drops can be lethal.The novel explores the dark reach of British East India Company, and its role in the Opium War that forces China to trade tea for opium, despite the Emperor’s protests.

“The Artist” cultivates a personal grudge against Thomas De Quincey, the author of Confessions of an English Opium Eater. “The Artist” uses as a guide to blood-letting De Quincey’s essay, On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts, the meticulous description of the particularly savage 1811 Ratcliffe Highway killings. After the Ratcliffe Highway massacre reenactment of 1854, De Quincey becomes a suspect and a detective. In the company of his daughter Emily, he assists and resists the authorities as they stumble to unravel this knotted skein of terror.

An anthology of English literature may include a brief segment of The Confessions of an English Opium Eater, representing Thomas De Quincey’s contribution to western civilization. For some, like David Morrell, who profess an unbounded ardor for De Quincey’s writings, these few pages breed a lively fascination. In Murder as a Fine Art, Morrell shares De Quincey’s interest in the Ratcliffe Highway killings of 1811. Morrell describes De Quincey’s analysis of contemporary newspaper reports as the foundation for his essay, On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts. The details are so specific, the essay seems to be a first-hand account by the murderer. Morrell and “the Artist” both study De Quincey’s complete works in preparation for Morrell’s literary and “the Artist’s” homicidal exploits.

David Morell recreates London of the nineteenth century with art, science and fashion. De Quincey recalls in the pages of Morrell’s novel, his deceased friends, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, well-known opium-eaters. De Quincey believes that the massive doses of laudanum he imbibes promote creativity by linking his conscious and his subconscious. He discovers the subconscious 70 years before Freud writes of it.

Emily De Quincey, Thomas’ outspoken and “liberated” daughter, proves to be an artful dodger. She protects her father and in her spare moments explains the benefits of the Bloomer dress over the then fashionable hooped dresses and skirts. Her substantial narrations and ploy stand as some of the most interesting chapters of the book. With multiple narrators, the role of protagonist shifts throughout the novel. Along the way, Morrell works both sides of the debate between art imitates life vs. life imitates art.

The Kindle version of Murder as a Fine Art includes discussion with the author, historical background and more details on the life and works of Thomas De Quincey. The author discourages drug use as the key to unlocking creativity.

A Book of Scars (The Breen and Tozer Mystery Series, Volume 3), by William Shaw

A Book of Scars ( DS Breen and WPC Tozer # 3)

Detective Sergeant Cathal “Paddy” Breen of the Metropolitan CID (Marylebone Police Station, London) can’t seem to avoid disaster whether he’s rescuing a cat from a tree, investigating a crime scene or chasing a bad guy. To his aid rides Helen Tozer, a Woman Police Constable who wants to do more than fetch tea and biscuits for her male counterparts.

The introverted Paddy dabbles in art, rendering accurate sketches from memory. He methodically covers the floor of his apartment with scraps of paper—clues representing the puzzle-pieces of his murder inquiries. His mind shuffles snippets until, hopefully, a pattern emerges. He was born before WWII and fits well with the older generation and their methods of operation.

Although only a few years younger, as a post war baby boomer, Tozer stands on the opposite side of the canyon known as “the generation gap” from Paddy Breen. The more intuitive and “with-it” Helen, a farm-girl from Devon, belongs to the Beatles Fan Club, plays a guitar and likes to drink. She calls Paddy, not Cathal, but “Careful Breen,” because he rarely tempts fortune, letting misfortune come to him, and come it does. Paddy’s “old school” perspective blocks his access to witnesses, after a nanny and her charges find the murdered body of a Beetles fan, whereas Helen speaks their language and earns their cooperation.

A Book of Scars begins with the injured Paddy convalescing at the Tozer farm in Devon. Bored out of his mind, he looks for a case to solve, a cold case, such as the brutal death of Alexandra, Helen’s sister. He finds the coroner’s report that describes the horrible nature of Alex’s unsolved murder. The report spurs Breen and Tozer to track down the sadistic killer and determine the killer’s motivation, especially when it seems that the same horrible death awaits others.

A Book of Scars begins as a murder-mystery, but it dips into the horror genre. Although, it serves up generous portions of “who done it” suspense with a full slate of suspects, the heavy handed violence in Africa, the Biafra/Nigerian War, the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya and the dark side of the drug trade between Europe and North Africa spill over into the character’s lives and the story lines.

As witnesses to local examples of this unthinkable violence, Breen and Tozer realize that methods justified elsewhere during an “emergency,” have returned home with the ousted colonials to terrify their inventors. The novel includes descriptions of brutal torture. Unfortunately, these savage acts are based on actual testimony of victims of similar atrocities—atrocities committed with a wink and a nod from the colonial authorities.

Despite the grim aspects of the final volume, trilogy fans will enjoy the progress in Breen and Tozer’s personal relationship. A Book of Scars opens more doors than it closes, raising hopes that William Shaw turns the trilogy into a much longer series. He has almost fifty Paddy and Helen years in which to weave a lifetime of sequels for enjoyment of his readers.

The US titles for the first two volumes in the Breen and Tozer Trilogy are She’s Leaving Home and The Kings of London. The final volume, not readily available in the USA goes by the UK title, A Book of Scars.

For reviews of She’s Leaving Home and The Kings of London, press control/click on these titles.



The Kings of London (The Breen and Tozer Mystery Series) Volume 2, by William Shaw

The second volume of the Breen and Tozer series depends heavily on the first. It extends several story lines from “She’s Leaving Home,” revealing for the first time their depth and darkness. Volume 2, like its prequel, incorporated newsworthy events, historic figures, especially the exponents of the arts and the changing cultural scene. The “generation gap” and the conflicting values of parents and children feature prominently, especially as they relate to politics, art, urban development and the drug scene.

Detective work takes a back seat to the analysis of the sociological landscape of 1968-9. The older generation may have scratched its way to the top within Harold Wilson’s New Britain, but many of its rich, confident and hedonistic children sneered at their prestigious parents. The young espoused the belief that if they were to free themselves from moral restraints, they and the world would know peace. Pop culture deified the “cool,” who attracted unquestioning followers escaping from the restrictions of the establishment. When hedonism led to addiction and freedom to bondage, Breen and Tozer picked up the pieces.

Helen Tozer’s ability to engage suspects and follow leads missed by others insured her succeed as a copper. However, her cold reception within the Criminal Investigation Division and her father’s deteriorating mind discourage her law enforcement ambitions. She loved London but had to think of her family.

Paddy Breen attracted the wrath of several who would gladly see him dead. Official interference blocked his investigations. Sidelined, he continued to puzzle over scattered shreds of evidence. His freelance activities repeatedly led him into danger, ruined more than a few suits and shed his blood. His relation to Tozer continued to develop. In the end, Paddy found that he had changed and not necessarily for the better.

Volume 2 sets up the further adventures for Breen and Tozer in Volume 3.