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SALT LANE
by William Shaw
Mulholland Books, June 2018
464 pages
$27.00
ISBN: 0316563501


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

If Alex Cupidi thought life working as a detective in Serious Crimes in rural Kent would be simple compared to working for the Met in London, this summer is proving her wrong. She has two complex cases on her hands. First, the body of a woman found in a watery ditch has to be identified and the reason for her death determined - difficult to do since it's been in the water for weeks. Using information gathered from dental records, she and her callow young assistant, Constable Ferriter, go to London to notify the family. The woman's son, who'd been given up for adoption at an early age, is crushed to find his mother is dead. Why, she'd only just entered his life the day before, appearing without notice at their front door, a filthy, confused homeless woman. Either the woman who'd claimed to be his mother was a fraud, or the identity of the dead woman still has to be sorted out. By the time they return home, they have a second murder to investigate. This time, the body of a North African man has been found in a slurry pit, beaten brutally before being drowned in cattle waste.

In the second mystery to feature Sergeant Cupidi, the first to make her the central protagonist following her supporting role in THE BIRDWATCHER, William Shaw takes his time unwinding both mysteries, each of them complex enough to stand on their own. The story is set in a part of Kent that is low-lying, drained by a centuries-old network of ditches, home to the flocks of migrating birds that fascinate Cupidi's teenage daughter. It's not a natural home to Cupidi, though, and she has an awkward way of rubbing her colleagues the wrong way even as her daughter seems to be drifting away from her, barely talking when she arrives home late from a demanding day on the job. Concerned that the girl needs more support than she can give her, Cupidi invites her mother to stay with them, even though their relationship has never been easy. Part of the pleasure of this novel is watching the relationships of three generations of women unfold as a backdrop to two criminal investigations.

The strip of coast where Cupidi lives is not just home to migratory flocks, it's a place where rubber dinghies turn up abandoned on the beach, left behind after their cargo of immigrants, desperate to escape violence at home, have scattered. Investigating the North African's murder brings Cupidi into a tangle of conflicting attitudes. Farmers need workers to harvest their fruit, but policy makers and nativist sentiments have made England a dangerous place for undocumented refugees. In the end, this watery landscape, where the shore has retreated leaving a medieval city hidden beneath the waves, proves a fascinating setting for contemporary crimes, animated by a cast of well-developed characters. It will be interesting to see where this series goes next.

Barbara Fister is an academic librarian, columnist, and author of the Anni Koskinen mystery series.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, July 2018

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