Grave’s End by William Shaw

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Review by Annabel


William Shaw, former award-winning music journalist has, in recent years, become one of the UK’s must-read crime authors. Although he’d already written a well-received detective series set in the 1960s, it was the publication of standalone crime novel The Birdwatcher in 2017 that brought him to wider attention.

The Birdwatcher was set on the Kent coast near Dungeness, featuring Police Sergeant William South. DS Alexandra Cupidi, newly relocated from the Met, with a whiff of scandal attached, played a secondary part in the novel alongside her daughter Zoë. Shaw evidently liked her enough to make her the focus of his next book, and here we are three books into the new series with Grave’s End.

When a body is found in a freezer in the garage of a luxurious house that is up for sale, DS Cupidi is called in to investigate, together with her DC, Jill Ferriter. It takes some time to identify him. The murdered man turns out to be a local environmental activist, and well-known to Cupidi’s daughter Zoë and former policeman William South who belong to various wildlife groups in the area. I love the way that South continues to play a part in each Cupidi novel and has become a bit of a surrogate father figure to Zoë.

A local building company is waiting to get the go-ahead from the planning authorities to build a housing development, and Vinnie Gibbons, the murdered man, was active in protesting against it. The Whitelands Fields site contains a centuries-old badger sett and there is the possibility of Anglo Saxon remains there too. The housing developer has now fenced the sett off, which means those active in observing and protecting the badgers (including Zoë of course) must trespass. September Homes, led by local businessman Harry French, are confident that planning permission will be given, having done much political lobbying all the way to Westminster. This will be their largest development yet, and the financial backing is there.

Shaw takes a bold move with this book, interspersing the main narrative with the thoughts of one of the badgers in the Whitelands sett. Shaw has evidently researched deeply into these secretive creatures to portray the mindset of an older badger who is worried about not only humans, but getting enough to eat and the incursions of younger stronger badgers from neighbouring territories. There is not a single hint of any anthropomorphism:

The badger hesitates at the entrance to the sett and sniffs. Everything is smell; smell is everything. […]

He sets off to find food, but discovers old pathways have been blocked. The new fences themselves are not a problem. They are diggers. They ignore fences. They can always go under. Build roads they’ll cross them. Build walls, they’ll find a way through.

The only way to stop a badger going somewhere you don’t want it to is, basically, to kill it.

The badgers will continue to play a significant role all through the book, helping Cupidi’s initially stymied investigation by unearthing human remains. Whether we hear from the old male’s point of view, from the conservationists and activists, or from those who subscribe to the old barbaric country ways, Shaw examines all the viewpoints. The introduction of the knowledgeable and very likeable Constable Tony Skinner, the local Wildlife Crime Officer, who had managed to get local badger baiters convicted, also adds considerably to this picture.

Alongside the investigation is the ever-present problem of Jill Ferriter’s love life. While Cupidi is content to remain single for now with Zoë being between leaving school and forging her own life, Jill is chafing at the bit to have a lasting relationship. She sets up a date with a chap she meets online, his name is Harry – yes, you’ve got it!

Things start to get really complicated when Westminster, in the form of a Kentish peer, Lord Derry Michaels, and then Howard Roteman, the Minister for Housing, gets involved. While Michaels is all for the development, for some reason Roteman is against, but he’s very subtle about it. However, when the human remains that were unearthed by the badger are identified, another whole avenue to the investigation is opened up, and Roteman is connected. This new avenue leads to perilous encounters for Cupidi as the tension mounts.

Once again, Shaw’s attention to detail over the Kentish setting is wonderful. From the liminal space of Dungeness and the Kent marshes to a converted oast house, from a caravan park to the Whitelands site, not forgetting the contrasting business of Westminster, he is great at sense of place. His characters are memorable, especially William South. The spiky Cupidi is becoming warmer and more interesting with each book too, and naturally we all really like Jill and Zoë.

It’s more than setting and character though. Shaw uses his plots to discuss issues of the day, from the immigrant workers and gangmasters of the first Cupidi book, Salt Lane, to the exploits of two teenaged layabouts in Deadland. The conflicts between the need for more housing and environmental protection take centre stage in Grave’s End, some tricky politics indeed and dastardly deeds, deftly handled by the author.

There is no particular need to read these books in order, as back story is kept to a minimum, but read one and you’ll want to read them all, especially to work out South’s history. For me this was the best yet in this fantastic series, I couldn’t put it down. I do so hope Shaw is working on the next for 2021!

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Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

William Shaw, Grave’s End (riverrun, 2020). 978-1529401806, 480pp., hardback.

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