Monday, September 9, 2019

Through the Past, Darkly: Guest Post by William Shaw

Play With Fire is set in London in 1969, the era when everyone used typewriters and carbon paper. It was written on a Mac.

I like to think about that difference sometimes between then and now. I imagine a room full of beat-hardened constables from London’s Metropolitan Police one-finger typing, fight-scabbed hands angrily stabbing the keys, one at a time.

Back then, the Metropolitan Police force of the late sixties was staffed with men from a totally different era; it was a force that was institutionally corrupt and contained more than a few officers who thought nothing of fabricating evidence to convict whoever they assumed was guilty. This was a force in which the newly formed Drug Squad would later be discovered to be selling drugs they’d confiscated back to drug dealers. As for procedure, in those days there was almost no forensic evidence gathered at a crime scene beyond finger prints. Officers would happily trample mob-handed all over the evidence.

Play With Fire is also set in an era 20 years before the demise of the Soviet Union, which nobody could ever imagine collapsing back then. It seemed monolithic; unstoppable.

The book features a real-life spy exchange that happened that year - members of the infamous Communist Portland Spy Ring were exchanged for an unfortunate British lecturer who had been caught in Russia with anti-Soviet leaflets. The KGB spy ring, who were connected to the Rosenbergs in New York, worked with short wave radio and microdots to pass on secrets about British nuclear submarines. The Cold War was very present in London around that time; it was just one of the facts of life along with red phone boxes, thruppeny bits and double-decker buses.

On one level it feels like 1969 was such a long time ago. And yet, the book also opens at the Rolling Stones Hyde Park concert of that year, when Mick Jagger recited Shelly and released thousands of white butterflies into the air as a memorial for ex-Rolling Stone Brian Jones.

Jones had died in a swimming pool only a few days later and the mystery surrounding the 27-year-old guitarist’s death is part of my story too. Was he deliberately killed, or was it just what happens to young people if they take too many drugs, drink too much and then decide to swim on their own?

On the set list that day in Hyde Park were songs like Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Satisfaction, Honky Tonk Women and Sympathy For The Devil, songs you can still hear any day on the radio, songs that still sound as alive and modern and abrasive as they did fifty years ago. In amongst that old world was the soundtrack for our new one, shiny, new and outrageously arrogant.

That’s what I enjoyed, writing this book and the others in this series so much. In some senses 1969 was such a long time ago, and yet in others it was a year that was still very present in our lives. There was a war going on in 1969, and it wasn’t just in Vietnam. The clunky old certainties of the post-war world were doing battle with blaring, cocky individualism of the rock generation; and that makes for a great backdrop for any crime story.


William Shaw is an award-winning music journalist and the author of several non-fiction books including Westsiders: Stories of the Boys in the Hood. Prior to becoming a crime writer, he worked at the post-punk magazine ZigZag and a journalist for The Observer, The New York Times, Wired, Arena, and The Face. His latest novel Play With Fire is a gripping police thriller set in the ever-intriguing world of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Think Prime Suspect 1973 meets a throwback episode of Law and Order: SVU set in the ’60s!

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