First, this bit of Beatles trivia. When the Fab Four recorded “She’s Leaving Home,” it was the first time a female musician was used on any Beatles track. Her name was Sheila Bromberg and she played the harp.
The book, She’s Leaving Home, will take you back to the Beatles era of London but it should be noted that the band is mostly in the background, little bits here and there including a court appearance for one John Lennon, busted for drug possession. Toward the end, the song in question does surface. A quick mention.
Potential Beatle enthusiasts, take note—The Beatles are about 10 percent factor here. It’s the era that matters more, the shift in cultures and attitudes and, even more importantly, Britain’s role in global politics, specifically how the British government dealt with the civil war in Nigeria and the breakaway state of Biafra. In many ways, She’s Leaving Home is about the fallout of the British thirst for trade stability—and energy resources. (The author’s note at the end might be worth reading before you dive in.)
So, a caution. Based on the book jacket, I was expecting much more about the Beatles. Instead, Abbey Road studios—where a teenage girl’s body is found “just steps away”—is used as a sort of mecca for fans. If you think Macca becomes a suspect, think again. That didn’t diminish my enjoyment of this story, I’m just saying.
Into this landscape comes a police procedural and the same old story—two very different cops with two very different ways of viewing the world. But we never get tired of the same old story. Do we? And the one in She’s Leaving Home is very good.
First we meet Detective Sgt. Cathal “Paddy” Breen. He’s worried and confused about an incident in which he may have acted poorly and left a Sergeant Prosser in harm’s way. Breen is introspective and routine-oriented. He’s a bit down in the dumps after the death of his elderly father. When a young woman’s body is found strangled on Abbey Road, Breen is assigned the case and he’s teamed with a female constable, at the time a rarity. Helen Tozer is very much a second-class citizen in the ranks of law enforcement, but she’s brazen and outspoken. Tozer is Breen’s foil. She is new, Breen is old. She is the future, Breen is the past. She is hip to what’s coming. He is clueless but he sees the changing streets and shops.
“West London was full of color. Each year the colors got louder. Girls in green leather miniskirts, boys in paisley shirts and white loafers. New boutiques selling orange plastic chairs form Denmark. Brash billboards with sexy girls in blue bikinis fighting the inch war. A glimpse of a front room in a Georgian house where patterned wallpaper had been overpainted in yellow and a huge red paper lampshade hunt from the ceiling. Pale blue Triumphs and bright red Minis parked in the streets.” Elsewhere around London, as in the area where he keeps a basement flat, it’s business as usual. Things aren’t so bright.
So the clash between Breen and Tozer is the clash of cultures, of the times and attitudes changing. The story works in issues of the day, from sexism and racism to homophobia. When one of the main individuals in the center of the investigation is a man with his roots in Biafra, there’s xenophobia, too, and issues of national identify (not too much different than what is playing out in Britain and the U.S. in 2016).
Breen and Tozer grow closer. She warms him up, loosens him up. Things change when they visit her family home in the countryside and what is a beautiful and intriguing pastoral scene turns into harrowing moment, so well told, shortly thereafter. And then another. No spoilers here.
The occasionally pastoral procedural picks up the pace toward the end and She’s Leaving Home ends with a bang and, well, Breen and Tozer find a way to get over the cultural divide. This is also a story you’ve read before. But we never get tired of the same old story. Do we?