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The Birdwatcher

May 24, 2020

IMG_3968Crime novels are not my usual fare, but after reading about William Shaw’s The Birdwatcher at Café Society, I picked it up on an early summer afternoon to find myself absorbed.

The birdwatcher, William South, is also a detective; he believes that the note-taking techniques developed for birdwatching are also useful to the accumulation of detail he needs in his work for the Kentish police force. His story is interspersed with a story from his childhood in northern Ireland, until the two come together as he reveals the mystery of what can drive a person to kill and solves the mystery of who killed his friend and fellow birdwatcher.

The accumulation of detail serves William’s purpose, but it does produce an occasional dead end, significant in the way of details revealed in fiction only for revealing something about the state of the protagonist’s mind. For example:
“he saw ahead of him an old black Rover 90. Normally he wouldn’t have even noticed the car. Today it looked shiny and malign. Familiar.
It was driving at 40 m.p.h. along the clearway. As he passed it, South’s hands tightened on the wheel and he felt his stomach turning somersaults, but when he looked left, all he saw was a woman of about seventy dressed in a pink lace hat, hands on the steering wheel. She turned and smiled at him.
What was wrong with him? It was just a car.”
In the next chapter, told from the point of view of his younger self, Billy, we relive a frightening memory of a man who gets out of “a black Rover 90, one of those old-fashioned, round, heavy cars his father hated.”

Even the birds he sees reveal William’s state of mind:
“the redwings were starting to come through in larger numbers now. He sat in his police car at Greatstone and watched some brent geese passing far out at sea. The swallows were still going south in numbers, later than usual this year. Nothing was reliable. Something was broken.”

In the end, which comes much more quickly than I expected, William’s personal and professional lives come together over his concern for the daughter of a colleague:
“He walked down the road trying to guess which house the party would have been in. If he did find out which house it was, what was he planning to do? He was not sure. People here had money. This was an enclave of the rich. Excuse me, but are your friends bullying a policeman’s daughter?”
He follows his instincts, which have been developed by the habit of noticing if a bird is out of place, and finally the reader gets the satisfaction of seeing him find the murderer of his friend and “confronting him with the fact that everything he’d built up was a lie,” which applies to more than one of the characters in the novel.

Full of suspense, red herrings, and an albino buzzard, this could be the one crime novel you want to read this year.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. May 25, 2020 3:33 am

    I’m so glad you thought as highly of this as I did, Jeanne. Shaw is one of our finest crime writers – no scrap that – he is one of our finest writers. He doesn’t get half as much praise as he deserves and his latest book, Graves End, really should win every crime prize going this year.

    • May 26, 2020 9:49 am

      I agree. As soon as I finished this one I started looking for the other books in Shaw’s Cupidi series.

  2. May 25, 2020 8:06 am

    Wow, this does sound good — though I am not much of a crime reader either. And the cover is so beautiful!!

    • May 26, 2020 9:48 am

      It’s good to read something different every once in a while.

  3. Carol S Schumacher permalink
    May 25, 2020 10:01 am

    This sounds great! I will have to put it on my reading list.

    • May 26, 2020 9:47 am

      I can lend you my copy, unless you prefer an audiobook.

  4. Rohan Maitzen permalink
    May 25, 2020 5:12 pm

    This sounds good! I will see if our library has an e-copy. There’s a series of birding mysteries by a Canadian author, Steve Burrowes, that I’ve liked partly because the bird stuff is so interesting and attention to it really brings out the setting, as it seems to here.

    • May 26, 2020 9:51 am

      The setting is cold, wet, and dark, so the birds do bring out the setting, especially the feeling of wanting shelter from the elements and also the darker elements of human society.

  5. May 25, 2020 8:01 pm

    Usually if I see birds are a theme, I steer clear! But I liked Freedom by Jonathan Franzen pretty well and he’s a birder, and then I listened to H Is for Hawk and was fascinated by the author’s training of a falcon.

    • May 26, 2020 9:53 am

      It’s more that birds are part of the atmosphere (ha!) of this novel. They’re less a theme than part of the setting.

  6. June 1, 2020 11:24 am

    I was also not a great reader of crime or police procedurals but was intrigued by this one. I read it ‘on location’ – whilst staying in Dungeness. It was a brilliant experience! (A link to my thoughts is below in case you’re interested 🙂 ) I have several other books by Shaw sitting on the shelves and I really must get back to them!

    https://acornerofcornwall.com/2018/05/14/reading-rambles-reading-in-situ/

    • June 1, 2020 12:00 pm

      Your photos of Dungeness help me picture the setting of this novel, the view of the nuclear plant in particular. Thanks!

      • June 1, 2020 12:12 pm

        You’re welcome Jeanne 🙂 Thanks for popping over to take a look!

  7. June 9, 2020 6:27 am

    I’m glad you enjoyed this crime/detective story. I haven’t heard of this book but will have to check it out.

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