Reviewed by Craig Sisterson
Police Sergeant William South has a reason for not wanting to be on the murder investigation. He is a murderer himself. But the victim was his only friend; like him, a passionate birdwatcher. South is warily partnered with the strong-willed Detective Sergeant Alexandra Cupidi, newly recruited to the Kent coast from London. Together they find the body, violently beaten, forced inside a wooden chest. Only rage could kill a man like this. South knows it.
But soon - too soon - they find a suspect: Donnie Fraser, a drifter from Northern Ireland. His presence in Kent disturbs William - because he knew him as a boy. If the past is catching up with him, South wants to meet it head on. For even as he desperately investigates the connections, he knows there is no crime, however duplicitous or cruel, that can compare to the great lie of his childhood.
I've heard very good things about Shaw's earlier Breen & Tozer series set among the great music and social disruption at the end of the swinging 60s in London, but this is the first book of his I've read. So I went in with no preconceptions, and came away having enjoyed the read. THE BIRDWATCHER is an atmospheric, quieter book strongly threaded with a sense of desolation or bleakness. It could be a bit grim (not dark as much as bleak), but I found myself drawn in and turning the pages. There's a patience and quieter tone that is illustrated by not only the setting, but the main character too.
Police Sergeant William South is a diligent, methodical community police officer in small-town Dungeness, a rural area on the rugged Kent coastline. South enjoys the peace of his adopted home, where a nuclear power station stands like a desolate sentinel over stony beaches and marshlands.
It may be a seaside area, but this is no sunny tourist hot-spot. It's a place of greys and browns, where neighbours are far apart, and South's solitary life is a world away from the conflict and killings of his childhood in Northern Ireland. South enjoys his life of community policing and avid birdwatching. He doesn't want or need the 'excitement' of big cases to solve, of murderers to find. The latter is too close to home for him, anyway, given his own past actions in Northern Ireland.
But when a fellow birdwatcher is murdered, South's peaceful escape is overturned.
It's not just the violent death of his friend, but the arrival of an ambitious city detective, DS Alexandra Cupidi, who wants to make a mark, while juggling life as a working mother. South is meant to show the newbie the ropes in terms of the local community, but gets dragged in to an investigation he'd rather avoid. He doesn't want the memories it brings back, or to tug on the threads that dangerously connect to his own secret past.
Shaw crafts a delicious atmosphere in THE BIRDWATCHER, drawing readers in not with high-impact action but a slower build of tension and character. There's a patience to this novel, in style and tone, that matches it's hero and the setting. The Dungeness landscapes could easily be the setting of a post-apocalyptic film; there’s a gnawing sense of bleakness, a rugged and grey countryside.
A quieter, enjoyable read from a fine author.
Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features for leading magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed more than 180 crime writers, discussed crime writing onstage at arts and literary festivals in Europe and Australasia, on national radio, has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, and is the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson