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Birder Murder Mystery Series by Steve Burrows


On a holiday in Orkney a few years ago my husband and I shared breakfast at an Inn with some very, very serious birders. We listened to their stories of bird sightings and one bird much discussed, but apparently not often spotted, was the Corncrake. We listened with interest and looked the bird up in our book of Scottish birds so when we saw one just ambling along a little road in the countryside on the Black Isle a few days later we knew exactly what it was and felt very pleased with ourselves. So, my interest was piqued when a customer recommended a series of mystery novels with a bird watching theme.

I’ve just read A Siege of Bitterns and A Pitying of Doves, the first two in the Birder Murder Mystery series by Steve Burrows – and a great beginning they are. Steve Burrows is Canadian, and his fictional detective Chief Inspector Domenic Jejeune is Canadian, but his books are set on Norfolk broads. As one of the best places to see birds in England it is, of course, the perfect place to set these novels.

A Siege of Bitterns was the winner of the 2015 Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel, high praise indeed. I am a very lazy recreational bird watcher, always buy a local bird guide when travelling and take binoculars, but I’m certainly nowhere near as serious as many of the characters in these books, including Jejune himself. In these novels bird watching can be a very serious pursuit with life and death consequences.

It is clear that A Siege of Bitterns is the beginning of a series, and we have a lot to learn about the Chief Inspectors background. He has been acknowledged as a very smart and capable detective, having recently solved a high level investigation, but the details are only slowly revealed as the series progresses. We also meet Jejeune’s partner, Lindy Hey, a journalist who loves this man but often finds his obsession with birds and the ease with which he withdraws difficult to understand.  Jejeune is a watcher, whether on the marsh or at a cocktail party, his mind silently discerning much from his observations. The team of detectives with whom Jejeune works is also somewhat puzzled by his method of investigation and his seeming lack of connection. His most trusted colleague, Danny Maik, also has an intriguing past and provides another character who becomes important in the novels and to those he works with.

A Pitying of Doves begins with a rather gruesome scene at a bird sanctuary, which disturbs all involved, but that passes quickly and we are into the mystery of why these particular people were murdered in such a peculiar way. Once again the birding is important to all concerned, and as the characters are more fully developed the series becomes more and more interesting.

When I finished the second in this series, I picked up a book I’d been meaning to read for several years, To See Every Bird on Earth by Dan Koeppel. Sub-titled A Father, A Son, and a Lifelong Obsession, it is very much a father and son story, and the story of the father’s obsession.

From the time he was a young boy Dan Koeppel’s father, Richard, was fascinated by birds. He spent his summer evenings riding his bike out to where the East River empties into the Long Island Sound. He found there was a community of bird watchers who encouraged his hobby, and he was very good at it. His parents, however, were not pleased and eventually forbid him to follow his dreams – insisting he become a doctor. An unhappy marriage followed, producing two sons. Dan Koeppel, a sensitive child, understood that birds were most important to his father – and that his sons could never succeed in winning his attention. Dan Koeppel struggled all of his life with his need for his father’s love. But, Richard Koeppel was obsessed with birds, and building his bird list into the thousands became his only need. He simply could not recognize the damage this did to his family, and especially a son who was so desperately in need of attention and guidance from a father who was simply not equipped to give it.

To See Every Bird on Earth is a completely fascinating story of the life of Richard Koeppel and his amazing life as a bird lister, and the story of the relationship with his son, Dan.

What I found most interesting in reading both the mystery series and the biography was how much of the information about birding was the same in both books – as a serious birder himself I have no doubt that Steve Burrows is well aware of the accomplishments of Richard Koeppel.

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