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The Birdwatcher by William Shaw

Readers of mystery novels will be aware that there are sometimes themes that appear – and the theme of this past summer seems to have been mysteries that involve a certain amount of bird watching.

Steve Burrows series has taken flight with the fourth in his Birder Murder Mystery series, A Shimmer of Hummingbirds, published this summer.


And British writer William Shaw has departed from him series set in late 60s London and presented us with a great stand alone novel The Birdwatcher.

The New York Times has called William Shaw’s trilogy of detective books set it late sixties London “an elegy for an entire alienated generation.” Featuring DS Cathal Breen and the brash young constable Helen Tozer, they are set against the cultural and political revolution of the times.

The Birdwatcher however takes us to Ireland and the home of a young boy whose life is shattered by violence, and a generation later, to the rugged and peaceful Kentish coast where we meet Detective William South.

The novel begins with “There were two reasons why William South did not want to be on the murder team. The first was that it was October. The migrating birds had begun arriving on the coast. The second was that, though nobody knew, he was a murderer himself.” So, there! I was immediately hooked!

William South is forced to become involved in a murder investigation as the man who has been killed is his neighbor and fellow birdwatcher Bob Raynor. Both William and Bob are (were) solitary men. Both single men who seemed content with their lives, and both birdwatchers living on a remote bit of the coastline.

The murder was brutal and the police realize they are looking for an angry and aggressive killer. South’s boss, Detective Inspector Alexandra Cupidi is new to the detachment and in need of proving herself capable of managing the case – and solving it without delay. Her life is complicated by a teenage daughter who is also in need of her attention. William South is reluctantly drawn into all of this. The solitary life of privacy he had established for himself is in danger of being breached.

The story returns again and again to the past and William South’s experience growing up as a boy in Ireland in the days of murders and disappearances. Both the present day story and the past are equally absorbing and intriguing. The idea of combining the world of bird watching with the world of detective work, of course, is brilliant. The same skills are need in both pursuits – the birdwatcher and the detective must be quietly observant, patient, and alert. Ready to spot a bit of movement, able to be invisible to the subject of their surveillance.

The Birdwatcher was a book I could not put down once started – and I’ve just put William Shaw’s earlier books on the top of my “to read” pile.

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