Police Sergeant William South lives in a remote part of the Kentish coast and has spent his professional career avoiding getting involved in anything approaching a murder investigation. When his friend and neighbor, a fellow birdwatcher, is found dead however he is not only roped into the efforts, the department ends up using his home as a base of operations.
Soon South realizes that he may not have known his friend quite as well as he had thought and he finds his own past, which he has kept secret, may be connected to the case.
The author, William Shaw, had previously penned one of my favorite crime novels of a few years ago – She’s Leaving Home. One of the things I liked most about that title was the way it managed to evoke a sense of time and place through character attitudes, dialogue and elements of the locations. The Birdwatcher is similarly impressive, conveying a strong sense of what it would be like to grow up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles in addition to being a brilliant piece of character study and a really gripping murder investigation.
Shaw has structured his book quite magnificently both thematically and in the development of its plot. Each chapter has two strands – a part told in the present day and a part which takes place during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. This allows Shaw to slowly reveal the events which have made South the man he is at the start of the story and allows us to draw some connections between events in the past and present.
This is a really smart approach and it means that we have several mysteries we can delve into. The most traditional of these is the question of who is responsible for the death of his friend and it is an interesting case in its own right. There are plenty of contradictions in his friend’s life that have to be sorted through and I enjoyed learning how the evidence we are given is stitched together later in the novel to explain what happened.
The second level of mystery is the question of precisely what William did in his past. Here things are arguably more straightforward as we are told pretty directly at the end of the first chapter the secret he is hiding. Still, we may question how that point was reached and I feel we learn a lot about how the adult South was formed in these passages.
The third mystery relates to the adult South’s interpersonal relationship with a character he encounters early in the novel, DS Alexandra Cupidi. She is a new arrival from the city and comes with her own emotional and professional baggage.
At this point I should mention that while The Birdwatcher is intended to be a standalone novel, Shaw is penning a new series in which she will be the main character. While she is a hugely important part of this book, this is not her story. At key junctions in the narrative we always follow South’s story and he remains in the dark about what Cupidi is thinking. She is a striking creation in her own right and I am really looking forward to getting to read Salt Lane next year.
There are of course plenty of other little mysteries scattered throughout the text but the reason I highlight these three main ones is that I appreciate that Shaw really integrates his characters into his narrative. We can enjoy the novel as a straightforward detective procedural but each new development either reveals something about our main characters, causes shifts in their relationships or enhances the broader themes of the work.
The result is one of my favorite books in years from a writer who has fast become a favorite author. I can’t wait to see what he has in store for us next but, in the meantime, The Birdwatcher is highly recommended.
Update: I selected The Birdwatcher as my Book of the Month for October 2017.