The Birdwatcher by William Shaw

Birdwatcher
The Birdwatcher
William Shaw
Originally Published 2016
DS Alexandra Cupidi #0
Followed by Salt Lane

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.

The Cheltenham Square Murder by John Bude

Cheltenham
The Cheltenham Square Murder
John Bude
Originally Published: 1937
Superintendent Meredith #3
Preceded by The Sussex Downs Murder

I suspect that many mystery fans have a favorite range or publisher whose output they tend to be drawn to. For me it’s the British Library Crime Classics range which is published in the United States by Poisoned Pen Press which reprints detective fiction from crime fiction’s Golden Age.

I have not only discovered a number of great reads through this range, I can also credit the books for causing me to go beyond Christie and Sayers and to see that crime fiction from this period is far more diverse than I had realized.

Unfortunately The Cheltenham Square Murder does not sit among the best of their output although it is quite a solid, entertaining read. It does contain a rather wonderful story hook, improbable though it is, which does at least make it quite a memorable murder even if its investigation disappoints.

The far-fetched concept of the story is that the murder victim lives in a cul-de-sac where several of the residents are all expert archers. One evening the victim is sitting in an armchair in front of a window having tea when he is killed with an arrow to the back of the head. The shot would have been an exceptionally hard one yet because so many of the residents were familiar with a bow there are a number of suspects on hand.

Meanwhile, and here we hit remarkable coincidence number two, our series sleuth (Inspector Meredith) just happens to be staying on holiday in a house on the street with a crime writer friend and he cannot resist assisting with the investigation.

In the early stages of the novel I found the investigation to be quite interesting, not least because of the unusual method of dispatch. There is a little discussion about flight trajectories and arrow types which lead to questions about precisely where the shot could have been fired from and there is a strong focus on the different suspects movements around the neighborhood.

The second half of the novel began to flag for me and I became frustrated that there were some parts of the narrative that struck me as a little flabby. For instance, there is one plot point in particular early in the story that the writer devotes a fair amount of time to that leads absolutely nowhere at all. There are other elements that are more substantive but which advance the investigation so quickly that the detective (or the reader) didn’t seem to earn the revelations that come from them.

Given that Meredith is quite a plodding sort of detective and the way the narrative slows in the final eighty pages, there is a very good chance that the reader will overtake him at points in the story and will beat him to solving the crime. Usually when I do this I feel a huge sense of accomplishment but here I felt a little underwhelmed.

There are several clues that so directly point to the identity of the suspect that the question only becomes one of how the crime was managed. While the means is at least rather clever and certainly unique, the reader comes to elements of it by default. Had the pacing of the conclusion been a little faster this may have been less apparent but I felt the solution required little ingenuity on the part of the reader – just a diligence and orderly removal of other possibilities.

If the mechanics of the investigation disappoint, the reader can at least enjoy the cast of characters that Bude creates for his story. The suspects are all quite unique and several of them have some interesting motives and behaviors that help bring them to life. Sadly, our investigator, Meredith, is much less of a personality and I found him of relatively little interest though it was interesting to see his investigation floundering at points as he hits several dead ends.

So, how did I feel about The Cheltenham Square Murder? I think it has some flashes of personality but it ends up being undone by the very unique concept that attracted me to it in the first place. When a murder requires a large amount of skill to be worked, it requires the reader to suspend a considerable amount of disbelief to accept that there might have been a broad array of suspects. As for how it is done, we have to have the means offered to us in advance so that the ending feels fair but the moment that means is introduced it stands out so much that it becomes clear that was how it was achieved.

This is a shame because there certainly were aspects of this book I enjoyed a lot and I found much of the book quite readable and entertaining. While I am open to reading some other works by Bude in the future, it will not be to spend more time with Meredith but in the hopes of seeing some other similarly creative scenarios.

Do you have a recommendation for another book in the Meredith series I might enjoy more?

The Detective Wore Silk Drawers by Peter Lovesey

The Detective Wore Silk Drawers
Peter Lovesey
Originally Published 1970
Sergeant Cribb #2
Preceded by Wobble to Death
Followed by Abracadaver

A few years ago Soho Crime reissued the Cribb stories with some rather smart new cover designs. While I was familiar with the character from the television series, I had never really dipped into the books that had inspired them and so I decided to pick up the first few titles in the series.

The Detective Wore Silk Drawers is the second of the Sergeant Cribb stories and while it possesses some charms of its own, it never gripped my imagination the way that Wobble to Death did. In part that reflects that this story’s setting and sporting theme, bare-knuckle boxing, is a little less strange and a little more familiar to us. I think the book also disappointed me a little in that it is structured as more of a thriller than a mystery.

The story begins with the discovery of a headless corpse in the Thames. We soon learn that the body shows signs of having engaged in bare-knuckle fighting and Cribb decides to send a man undercover to try to identify the corpse and find the culprit.

The man that Cribb recruits is the somewhat familiarly-named Henry Jago. Given that I am a huge Doctor Who fan, this choice of name became quite distracting to me although Lovesey is absolutely not to blame for this as this book came out quite a few years before the Talons of Weng-Chiang serial was made. For what it’s worth the character was quite charming and while it was strange to see so much of the narrative given over to a brand new character, I enjoyed spending time in his company even though it comes at Cribb and Thackeray’s expense.

Unfortunately I was less interested in the crime at the heart of this story. While the house that Jago finds himself staying in while undercover is admittedly quite strange and curious, the case that he investigates offered few diversions or unexpected developments and there is very little reasoning to be done by the reader.

While The Detective Wore Silk Drawers is not a bad book, it falls short of the high standard established by the first story. Fans of Victorian or sporting mysteries may find something to enjoy here, though I cannot recommend it more broadly.