William Shaw’s Breen and Tozer series ( She’s Leaving Home, The Kings of London, A Song for the Brokenhearted ) series is notable for its intense 60s setting, so it’s not too surprising that Shaw’s standalone, The Birdwatcher presents an equally compelling atmospheric novel, this time set on the Kentish coast. Grounded against a stark unfriendly landscape, The Birdwatcher is the story of police sergeant William South, a solitary man who plugs away at his job and spends his time …. bird-watching. And he’s picked a great place for it, a marshy area on a remote shingled promontory, a perfect area for shore birds and its nuclear reactors don’t exactly attract tourists:
Behind the black tower of the old lighthouse, the metal and concrete blocks that surrounded the two reactors rose, unnaturally massive in the flat land. These colossal shapes were surrounded by rows of razor-wire fences.
William South’s paced, orderly, quiet life begins to unravel when he’s assigned to “hand holding” the new DS, Alexandra Cupidi who’s transferred, as it turns out, under a cloud from the Met. A single parent with a troubled teenage daughter, Cupidi’s just arrived and she’s already caught a murder case. South tries to beg off the assignment, he’d “always avoided murder,” and to make matters worse, the victim is his neighbour, friend and fellow birder, Robert Rayner.
Rayner has been savagely beaten to death over a period of time. Cupidi feels that the murder is very personal, a result of rage. As she investigates, with South reluctantly by her side, it becomes clear that Rayner lied about his past.
In spite of the fact that South did not want to become involved in the murder case, soon his entire life, private and professional, is taken over by DS Cupidi. There’s a sign of things to come when he sits in the car she’s had for a day, and already has to move crumbs and food wrappers aside in order to sit. South valiantly sends out hermit vibes which Cupidi blithely ignores. Soon she sets up headquarters, for convenience, at South’s house, violating his carefully established privacy.
Where South is methodical, Cupidi seems to embrace chaos. It would be easy to underestimate Cupidi, but South realises that would be a mistake when they discuss the victim’s private life:
“To be honest, now I think about it, he never talked that much about anything else.”
She stood, looked at her watch. “Because he didn’t have anything to say? Or because he had something to hide?”
He would have to watch her, he thought.
The investigation of Rayner’s murder is alternated with chapters which reveal South’s past in Ireland. We know from page one, that South has something to hide (which explains his lifestyle), and we also know that the past will inevitably catch up to the present.
The police procedural is not my favourite type of crime novel, as all too often this form can bog down in detail. Not so with The Birdwatcher, and while I wasn’t entirely convinced by the ending, the compelling narrative, along with the idea of the futility of trying to escape one’s fate, make for a gripping read. Shaw convincingly makes the argument that bird-watching and policework, at least for William South, go hand in hand. Bird-watching has made South a better policeman, or perhaps it’s vice versa. As with Breen and Tozer, Shaw has created a fascinating dynamic between South and Cupidi, and Shaw fans will be pleased.