THE BIRDWATCHER by William Shaw
Mulholland Books; 6/27/17
CBTB Rating: 4/5
The Verdict: emotionally compelling classic crime
I'm a self-proclaimed tough sell when it comes to classic detective novels, but William Shaw's THE BIRDWATCHER made a convert out of me. I went into THE BIRDWATCHER a bit of a skeptic—and I came out a convert. A fantastic example of classic British crime, THE BIRDWATCHER is every bit true to its genre, from its pacing to its tone and its subject matter. But beyond its genre adherence, this book is really just excellent crime writing. Shaw is a skillful, beautiful writer whose book not only fully held my attention, but actually left me in tears at the end. Emotionally engaging, brooding, and masterfully plotted, THE BIRDWATCHER is a slow-burning mystery that highlights the very best of classic crime, with a quirky, endearing spirit all its own.
A methodical, diligent, and exceptionally bright detective, South is an avid birdwatcher and trusted figure in his small town on the rugged Kentish coast. He also lives with the deeply buried secret that, as a child in Northern Ireland, he may have killed a man. When a fellow birdwatcher is found murdered in his remote home, South's world flips.
The culprit seems to be a drifter from South's childhood; the victim was the only person connecting South to his early crime; and a troubled, vivacious new female sergeant has been relocated from London and assigned to work with South. As our hero investigates, he must work ever-harder to keep his own connections to the victim, and his past, a secret.
The Birdwatcher is British crime fiction at its finest; a stirring portrait of flawed, vulnerable investigators; a meticulously constructed mystery; and a primal story of fear, loyalty and vengeance.
Some books can be sold in a single sentence—THE BIRDWATCHER is a perfect example. A crime novel about a police officer who is himself a murderer? This hook was strong enough to pique even my (admittedly) apprehensive interest. I knew I was intrigued by this crime novel concept, but what I couldn’t predict was just how impressed I would be with Shaw’s masterful plotting and deftly drawn characters. Beyond its strong plot hook, THE BIRDWATCHER is a sophisticated and nuanced story of past crimes and present secrets. Readers will find themselves inextricably drawn into a layered, masterful novel that reveals itself to the reader in measured time.
True to its genre, THE BIRDWATCHER is a slow-burning crime novel; if you’re looking for a fast-paced thriller, you’d be better suited looking elsewhere. That’s by no means a negative of the book, it’s just an inescapable fact: this book is not intended to be read at breakneck pace. While this pacing won’t work for every crime reader, the reader who enjoys a slow-building mystery will find that the methodical plotting of this book allows for rich development of both characters and setting. Indeed, one of my favorite elements of THE BIRDWATCHER turned out to be the atmosphere Shaw develops as a foundation for his crime novel: the weather, locations, and even the buildings surrounding both the story’s present-day crime and its flashbacks become characters in the story themselves. Vivid descriptions of land, neighborhoods, and climate draw readers fully into the world of Shaw’s sleepy English coastal town. Again, I’ll reiterate—this is not the book for you if you're not open to a slow-burning mystery, but the patient reader will be amply rewarded.
What ultimately elevated this book for me - beyond its precisely-plotted police investigation and vivid atmosphere - was the endearing, quirky spirit Shaw injects into his main character. Police officer William South is an odd, gentle, sympathetic man with a complicated past. Down to his hobby - birdwatching - South is unlike any other crime fiction protagonist I’ve read thus far. Shaw weaves a compelling story as he draws readers back into South’s past, considering Ireland’s political history and tracing the impact of violence and corruption on the life of a young man. As Shaw draws connections between the William South of past and present, readers begin to understand the traumas that have shaped the now intensely private man. In all honesty, I was left in tears by this story’s conclusion. My heart was so broken for South, a man who’s so fundamentally good but has been drawn into a situation so out of his own control. His goodness, humility, and endearing nature touch every page of this book—I dare you to read it and not feel your heart break for him by the book’s end.
THE BIRDWATCHER is one of those unassuming books that quietly has so much to offer. Giving this book a star rating is particularly hard for me—this is an exceptional book, and if classic detective novels are your cup of tea, you will love it. I did admittedly need about 100 pages to get into the flow of the book, but once I did, I was completely absorbed. Truly, I think the fact that I, a reader who loves her crime books bloody and violent and dark, am sitting here recommending a thoughtful, measured police procedural speaks to Shaw's skill as a storyteller. THE BIRDWATCHER made a convert of a cautious reader, broke my heart, and left me thoroughly impressed with its precise, masterful plotting. Classic detective novels will just never be my favorite subgenre of crime fiction, but my oh my, I have a hard time believing I’ll find another one anytime soon that draws me in the way this one did. THE BIRDWATCHER will no doubt long stand as a prime example of classic British detective fiction.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review. All opinions my own.
Hardcover: 336 pages
Publisher: Mulholland Books; 1 edition (June 27, 2017)
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