Author – William Shaw
Published – 19 May 2016
Genre – Crime fiction
William Shaw is a Brighton-based writer who is no stranger to crime fiction, having written a trilogy of books set in the 1960s featuring ‘Breen and Tozer’. I came across him, however, when he was at Deal Noir talking about his new standalone, The Birdwatcher, and I was intrigued by it. The connection with Deal is that the book is set nearby, on the bleak and desolate coastline at Dungeness. Missing out on a copy at the event I was lucky enough to get approved for a Netgalley (thank you Netgalley Gods!).
The main character is William South – he’s a local Police Sergeant drawn into a murder investigation when a new DS from London, Alexandra Cupidi, needs some local knowledge. We know two things from the start about South – he’s a birdwatcher and, by his own admission, a murderer. He is also a pretty grumpy character. He doesn’t want to be involved in a murder investigation and he takes a pretty critical view of Cupidi. In fact all he wants to do is be left alone to watch the birds and catch up on his paperwork. But the brutally murdered man turns out to be his neighbour and friend, and that means South won’t leave the investigation alone, even when perhaps he should.
South quite quickly becomes involved in the lives of Cupidi and her daughter Zoë, perhaps seeing some similarities between his younger self and Zoë. She was reluctant to move from London and is struggling to settle into her school and it is with her that South shows a more sympathetic side (although still a bit grumpy).
The story switches between the present and South’s childhood in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. He grew up in a time when violence was commonplace and he saw more than his fair share. As the two storylines unfold South’s past informs on his present. While South isn’t a completely likeable character he is certainly one that I was able to empathise with; his backstory provides some of the explanation for his outlook on life and his choices.
So now to try to explain why I thought this was such a brilliant read. Before I started blogging about books I would never have thought about what specific sub genre of crime fiction I like but I’ve come to realise that it’s the police procedural that I’d put at the top of the list. So one box ticked! While The Birdwatcher isn’t heavy on the detail of the investigation it manages the right mix for me, balancing this with the personal stories of the characters, and these are some well-drawn and credible characters. This is all within the framework of a plausible plot which has some changes in pace and manages to weave around in some unexpected ways. The story is focused on a very narrow location and Shaw uses this to great effect, the whole of the story really reflects the bleak and desolate setting and I was really immersed in the atmosphere Shaw created. When I got off the train at the end of my commute I kept being surprised that I wasn’t arriving on a wind and rainswept coast!
Although the story and themes are quite dark, and there are only a few more lighthearted moments, this was a book and a character that really gripped me.