If you like birds and you also like . . .
Oh, wait. I already know that you like birds — that’s why you’re at this blogsite.
Let me start again.
If you like murder mysteries, you really ought to check out Steve Burrows’ terrific “Birder Murder” series, now at four books. The latest, A Shimmer of Hummingbirds, is the first to be widely distributed in the United States. The others (in order of publication and story-line, A Siege of Bitterns, A Pitying of Doves, and A Cast of Falcons) are all now available here in new editions, according to the publisher.
The novels are intricately plotted, well-constructed, and satisfying, with a cast of characters that develops and becomes more intriguing from book to book. But the special delight for readers who love birds is the centrality, to the stories, of avifauna, and the sophistication and precision of the bird-prose.
The series follows the activity of a constabulary in the fictional town of Saltmarsh, in Norfolk, on England’s eastern coast, and a birding hotspot. (Norfolk’s Cley Marshes, a spot which figures in Bitterns, is the oldest bird reserve in Britain.) The lead character, a Deputy Chief Inspector, is the curiously-named Domenic Jejeune, a transplanted Canadian with a complicated back story, hints and pieces of which emerge from book to book.
In the first or second book, for example, there is reference to his reasons for emigrating to England – something to do with a difficult relationship with a brother – which is the fuller subject and subplot of A Cast of Falcons, and, now, something Jejeune attempts to remedy (with only partial, ambiguous success) in the new A Shimmer of Hummingbirds. (That’s only half of the double plot of this new book, with the two parts being as well-designed as a Weaverbird’s nest.)
Jejeune is an ace detective and, like most aces, idiosyncratic. To the police men and women that he supervises, he can often seem disengaged, following investigatory paths that the others have abandoned, or see no promise in. As his boss, the leader of the station, Colleen Shepherd, says, “He does so like his obtuse angles.”
But Jejeune’s real problem, a matter of bemusement to himself and consternation to others, is that he is a genius in two fields, sleuthing and birding, and would much prefer to abandon the former to devote his life to the latter.
Shepherd’s relationship with Jejeune, heretofore one of sometimes amused, sometimes exasperated tolerance on her part, blows apart in Hummingbirds, with Jejeune keeping his job, but barely. Clearly this is grist for the next sequel, as is the emergence, on the final pages, of a bad guy from Jejeune’s past.
Back, though, to the avifauna in these books. When a witness, an experienced birder, claims to have been looking for a Bittern, Jejeune knows that he’s lying: there is insufficient cover, in that locale, for the secretive Bittern; the fellow has (as no birder would) a dog with him, splashing through the marsh; and (as Jejeune explains) “anyone looking for a crepuscular species would have been in position long before you got here.”
And there are plenty of other odd facts adduced and tidbits dropped that will be of interest to birders at whatever level: about the dark patch on the breast of the House Sparrow, signifying rank; that Ian Fleming (James Bond’s creator) was a birder; about the politics of birding and the occasional cut-throat nature of birding tour companies; and, especially, about threats to bird species – each novel has an informed afterword about environmental perils faced by, and human efforts to save, the subjects of that particular book.
There are a dozen or so recurring cast members across the four books, which allows Burrows to build character, and to make his people three-dimensional. What in lesser writers might be considered improbable plot twists (a staple, after all, of most works in this genre) are, in Burrows’ treatments, not so much improbable as ingenious.
In short, the Birder Murders are getting better and better as they come off the presses, with A Shimmer of Hummingbirds the most dazzling of all — so far.
A final thought: whether you think collective nouns are fascinating or idiotic, the more fundamental question is, why do they exist at all or, rather, how did they come to be?
They were invented, or at least compiled, in the fifteenth century, as a sort specialized jargon known to the in-crowd. (For a fine, fuller explanation, see here.) As James Lipton shows in his charming book, An Exaltation of Larks or, The Venereal Game (published in 1968 and still in print), they appear to be a result mostly of the exuberance of our English language and English speakers. Such coinages are still being created, at least in Saltmarsh, where Detective Chief Superintendent Colleen Shepherd, frustrated with a “typical bureaucratic cock-up” in Hummingbirds, calls for a new collective noun – a lobotomy of bureaucrats.