To mark the release of William Shaw’s new thriller The Birdwatcher, here is a guest post by the very man himself on the rare beauty of Dungeness, a unique and bleak setting indeed…
“I was looking for a house. Not to buy, you understand, but to kill someone in.
These days, Google Street View is a good place to start. Writers probably use it more than they’d admit to, but where I was looking, there was no Street View. In Dungeness, the roads peter out into tracks and the Google car doesn’t bother with going off road. Maybe it’s too remote. Or maybe it’s because the track runs alongside a nuclear power station, considered a terrorist security risk, and they don’t want you knowing too much about what it looks like there.
It had all started with the location. Quite why I chose Dungeness, I honestly can’t remember. It’s a bleak, ominous landscape. I think the first time I’d gone there was for the ash-scattering ceremony of a friend, which was probably something to do with it. A sense that not everything that happens here is good. But if, as plenty of writers say, location is a character, then Dungeness was a place with plenty of it.
The location began to shape the material. Even though the Met Office classify these 12 square miles of shingle jutting out into the channel as a desert, in fact this apparently desolate place is teeming with wildlife. And birds too. Amongst birdwatchers, this was a legendary location. I discovered that Dungeness Bird Observatory was set up here by a group of enthusiasts in 1952. Nearby among the old pits extracted for gravel and stones, now filled with water, the RSPB established what is their very first bird reserve.
So with the location, my central character became a birdwatcher. As I’m not a birder myself, that wasn’t easy. I researched. I began to like birders. They were dedicated people, patient, with their own way of seeing the world. A plot began to evolve. And now all I needed was my murder house. So, about a year ago, I drove there from Brighton and parked by the pub known as The Pilot – another legendary location for birders, it turned out. It’s here they argue about their sightings after a long day on the shingle.
The house was easy to find. Within only a few yards of walking it was there, right next to the barbed-wire fence that reads, ‘Nuclear Installations Act 1965 Licensed Site Boundary’. A small, weathered bungalow, set apart from all the other clusters of huts and homes. Dungeness is full of these shacks, originally built by outsiders or railway workers. Now a lot of them are owned by millionaires, or wealthy would-be artists. Not this one though. Here the cladding was in need of another coat of paint. Two gables formed a simple M shape. A fishing boat sat on a trailer to the right of the small track that led up to it. The windows were all shuttered or curtained.
Police Sergeant William South has a reason for not wanting to be on the murder investigation. He is a murderer himself. But the victim was his only friend; like him, a passionate birdwatcher. South is warily partnered with the strong-willed Detective Sergeant Alexandra Cupidi, newly recruited to the Kent coast from London. Together they find the body, violently beaten, forced inside a wooden chest. Only rage could kill a man like this. South knows it. But soon – too soon – they find a suspect: Donnie Fraser, a drifter from Northern Ireland. His presence in Kent disturbs William – because he knew him as a boy. If the past is catching up with him, South wants to meet it head on. For even as he desperately investigates the connections, he knows there is no crime, however duplicitous or cruel, that can compare to the great lie of his childhood…
The Birdwatcher is out now- published by Riverrun
Raven`s review to follow…