William Shaw- The Birdwatcher

images1Police 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…

With a notable change of pace, period and location from his 1960’s set trilogy- A Song From Dead Lips  , A House Of Knives,  , and A Book of Scars  – William Shaw transports us in this haunting standalone to the desolate beauty of the Kent coast, and a tale that reverberates with the dark echoes of the past…

I should say from the outset that this book encapsulates the very best of European crime fiction in terms of pace, characterisation and location, drawing on the most recognisable elements of Scandinavian noir with its bleak location, sublimely controlled plotting, and the emotional but strikingly underplayed turmoil that Shaw injects into his central characters. Indeed the mantra of ‘location, location’ is the key element to Shaw’s beautiful mirroring effect of the sparse, wild nature of this area reflecting the feeling of emotional barrenness that lies within the psyches of his characters, and also draws an interesting juxtaposition between the natural freedom of the proliferation of the coastal bird community and the hemmed in feel of his characters’ existences.  Personal isolation looms large not only in his main protagonist, William South for reasons that are slowly revealed during the course of the book, but also to a certain degree in DS Cupidi, following her relocation to the area. As much as South struggles with the ghosts of the past coming back to haunt him, Cupidi is seeking to make her mark in this investigation as the new face on the squad, and there is an intuitive use of her daughter, Zoe, to provide South with a path back to normal human interaction that he has so solidly distanced himself from outside of his professional career. I loved the interplay and shifting dynamic between these three characters, albeit with some hard decisions arising from their interactions, and the way that the slowly unfurling trust between them comes to be so sorely tested. This careful manipulation of human emotion, and finding connections, is a real strength of all of Shaw’s books to date, and I would say that this book is no exception to this real craft in his writing.

In the same way as Scandinavian authors so routinely return to reference the Second World War, Shaw uses the Irish upbringing of his central protagonist, Police Sergeant William South to provide this gravitational axis to conflicts of the past. I’m always interested in the way that the past dictates and shapes our present and future actions, and whether an individual can truly escape darker periods of their life. In the story of South we see an individual who has laboured under this shadow for many years, and Shaw beautifully controls the gradual reveal of the more shadowy and violent previous life. I found it interesting that Shaw had then cast South in the role of protector and policeman, and the sharp contrast this reveals between his younger and older self, which added a certain frisson to the story overall. It goes without saying that this also serves well in manipulating the empathy of the reader, and if,  like me,  the psychological quirks and anomalies of protagonists is a real draw in your crime fiction reading this will serve you well. Once again Shaw has produced, in my opinion, an exceptionally perceptive and sensitive crime novel, that raises as many questions on human nature and redemption as it answers. Intelligent and thought provoking.

(With thanks to Riverrun for the ARC)






  1. Wonderful review, as ever. I was going to read this but my Kindle gave me the impression it was quite short (188 pages) – is it longer than that? And a little bird told me you were at Crimefest – I do hope you’ll be at Bloody Scotland?

  2. Thank you Linda, that’s very kind! The book is actually a delicious 328 pages long and hope this entices you in 🙂 Would love to go to Bloody Scotland but may take some wrangling to get time off work…. 😦

    • Do try! I’m intrigued to see who’s behind the Raven…And I’ve heard its a much more social festival than others (that is, a total piss up!) I’m going to the launch next week to see who’s on this year!

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