Saturday, October 17, 2020

The Birdwatcher - William Shaw


I missed William Shaw’s 2016 novel The Birdwatcher when it was first published, but thanks to a reference made to the novel on a favorite book blog of mine back in August, I’ve now taken care of that oversight. And I’m glad I did, because The Birdwatcher is special. In my experience, the best crime fiction is characterized by well-developed characters and a vivid setting even more often than it is by plot – and The Birdwatcher has both of those in spades. 

William South, a small-town English cop, is the main character of the novel, and the book’s first three sentences tell you exactly how South thinks of himself (punctuated here exactly as in the book): 

“There were two reasons why William South did not want to be on the murder team. 

     The first was that it was October. The migrating birds had begun arriving on the coast. 

     The second was that, though nobody knew, he was a murderer himself.” 

Strangely enough, it is because South is both a dedicated birdwatcher and a murderer himself, that he is such a good cop. The man understands people and what they are capable of doing if pressed hard enough by circumstances, and his observational skills and patience ensure that very little gets past him. South, however, is not a homicide investigator, and he’s never worked a murder case. He is more the kind of small-town cop who gets called upon to be first at the scene of road accidents, burglaries, and noise complaints. So South has good reason to suspect that he’s already in over his head, but when the victim turns out to be his own best friend, he really wants no part of the investigation. 

William Shaw
His new boss, the recently arrived Detective Sergeant Alexandra Cupidi, though, will not let South off the hook so easily. South is the neighborhood police officer for the Kent neighborhood in which his friend’s brutally beaten body was found, and Cupidi knows that he will be invaluable in getting her first investigation off to the impressive start she so badly needs. Cupidi, recently displaced from her old London precinct, is determined to make a positive impression on her own new bosses – and South is going to help her do that whether he wants to do it or not. But when the supposed killer turns out to be a man from South’s own Northern Ireland hometown, and is the very man who can most readily tie South back to the past he has kept hidden for so many years, he realizes that this investigation – and his new boss – may finally uncover all of his secrets. And he can’t have that. 

Bottom Line: The Birdwatcher is brilliantly constructed, revealing little by little who William South is and whether such a good man, a man who has spent his entire adult life enforcing the law, is really capable of murder. Equally compelling, is the gradual development of the rather unlikable character DS Alex Cupidi, a pushy woman who puts career achievement before everything else in her life, including it seems, her daughter Zoë. 

I knew enough about The Birdwatcher from the previously mentioned book blog to know that it is a prequel to a series even though it’s sometimes billed as a standalone rather than as the first book in the series. What I did not know, however, greatly surprised me, because the whole time I was reading The Birdwatcher I was anticipating reading the rest of the “William South series.” As it turns out, I should have been anticipating the “DS Alex Cupidi” series, instead. Of the three main characters in The Birdwatcher (South, Cupidi, and Zoë), the self-centered Cupidi is the last one I would have expected to become the basis for a detective series of her own. Those who read the first Cupidi-labeled novel before reading The Birdwatcher will have missed out on that bit of fun. William Shaw, though, is such a talented writer, that I can’t wait to see how he turns Alex Cupidi into a character I want to read about more than once. And that should be even more fun.

12 comments:

  1. I am so glad you enjoyed this book, Sam! It is very special. After reading it and discovering that Cupidi was featured in the next book, I didn't know if I wanted to read it or not, but I'm certainly thankful that I did.

    I just noticed that Stop You're Killing Me finally has The Birdwatcher listed as part of the Cupidi series. I have the first book in Shaw's 1960s London police procedural series waiting for me on my TBR shelf.

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    1. I just got an email from my library telling me that I can pick up the next Cupidi book tomorrow. I'm really curious to see how the character mellows a bit.

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  2. I thought The Birdwatcher was an excellent book. Thus I was rather disappointed to learn that William South's involvement ended there and the character I disliked the most would be the subject of the subsequent series. I see Cathy has read on which probably means that I should. I'll be interested to hear what you think when you do read on, Sam.

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    1. South does figure in Grave's End, Cath, and I was thrilled to find out that Shaw knocks a lot of the rough edges off Cupidi in subsequent books. Don't be afraid, read on! ;-)

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    2. Thanks, Cathy! I will do that thing at some stage because the writing was so good and so was the Kent setting.

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    3. Like you, Cath, I'm kind of relieved to see that South shows up again in Graves End. I kind of figured he would be back at some point despite what happened at the end of The Birdwatcher, but it's nice to have it confirmed.

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  3. Wow, that's quite an opening! I'm definitely intrigued by this one.

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    1. Shaw is just an excellent writer, Susan. I think you'll enjoy it...the good news for me is that the series is so-far only four books long. I might actually catch up on one for a change.

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  4. I was surprised that it ended up as the Cupidi series, but as Cathy mentions in her comment, Cupidi does become less abrasive.

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    1. Looking forward to it, Jen. I really like the way that Shaw tells a story.

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  5. William South is another character I think I'd really like. And I love those opening lines! So, I'm adding this one to my TBR list...you know, the one that never stops growing! ;D

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    1. Unfortunately for us, and for him, South is not available for the next couple of books in the series, but Cathy tells us that he's back in the latest one.

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