William Shaw hit my radar a few years ago, shortly after he published his first novel set in the late 1960s featuring DS Cathal Breen. In The Birdwatcher, set in Dungeness, the contemporary flats of Coastal Kent, Shaw acquaints us with two new investigators: Constable William South and DS Alexandra Cupidi. Both coppers are determined, upon discovery of Williamís badly beaten neighbor, Bob Rayner, to solve his grisly murder. In a landscape that is often windswept and grim, Cupidi and South are called to Arum Cottage, Lighthouse Road, where Southís friend lies naked, every inch of his skin bruised and discolored. Whoever killed Rayner had brutally and sadistically beaten him.
How could such a peaceable, gentle, quiet-spoken man met such a violent death?
When workaholic Alexandra discovers that William actually
knew Rayner, she plies him with questions. William lives close by. He tries to recall Bob--he was retired and used to be a school teacher; he was also a loner who didnít see a lot of visitors. He and Will spent a lot of time together looking at birds. He also had a sister, Gill Rayner, who came to visit him once a fortnight,
and she who discovered the body. Utilizing Williamís Coastguard Cottage, Alexandra is under pressure to ďget the worst of itĒ wrapped up on a couple of days. From an expensive set of binoculars gone missing to twenty bandages found unopened and unused, Cupidi needs her team to find Gill Raynor as soon as they can. Theyíre also looking for the murder weapon - something like a baseball bat, a blunt instrument but ďsomething with bit of weight.Ē
A London-trained detective and a single mother, Cupidiís relocation to Kent is a different type of challenge for her. Sheís feisty and a livewire; William instantly likes and admires her even though he sometimes wonders whether sheís just putting on a show and trying to impress. Something dark had been stirred up, clearly frustrating Cupidi. There were plenty of places where a killer could hide, if he hasnít fled the county already. In the week begun as a succession of unexplained events, William feels heavy-headed and anxious, his body reacting physically to the bloody murder next door.
From Dungenessís weather-beaten houses to the tall razor-wire fence that
surrounds the nuclear power station looming over Willís Coastguard Cottage, Shaw makes the landscapes feel immediately alive. Without sacrificing psychological depth or well-chosen detail, Shaw unfolds certain aspects of Williamís teenage past. While Cupidi is a dominant force, William is the hinge on which most of the action
turns. Growing up in The Troubles of Northern Island, 13-year-old Willís friendship with handsome Sergeant John Ferguson sets up the ultimate clash. In an effort to protect his mother, Mary, Will seeks to escape from a world thick with his drunken fatherís political ties and the
passionate, ever-present stench of Irish patriotism and English paramilitaries. Williamís past, a covered-up secret, blends into the present in a mystery that circles around the motives of Donald James Fraser, the monster sentenced for killing Willís father.
William unites the boy he once was with the unearthing of Fraser whose body is discovered hanging in a derelict warehouse, waiting to be cut down and bagged. Like ďa ghost in Willís life,Ē Fraserís presence in the area only increases Willís sense that Bob Rayner
was not who he claimed to be. Will tries to remember anything about Bobís past life. In an abrupt twist, William
is blindsided by Cupidiís sudden anger. The two had quickly become friends and confidantes--Will had even taken Alexís daughter, Zoe, on birdwatching expeditions--but Cupidi changes into a different woman, hostile, curt and dismissive. Bobís murder, Judy Faroukís disappearance, and Don Fraserís death--the three violent acts taking place within days of each other--leaves
Will wondering whether the killer deliberately made only half-hearted attempts to conceal his or her tracks. Fraserís death was so meticulously covered that Will is convinced Cupidi and her team are refusing to see the connections he sees.
Meeting a series of roadblocks, William is anxious in the face of the unexplained threads in the case. Shaw gives us
a thrilling conclusion in the form of a violent hostage situation. He also resolves the bookís major narrative thread in a way that hints that at least Cupidi will be back to fight another day. Poor, lonely William however, might never recover from his inviolable ties to his past and to the secret he has carried
that, for now at least, prevents him from having a happy ending.