Sergeant William South has always avoided investigating murder. A passionate birdwatcher and quiet man, he has few relationships and prefers it that way.
But when his only friend is found brutally beaten, South’s detachment is tested. Not only is he bereft – it seems that there’s a connection between the suspect and himself.
An enthusiastic bird watcher, Sergeant William South has lived quietly on the atmospheric Kent coast at Dungeness for most of his life, content with his birding and working the local beat.
He’s always avoided murder investigations but when he’s given the task of supporting Detective Sergeant Alexandra Cupidi, newly arrived from London with her teenage daughter, it marks the beginning of a change to his ordered and relatively solitary life. William’s neighbour, only real friend and fellow bird watcher, Bob Rayner, has been brutally murdered and DS Cupidi is investigating officer on the case.
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.
That opening paragraph hooked me in instantly. It’s a given that William has a back story and it’s a compelling one, at that. The story alternates seamlessly between the past with young teenager Billy McGowan living in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, and William in the present. Billy’s father was a violent bully and Billy began bird watching as an escape. A chance discovery sets events in motion that will impact hugely on Billy’s future and shape his life.
Cupidi is keen to make her mark at some cost to her troubled daughter, Zoe. Against his better judgement, William finds himself taking the teenager birding at the request of her mother, surprised when Zoe takes to it, and him, almost immediately. It’s a new and uneasy experience as William forms a tentative and shifting relationship with both Cupidi and her daughter. The investigation into Bob Rayner’s death is complicated, slowly uncovering secrets and lies, and all too soon William’s past catches up with him with the discovery of an apparent suicide victim.
The Birdwatcher is an engrossing, character driven and steadily paced police procedural with an engaging and well fleshed out protagonist in William South. An evocatively described setting in its stark isolation and with a towering nuclear power station overshadowing the area adds atmosphere as the suspense and tension build throughout an extremely well devised plot.
I wasn’t quite as invested in Alex Cupidi but it will be interesting to see where William Shaw takes her in the follow on series. I’d love to see William South appear again at some point.
The Sun hails William Shaw as “a master of modern crime”. His latest novel Salt Lane takes a character from his hugely praised standalone novel The Birdwatcher, to start a new series set in Dungeness. Val McDermid called it “Taut, terrifying and timely.” He’s also the author of the acclaimed Breen and Tozer series set in London in 1968-69. The Sun called The Birdwatcher, a crime novel set in Kent, a contender for crime book of 2016. Peter May says: “William Shaw is, quite simply, an outstanding storyteller.”
He’s also the author of several non-fiction books including Westsiders: Stories of the Boys in the Hood, about a year spent with the young men of South Central Los Angeles, and A Superhero For Hire, a compilation of columns in the Observer Magazine.