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Called a "Detective Genius" by some newspapers, Detective Chief Inspector Dominic Jejeune would prefer less notoriety and more birding. For the uninitiated, birding is as much a passion as it is a hobby. Birders, such as Jejeune, appear driven by the need to keep birding lists, compiling data on as many sightings of species as they can gather. Such a harmless activity, but in this first case of a kind, Steve Burrows cleverly joins his knowledge of this harmless activity to the scene of a murder. Do not be dismayed. The birding bits are not overwhelming. True, lots of birds are named, but in the context of the story they seem quite unobtrusive.
Set in Salt Marsh, Norfolk, the book opens with a seemingly obvious (but crudely contrived) murder. The victim is a local celebrity with a world-famous wife and plenty of suspects clutter up the scenery. Jejeune instinctively sees a possible motive for murder in a list of birds kept by the murdered man. Although this novel is Burrow's first novel, it hints of a prequel. Several times in the novel, someone will mention a previous case that apparently had established Jejeune's reputation as a detective. This reader hopes that Burrows will continue the series.
Why a Siege of Bitterns one may ask. We find out that these fanciful collective names came from the Book of St Albans, printed in 1486. Some of us are familiar with an Unkindness of Ravens or a Drift of Pigs, names for the collective nouns of different types of animals. But inexplicably, readers of St Albans never find the reasons for the particular collective designations. Along with such interesting tidbits, the novel provides quite an education on salt-marshes and their contamination. Again, no need to panic. The information appears seamlessly in the storyline. There is truly nothing pedantic about the novel. Readers feel enlightened and instructed by the end of the novel, but never overwhelmed or bogged down in triviality. If I had any criticism at all, it would center on the large cast of characters. It takes a while to sort through them all. But in fairness to Burrows, he introduces continuing characters that will presumably people the pages of other birding novels.
One of the strengths of the novels is Burrows' ability to flesh out his characters, making them real to the readers and believable to the critics. Each character that Burrows has created lives and breathes on the page. They fit the locale and their time period. My favorite character is Danny Maik, a long-time member of the Norfolk police. He can be sarcastic at times but holds to the letter of his job's procedure, always careful to follow protocol. And one of the reasons we learn to appreciate Jejeune is his uncanny ability to see connections between unrelated facts. For Jejeune "ideas just materialized, like water droplets condensing from the mist of details in his head, so that they were already there, fully formed."Thus his ability to catch the guilty is not so much the left-brained deduction of a Sherlock Holmes, but an amazing art that comes without effort. Dom does so hate to "shift through the layers of deception, uncovering lies, duplicity, crimes."
Jejeune resembles a polished Lieutenant Columbo. Remember him? The rumpled detective in a raincoat who drove a broken-down Studebaker, smoking a smelly cigar, and looking like an escapee from a flop house? Dom is certainly not Columbo; in fact, he would appear to be an opposite of the famed lieutenant. Like Columbo, however, he always gets his murderer and apparently has a clue about the solution from the beginning of his case. Yet the murderer is shrouded in mystery from the reader. In the Columbo series, you will remember that the audience knew the guilty party and watched the murder unfold before Columbo ever came on the scene. Not so in this first birding novel. The clues are there but not obvious. This reader was caught by surprise as I suspect most readers would be.
As a relative newcomer to England, Jejeune apparently has trouble fitting in with the locals of Norfolk—particularly his colleagues. They wait for him to prove himself, often taking issue with his methods and personal idiosyncrasies. But in the end, he does come through for the team, establishing himself as a bona fide Detective Chief Inspector.
§ Donna Allard Halford is a retired English professor from Texas A&M University-Kingsville, now residing in the Hill Country with her best friend, the indomitable Charlie, mutt extraordinaire.
Reviewed by Donna Allard Halford, May 2014
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