A Siege of Bitterns by Steve Burrows

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Described as a birder murder mystery, A Siege of Bitterns is the first in a series aimed at crime fans and birdwatchers alike. The novel is one of the first issued by Point Blank, a new imprint from Oneworld focused on literary crime, thrillers and psychological suspense.

The title of Burrows’s debut is a reference to the collective noun for the bittern, a wading bird that may or may not have been sighted by a birder shortly before he was murdered. The novel begins with the discovery of Cameron Brae, a TV celebrity in north Norfolk who’s known for his dedication to protecting the environment and its bird species. The presenter of The Marsh Man has been found hanged from a willow tree in the coastal wetlands he loved.

Burrows deftly introduces several plot strands, which keeps you guessing about the motive for Brae’s death. As well as clashing with local business interests over ecological issues and falling out with an academic rival, he’d had a marital break-up and was recently hitched to a fellow celebrity, a former pop star who was much younger. Brae was also closing in on his 400th species sighting of birds in the region. Could a rival birder really have killed Brae to stop him becoming the top spotter?

It’s fair to say that birdwatchers can be an obsessive bunch, which Burrows portrays with good humour. The author has apparently pursued his hobby on five continents, and he’s created a detective who’s just as fixated on our feathered friends. Domenic Jejeune, who has a troubled past in Canada, is now a successful policeman in Britain with the Home Secretary having commended him for a recent case. When he arrives as the newly installed DCI in Saltmarsh, the locals are a little wary of this high-profile policeman.

Jejeune is clearly a talented detective and he soon makes an impact, though fellow officers – both senior and junior – can’t quite understand his instinctive methods. He plays his cards close to his chest and leaps to deductions before others can get there. He’s both mysterious and a little maddening, a bit like Commissaire Adamsberg in the novels of Fred Vargas. His despairing sergeant, former solider Danny Maik, is a more solid, dependable copper, though he also has his private passions. His love of Motown music turns out to be Maik’s way into the world of Brae’s widow, Mandy Roquette.

Jejeune is an intriguing literary detective, who evidently lives for birdwatching on the marshes rather than police work. Burrows also supplies a strong ensemble cast, including a local villain, a pushy new MP and a sly detective constable who doesn’t appreciate the rarefied science that Jejeune introduces to the case. There are disagreements at every level throughout the investigation, which feels more convincing than those crime novels where everyone’s pulling together to catch the killer.

With its classic slow-burning procedural narrative, A Siege of Bitterns sometimes reads as if it could have been written a couple of decades earlier. Apart from a birdwatching app, there’s hardly any mention of the digital apparatus of modern life. That’s part of its charm, along with the sharp humour that Burrows puts in the mouths of those who don’t share the detective’s obsession with birds. There’s also a reminder that James Bond creator Ian Fleming, a keen birdwatcher, took his hero’s name from the author of a guide to birds of the West Indies.

If ornithology is not your thing, though, don’t be put off. A Siege of Bitterns is a convincing portrayal of a Norfolk region, in which the birds – and the political considerations surrounding their habitat – are a crucial element. When Burrows introduces them into his plot, it’s done with considerable skill – you’ll marvel at the intelligence of rooks and the role they play in the novel’s climax.

A Siege of Bitterns marks the arrival of a fascinating, sometimes flawed, outsider detective in a novel that combines adroit plotting with spiky characters and an evocative portrayal of the Norfolk landscape. It’s a hugely enjoyable and highly promising start for both a crime series and a new imprint.

A sequel, A Pitying of Doves, is published on 2 June.

Point Blank

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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