“It’s this area, you see, the birds and the people, we’re all intertwined, caught up in one another’s history. We could never let it perish, a place like this.”
Despite my wariness of new (or just new-to-me) mysteries, I took a chance on Steve Burrows’ A Siege of Bitterns because when I peered at it in Bookmark, I was immediately caught up in the opening pages. It’s not that Burrows leaps right into any suspenseful action — quite the opposite, in fact, though obedient to the rules of the genre he doesn’t take very long to get to a corpse. What I liked was the description of the Norfolk marshland:
At its widest point, the marsh stretched almost a quarter of a mile across the north Norfolk coastline. Here, the river that had flowed like a silver ribbon through the rolling farmlands to the west finally came to rest, spilling its contents across the flat terrain, smoothing out the uneven contours, seeping silently into every corner….
At the margins of land and water, the marsh belonged to neither, and it carried the disquieting wildness of all forsaken things. Onshore winds rattled the dry reeds like hollow bones. The peaty tang of decaying vegetation and wet earth hung in the air. An hour earlier, the watery surface of the wetland had shimmered like polished copper; a fluid mirror for the last rays of the setting sun. But now, the gathering gloom had transformed the marsh into a dark, featureless emptiness.
That’s really good scene-setting: it’s full of specific details addressing all the senses, and it’s elegantly but not floridly written. The scene is full of both beauty and menace, the images suffused with unease but with no heavy-handed ka-thumps of threat or suspense. Here, I thought, is a place I’d like to go — both the marshes and the fictional world this author has created.
And overall I was not disappointed in A Siege of Bitterns. It is well-written throughout, particularly its descriptions of the landscape, which are consistently both evocative and precise:
Jejeune looked out at the night sky, mesmerized. If he had to give up everything about this part of the world, it would be the skies he would hold onto until the last; the endless, blue, forever skies of the days, and these nights, vast and clear and soft with stars spangled across them as far as the eye could see. The day’s thin tracery of white clouds had been peeled away by the evening’s breezes, and above him now was a spectacular velvety black tapestry shot through with glittering points of light.
The marshes are not just the backdrop to the novel’s crimes: Burrows does a good job at integrating the crimes — the people involved, their motives — with the setting so that we feel that the violence has arisen, in some sense, from the place itself and requires an understanding of and appreciation for the landscape to solve it. It’s a useful device to have a lead detective who is new to the area, so that our knowledge can grow along with his, even as our interest in it is piqued by seeing it through his birder’s eyes. The birding, too, is not just an accessory, a novel but ultimately unnecessary bit of characterization. It does contribute to our sense of the kind of man Jejeune is — a “watcher,” as he himself thinks at one point, but also someone curious, questing, patient, and moved by flashes of beauty. But it’s part of the case, too, which makes sense in the context of the marshes where, as we’re reminded several times, there’s a particularly high density and variety of birds and thus a correspondingly high number of birders, resident and itinerant.
I really enjoyed the birding material in A Siege of Bitterns. It played right into my general fondness for “neepery” of all kind, for one thing, but Burrows also conveys its specific appeal very well — again, there’s a useful device in the form of Jejeuene’s partner, Lindy, a non-birder, who thus gives the many birders they encounter an excuse to proselytize. I read most of the novel sitting on our back deck, and I admit that I became increasingly aware of the birds around me: there are lots of them around at this time of year, but I can’t identify most of them better than “sea gull” or “blue jay.” I’m pretty sure I saw a humming bird this morning, and sometimes I definitely hear woodpeckers. But which kinds exactly? This site could presumably help me figure it out …
The only element of the novel that I wasn’t really convinced by was Inspector Jejeune himself. On Twitter last night Liz commented that, reading the novel, she “felt like I was coming into a series in progress.” Now that I’ve finished the book, I know what she means: I wondered if the many hints dropped in the first half about things that happened before the story’s own timeline would be resolved, but we never really do get a clear account, either of Jejeune’s family situation or of the case that has turned him into “media darling.” Perhaps this reflects the awkwardness of starting up a new series when some really fine ones in the same style have been running for so long (P. D. James’s Dalgliesh series launched in 1962, for instance, and Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks novels in 1987). It seems preferable to me to let your character build over time, but maybe relative newcomers feel the pressure to create a kind of instant depth. It didn’t work all that well for me, at any rate: we have to take a fair amount about Jejeune’s brilliance on faith, and sometimes Burrows seemed a bit too insistent on what he’d clearly chosen as Jejeune’s trademark qualities. The secondary characters too felt a bit forced.
The plot is good, though, and the writing is good, and the concept is original — though I wonder how long you can sustain birding as a genuine theme, without its lapsing into a gimmick. I liked A Siege of Bitterns enough to want to read A Pitying of Doves, the next in the series. If that goes as well as the first one, I might press on to A Cast of Falcons. And who knows — I might even see if I can figure out just what birds are in my own backyard.
At least as a footnote, I do have to say that there is a very shocking error on page 67 of A Siege of Bitterns! Dundurn Press should be pretty pleased about this series, but they should also be sure to fix that as soon as they can.