A Siege of Bitterns – A Birder Murder mystery

A Siege of Bitterns by Steve Burrows. Dundurn Press. 2014.

Reviewed by A.M. Potter. ® 2019.

A Siege of Bitterns is the first novel in the “Birder Murder” series. The book won the 2015 Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel (for non-Canucks, the Arthur Ellis is the Canadian Nobel Prize of crime writing). A Siege of Bitterns is worthy of the prize.

The novel’s protagonist, DI Domenic Jejeune, is a Canadian transplanted to the UK. The mystery unfolds in the small Norfolk town of Saltmarsh, premier birding country. One might say Dejeune is a reluctant detective. He likes bird watching as much, if not more, than solving murders. To some of his fellow police officers, he’s a strange bird indeed. He occasionally comes across as a tortured eccentric. One wonders how he can solve crimes. But he does. His odd individualism is reminiscent of some of the most famous detectives in fiction. Shades of Sherlock Holmes, anyone? Or Hercule Poirot?

I won’t review the plot itself. I rarely do. I prefer to let the reader discover it. On the other hand, I will say that it’s clever, with a tangled bird’s nest of false starts and red herrings. You’ll exercise your grey cells on this one. Burrows delivers big personalities whose individuality springs from their dialog and thoughts, not from what they wear or drive. He also delivers enticing chapter endings, leaving the reader with a hook. What’s going to happen next? I want to know.

Burrows writes with flair. He deploys plenty of descriptive prose, yet he doesn’t loose momentum. I feel I’m in good hands. After a little flair, he returns to the core of crime writing: logistics. Clues and red herrings.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_Burrows

The opening lines of A Siege of Bitterns:

“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 ….”

My Favourite British Novel

My favourite British novel? That’s a tough one. Of course, I’ve made it easier on myself by saying “British,” thus bypassing the Irish and James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Many literary historians consider Joseph Andrews (1742) by Henry Fielding the first British novel. However, there is vociferous debate. Le Morte d’Arthur (1485) by Thomas Malory sometimes gets the nod. But that doesn’t matter to me. This isn’t a dissertation. It’s my personal choice.

My favourite British novel is …. London Fields by Martin Amis, published in 1989.

You’re kidding me?” I know, many people might not have London Fields on their radar, let alone as their favourite. They favour Nobel-prize winners like William Golding (Lord of the Flies) or Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day). They extoll novels by Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, or Zadie Smith. That’s quite a list, but give me Martin Amis and London Fields. {I’m not claiming it’s the best. It’s simply my favourite.}

Give me the sheer exuberance of Amis’ prose. Will he go off on tangents about pubs, sex, or the sky over London? You bet he will. If it’s not your cup of British novel, you’ll know within pages. Me, I knew within a page that I’d keep reading. And that I’d laugh and chortle.

Some find London Fields an acquired taste. It’s not politically-correct. It’s misogynistic. Others compare London Fields to Joyce’s Ulysses. It’s inventive and discursive. Like Ulysses, it’s been called crass and pornographic. Regardless of labels, London Fields gets under your skin. It’s part noir, part berk realism, part literary fiction. Like a certain beer brewed in Nova Scotia (an IPA), those who like it like it a lot. I’m one of them.

Amis delivers an extended amusement park ride, a rollercoaster of pathos and poignancy. The capers are simultaneously low-brow and high-brow. Think Monty Python on the page. {Not a Python fan? Give London Fields a pass.}

When I want twists, over-the-top characters, and zaniness, I re-read London Fields. I don’t only read it for the singularly inventive prose (no one writes like Martin Amis), but also for the plot itself. It’s a black comic murder mystery, a Brit noir par excellence. Right up my alley.

From the opening of London Fields: “This is the story of a murder. It hasn’t happened yet. But it will. (It had better.) I know the murderer, I know the murderee. I know the time, I know the place. I know the motive (her motive) and I know the means. I know who will be the foil, the fool, the poor foal, also utterly destroyed. And I couldn’t stop them, I don’t think, even if I wanted to.”

NB: This passage was written in 1989: “America was going insane. In her own way. And why not? Countries go insane like people go insane …. All over the world countries reclined on couches or sat in darkened rooms chewing dihydrocodeine and Temazepam or lay in boiling baths or twisted in straightjackets or stood banging their heads against padded walls. Some had been insane all the lives, and some had gone insane and then got better again and then gone insane again …. America had had her neuroses before, like when she tried giving up drink, like when she started finding enemies within, like when she thought she could rule the world …. In a way she was never like everywhere else. Most places just are something, but America had to mean something too, hence her vulnerability – to make-believe, to false memory, false destiny.”

PS: Sound familiar in 2019?

The heroine, the murderee, on the death of love: [The earth] seemed to have eternal youth but now she’s ageing fast, like an addict …. We used to live and die without any sense of the planet getting older, of mother earth getting older, living and dying. We used to live outside history. But now we’re all coterminous. We’re inside history now, on its leading edge, with the wind ripping past our ears. Hard to love, when you’re bracing yourself for impact.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/London_Fields_(novel)

Yorkshire Noir – The Inspector Banks Series

English-born Peter Robinson crossed the pond for a new life in Canada. However, his Inspector Alan Banks novels are set in the UK. The police procedural and forensic details turn on detective work in the Yorkshire Dales. And those details are spot on.

As the series opens, Banks has recently left London Metropolitan Police and the big city, seeking a quieter life in Yorkshire. He doesn’t find it. The Dales may be a long way from London (by English standards, not Canadian), but they are teeming with fictional murder and mayhem. Banks is a busy sleuth, a divorcee who loves women, but has no luck finding true love.

Robinson deploys multiple narrative points-of-view, featuring criminals plus various detectives, mainly Alan Banks, Annie Cabbot (a former Banks love interest) and Winsome Jackman. The novels are expertly plotted and delivered with a descriptive eye. The early books in the series are cozier in tone, while the later books are harder, an Eight out of Ten on the Noir Scale, with Ian Rankin being a Nine-point-Five.

Although Robinson is known for his police procedural details, if you dig deeper, the main element in his writing is human psychology (cop and criminal). As an aside, I’d say that psychology is the main element in most crime writing, if not all. The difference between the crime subgenres is mainly due to the way that characters are portrayed – both cops and criminals – as well as the bloodiness of the killings. A cozy is soft and humane, and, at the other end of the subgenre spectrum, a black crime novel is at times almost inhuman.

Robinson doesn’t shy away from literary prose. His plots are firmly set in place and time. The descriptive veracity makes his fiction appear to be fact, which is what all crime novels need.

When I want a winning combination of police procedural details, detective personality, and descriptive prose, I turn to Peter Robinson. As alluded to above, he’s not as noir as Ian Rankin. Nor is he as cozy as Agatha Christie or P.D. James. He hits a sweet spot in between.

Postscript: Standby for reviews of individual Banks novels.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Robinson_(novelist)

A few excerpts from the Banks opus ….

On the optimum time window to solve a murder:

Traditional police wisdom is that if a case doesn’t yield leads in the first 24 hours, everyone is in for a long haul. That time period could run to 30, 36 or 48 hours. That’s the problem. When do you scale down your efforts? The answer: You don’t.

A short “history lesson,” delivered by an ex-copper Banks knows [I’ve shortened the quote]:

“The first detectives came from the criminal classes. They were equally at home on either side of the law. Jonathan Wild, the famous thief-taker, for example. Half the time he set up the blokes he fingered. And back then, the days you’re asking about, I think we were a bit closer to our prototypes than the office boys we seem to have on the force today, if you’ll pardon my criticism. Now, I’m not saying that I was ever a crimo myself, but I lived close enough to the line at times to know what a thin line it is, and I was also close enough to know how they thought. I could think like them. I could’ve easily used my street smarts for criminal purposes ….” He let the sentence trail.

North Bay Noir – Giles Blunt

Giles Blunt was born in Canada to English parents. As he tells it, “they had colorful accents and amusing habits and never allowed themselves to be influenced by Canadians. Consequently I lived in England at home and Canada at school.” Regardless of the schism – or maybe because of it – Blunt learned how to write. Very well. He is one of the few crime writers to be nominated for the Dublin IMPAC award.

Blunt’s Detective John Cardinal novels have been turned into a TV series. I’m not a fan of the series, but I don’t blame Blunt. The TV offerings don’t deliver the vibrancy and depth of the Cardinal novels, a prime example of the general rule that books are better than the movies/series based on them. Of course, every rule has its exceptions (Are Movies Better Than Books?).

Back to Blunt. The Cardinal novels are set in Algonquin Bay, a thinly disguised version of North Bay, Ontario. OPP (Ontario Provincial Police) Detective John Cardinal is a down-to-earth yet complex man. Blunt doesn’t hide Cardinal’s faults. The detective is not a particularly social animal (like many a detective; to wit, Connelly’s Bosch and Rankin’s Rebus). Although Cardinal bears psychic scars, he is humane, humble, and likable.    

The Cardinal plotlines demonstrate that crime novels can be personal, with “literary” character development. They don’t need to be all crime all of the time. If you have interesting detectives like Cardinal and his partner, Lise Delorme, you can deliver whodunits with depth. Of course, it helps if the criminals aren’t one-dimensional. Blunt doesn’t fall into that trap. He gives us nuanced perps. As Cardinal hunts them down, the reader walks both sides of the thin blue line.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giles_Blunt

A few excerpts from the Cardinal opus ….

Blunt delivers “literary” prose:

“The Planet Grief. An incalculable number of light years from the warmth of the sun. When the rain falls, it falls in droplets of grief, and when the light shines, it is in waves and particles of grief. From whatever direction the wind blows — south, east, north or west — it blows cinders of grief before it.”

Advice if you get lost in the Canadian woods:

“Panic will kill you faster than any wolf, faster than any bear.”

Postscript: Standby for reviews of individual Blunt novels.