Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Siege of Bitterns

I'm fascinated by collective nouns, especially those that refer to groups of birds and animals. It seems somehow fitting that a gathering of hippopotami is referred to as a bloat and there is a joke going around that a group of baboons is called a congress. While that sounds right (at least from a political perspective) it is not accurate; a bunch of baboons is a troop. Fun collective nouns for birds include a stand of flamingos, an
A Charm of Hummingbirds
(Photo © Jeanette Larson)
ostentation of peacocks, and a charm of hummingbirds. Perhaps because as scavengers they are sometimes associated with death, a flock of crows is referred to as a murder. Actually how that particular collective noun came to be associated with crows is unverified, but the term goes back to the 15th century and it's a great title for a mystery, one of my other passions.

European Nightjar
(Public domain)
Given my two interests I was thrilled to find a new mystery series that is based on birds and has titles based on collective nouns. A convergence that was meant to be! A Siege of Bitterns is the first in a series by life-long birder and nature writer, Steve Burrows. Living in Canada but originally from the UK, Burrows sets the series in Norfolk, the heart of Britain's birding country. In the winter migrants roost in the marshes and  Britain's largest lowland pine forest is home to woodlarks, tree pipits, and nightjars. (Nightjars have an almost supernatural reputation for their ability to fly silently and, according to folktales, they steal milk from goats. I'm thinking they would make a great subjects for a mystery in the series.)

Clearly Burrows knows birds and I learned a bit about bitterns reading the book (even though it irks me that I've never spotted one during my birding time). But, of course, the big question is: how is the book as a mystery? The main character, Detective Chief Inspector Domenic Jejeune is the fair-haired child of the UK Police Service even though,as a Canadian, he is considered an outsider. Following a highly publicized case, Jejeune is reassigned to Saltmarsh, a small town in Norfolk. This should be a big step up the career ladder except for one thing: Jejeune would rather be birdwatching than investigating. And since Saltmarsh is in the midst of some of the best birding territory in Britain it is easy for the detective to stray from his duties. When a well known environmental activist is found dead, a presumed suicide hanging from a tree, the only clue that it could be murder points to a couple of avid birders competing to reach 400 verified species sightings in the local marshes and the possible presence of a vagrant American bittern.

American Bittern
(Creative Commons License)
The book is a pretty quick  read and would be classified as a cozy, taking place in an insular community and featuring very little blood and no graphic violence. Much like birding, the pace is slow with intermittent bursts of activity followed by discussion about whether what you think you saw is what you really saw. And birders often head out in one direction only to end up following a complex path that leads in circles and off the beaten path. As we tag along with Jejeune through the marshes and forests, readers do learn a bit about birds and birding before ultimately spotting the killer. And other than adding a new bird to your life list, what could be better than that? Oh, and was there really an American bittern in Britain? You'll have to read the book to find that out; remember, I've still never seen one.

A Siege of Bitterns will be published April 19, 2014.

 (I received an e-book copy of A Siege of Bitterns from the publisher.)