I am not a connoisseur of crime novels, though I have read a book by C J Sansom, whose praise it is that adorns my library copy of The Birdwatcher. I don’t understand the distinction between thriller, psychological thriller, crime novel, detective novel, police procedural. Perhaps there is no distinction; perhaps they are all terms for a wide umbrella of popular fiction, which, if what I read is correct, is currently booming. Whatever it’s called, I have been standing out in the rain for quite some years, not particularly drawn to the genre however it might be described, and not really sure what the fuss is about. But recently, I’ve read a couple of crime novels: the first as an early reviewer, because the book was based in Cornwall and the second because it was based in Dungeness. And I might just be taking the bait. But I’ve also been bitten by another bug.
I do love to read a book within a context. Winter-themed books are surely best appreciated in the winter? Christmas-themed books are de rigueur in the weeks before the festive season. Recently, I’ve found myself choosing carefully around Remembrance Day, and this year I read Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday on Mother’s Day. Right now I’m re-reading Rebecca, as the 80th anniversary of the book’s publication is celebrated alongside the Fowey Festival (formerly known as the du Maurier Festival and timed to cover her birthday on May 13th).
But I can’t recall having read a book in the actual place that the story unfolds until I came to Cornwall, where suddenly I wanted to read anything and everything with a Cornish connection. Not that I’ve got very far, but that’s because there is such a vast number of books set in the region: the enthusiasm for the plan certainly hasn’t waned. And perhaps the pull to read Cornish fiction has planted a seed which has brought forth little seedlings that are now starting to sprout away from the parent plant. I find myself exploring the wider notion of reading books in situ.
Frequently, we read books which take us to destinations and situations that are far from our own backyards or our own direct experience, and the act of doing so is enriching and expanding. Like most readers, I love to do that. There is more risk, reading in situ: looking up from the book at what is being described. The author’s descriptions might not marry up to the surroundings; I might find myself hung up on inaccuracies or disagree if the author has made use of poetic licence. Reading in situ, and believing myself to be quite sensitive to the atmosphere of a place or location, offers the uncomfortable possibility of a conflict which might spoil the pleasure of the both the book and the place. But none of that occurred to me when I decided, almost on a whim, to take B and I to Dungeness, together with The Birdwatcher.
I can only describe it as a cerebral conjunction. Several planets aligned in my head and it all seemed a perfectly sensible thing to do. Quite when Dungeness first appeared on my radar as a place I wanted to visit is lost in the mists of time. It’s been lurking on the fringes for a very long while. The book itself came to my notice through Fictionophile’s review back in the summer of 2017. (Lynne gives a fuller review of the book than I’m offering here.) I did register that this was a thriller, police procedural (insert description of choice). But what leapt out at me was it features birdwatching: I love birds; Dungeness has a well-known RSPB reserve; I’d had a vague notion of going there one day and Lynne had loved this book. The decision was made. Except that of course it would be wrong to go straight away, the opening lines make that perfectly clear:
“There were two reasons why William South did not want to be on the murder team. The first was that it was October. The migrating birds had begun arriving on the coast. The second was that, though nobody knew, he was a murderer himself.”
We didn’t make it for October. But in February, we got there.
I’ve used a number of quotes from the book in an earlier post, which describe South driving up to the house of the victim alongside Alexandra Cupidi, a newly-arrived detective sergeant, for whom this is a first visit to the promontory. I can vouch for the fact that Cupidi’s reaction as they arrive is spot-on. The power station is menacing as you approach it; it feels like you must surely be about to drive straight into it. The track which veers away to where we were staying isn’t obvious: even when you turn onto it, it isn’t obvious. The track is shingle-based, amidst a great deal more shingle. So as I read the opening chapter of the book, on our first evening in this strange place, I could relate to Cupidi’s disorientation.
My own sense of unease quickened further when I read:
“Behind the black tower of the old lighthouse…
… the single track road led to Bob Raynor’s house and beyond, to the Coastguard Cottages.”
Because this was the view from our bedroom window:
That black lighthouse is hard to miss! The murder victim must have lived literally a stone’s throw from where I sat. My heart skipped a beat as I registered the fact: no matter that I’m reading fiction.
I think these may be the Coastguard Cottages, where William South lived.
I never managed to locate the house where Bob Raynor was murdered.
“A small, wooden construction, with two small gables, like a letter M, facing the track. A couple of chimneys stuck out of a tiled roof. The wood had been painted recently in red preservative, but it was already starting to flake. It sat on its own on the shingle, sea kale and thin grass struggling to take hold around it. Like most of the shacks around here, it would have been built originally almost a century ago as a poor man’s getaway, long before the nuclear power station had arrived.”
Almost certainly, this particular house doesn’t exist, but who knows! I find myself thinking with the passing of time: using the descriptions in the book, the location of the house must have been on the one short stretch of road that I didn’t walk along. (The stretch along which the woman was pushing the buggy.) And I question myself now, in hindsight: did I unconsciously avoid that stretch?
A steady drizzle fell as they sat in one of the hides on Burrowes Pit. She wore one of his raincoats with a pair of borrowed binoculars and a copy of the Collins Bird Guide open on her lap…
“Shelduck. That’s twelve,” Zoë said.
Our visit to the bird reserve wasn’t as successful as Zoë’s in terms of sightings, though we were luckier with the weather.
The sunshine was glorious while we were there, so our experience didn’t quite match up to South’s chilly vigils.
On a day like this he should normally be on his own somewhere, instead of sitting here in the hide, next to an elderly couple with a Thermos and sandwiches and biscuits, who just stared out of the lookout as they chomped and slurped. They didn’t seem to be doing any actual bird spotting at all.
South and Zoë got off lightly in my opinion: we shared a hide with a party of local birders gorging on a picnic lunch with tripods, cake crumbs and long lenses spread everywhere. Apparently we managed to miss 500 golden plovers in the car park. Unfortunately we did not miss their noisy and inconsequential chatter. And I thought serious birding was all about silence and stillness. I’m sure South would agree with me, though he explains a little further:
Birdwatching was like being a beat copper. You spent your days looking for anomalies. Things that were just a little different. An open window in an empty house; a man lingering too long by the edge of a platform. That’s what got you excited.
So we didn’t see that many birds. But the power station was a permanent fixture.
On our final evening the wind, which had been gathering power all along, had reached serious strength. (The next day I could barely walk against it.) Even in our super-insulated eco-home, it whistled eerily around the corners; there were thumps and bangs as bins – already tied down – tried their hardest to break free of their tethers and rocked viciously to and fro. The final scenes of The Birdwatcher do not take place in the shadow of the power station. But that doesn’t prevent them from being taut, dark and ominous. My heart was in my mouth as I read at breakneck speed: how much of that was caused by the storyline and how much by the location in which I was reading seemed irrelevant.
He sprang away to his right, up alongside the pool. He heard the gun boom and simultaneously felt the crackle of shot pellets around him, but didn’t stop to look back. As he reached the end of the pool, the gun fired a second time but this time the miss must have been wider. How?
… Then, as his ears got used to the ringing that the shot had caused, he realised that someone was screaming in pain, but it was not him.
Did I enjoy the book? Most definitely. It reads easily; there are several threads from the past and the present, interwoven alongside the Dungeness murder, some of which are resolved as the book closes while others remain open, and that felt right. I liked the three main characters very much and felt sympathy for each of them. Some of the lesser characters, the criminals in particular, seemed a little stereotyped. The sense of place was perfect; the atmosphere of the book conveyed South’s situation and state of mind as both man and boy. I can say with conviction that Shaw’s description of the area is exact in physical detail and atmosphere. And reading the book – in situ – gave an added dimension that I hadn’t anticipated.
Shaw has just released a sequel to The Birdwatcher. It’s once again set in Dungeness. Since I’m unlikely to get Bernie to make a return visit just so I can read a book, I may have to read Salt Lane from the relative comforts of Cornwall. But I’ll be on the lookout for other opportunities to read in situ beyond Cornwall’s borders.
I heartily recommend it!