The Wise Old Owl, The Big Black Crow*

Bird WatchingAn interesting comment exchange with Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about birds and bird watching. It’s a delightful pastime, really. It gets you out into nature, it doesn’t have to be expensive, and it can be really interesting. You might think of it as peaceful, too, but if you read crime fiction, you’ll soon see that it isn’t at all. There are plenty of examples of ways in which bird watching can get you into a lot of danger.

The novel Moira and I were discussing was Agatha Christie’s The Murder at the Vicarage, in which Miss Marple has quite a hand in solving the killing of Colonel Protheroe. Miss Marple isn’t an avid bird watching enthusiast in the sense of belonging to the local Society, or going on lots of bird-watching excursions. But she does find bird watching to be a very handy explanation for the binoculars that she uses to see what some of the other characters are doing. And those binoculars give her useful information.

In Colin Dexter’s The Way Through the Woods, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis ‘inherit’ a cold case. Swedish tourist Karin Eriksson went missing a year ago during a trip to Wales. She was on her way through Wytham Woods when she disappeared, and as you’d expect, a thorough search was conducted there. The only useful discovery was a rucksack belonging to the young woman. In it was a small book called A Birdwatcher’s Guide and a list of birds with some names checked off. Now Morse and Lewis are tasked with tracing her movements and, hopefully, finding her body, so that they can learn the truth about what happened. As they do so, we see just what trouble you can get yourself into by taking an interest in birds…

Martha Grimes’ The Anodyne Necklace sees Inspector Richard Jury called to the small town of Littlebourne when a local dog discovers a human finger. Jury’s friend Melrose Plant soon joins him there and, each in a different way, start to investigate. They don’t get very far when another grim discovery is made. Ernestine Craigie is a bird-watching fanatic, who’s happy to get up at all hours in hopes of completing her list. That’s how she discovers the body that belongs to the finger. The victim turns out to be Cora Binns, who worked for a London temporary secretary agency. Jury and Plant eventually find that her death is related to a brutal attack on another Littlebourne resident, as well as to a robbery that occurred in the area about a year earlier.

And then there’s Holger Eriksson, whom we meet in Henning Mankell’s The Fifth Woman. He’s a retired car dealer who’s taken up poetry and bird watching. One night, he goes out to watch some migrating birds, and is brutally murdered. Inspector Kurt Wallander is sick at the moment, and really didn’t need an extra case. But when Eriksson is reported missing, he has to respond. When the victim’s body is discovered, Wallander and his team have to find out who would have wanted to kill a seemingly inoffensive elderly man who just wanted to be left alone with his poetry and his birds. In the end, they discover a connection between this murder and the murder of a local florist. And they learn how those deaths are related to five murders in Africa a year earlier.

Several of Ann Cleeves’ stories feature bird enthusiasts, bird sanctuaries and bird watching. For example, in A Bird in the Hand, we are introduced to Tom Porter, a Norfolk ‘twitcher’ – bird watching fanatic – who works as a vegetable chef/kitchen porter. One morning he keeps a promise to himself to get up early and head for the marsh on a bird watching excursion. He’s found later face-down in a pool on the marsh, with his binoculars still on his neck. George Palmer-Jones is a twitcher himself, and a retired Home Office investigator. So naturally he takes an interest in the case. One thing that he notices immediately is that no-one seems to be especially upset about Porter’s death. And the more Palmer-Jones and his wife Molly look into the case, the more suspects they find. I know, I know, fans of Blue Lightning and The Crow Trap

And then there’s D.S. Nelson’s One For the Rook. Blake Heatherington is a milliner who’s getting ready to retire. He’s got his beloved allotment in the village of Tuesbury, and is no longer interested in the increasingly annoying commute to his London shop. Hoping for a peaceful autumn, he’s getting ready for a local harvest festival. Then, he discovers the body of Peter Kürbis in his pumpkin patch, killed, it would seem, by Heatherington’s own prize pumpkin. The police are looking into this murder when another Tuesbury resident is killed. In the meantime, there’s another strange occurrence. A rookery that’s been in the area for some time seems to have disappeared. It’s a traditional sign of bad luck when rooks leave a place, and that’s certainly what happens here. One of the suspects in these murders is Dennis Nyeman, former member of the local caged bird society, and strident (and aggressive) proponent of those who want right of way through all of the local allotments. No, the rooks aren’t the killers here. But there’s certainly interest in birds in this story.

So do be careful, please, if you decide to spend some time contemplating our feathered friends. It’s important to connect with nature. But it’s not always good for the health. Little wonder a group of crows is called a ‘murder…’

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Leon René/Jimmie Thomas’ Rockin’ Robin, made famous first by Bobby Day and later by Michael Jackson.

20 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Ann Cleeves, Colin Dexter, D.S. Nelson, Henning Mankell, Martha Grimes

20 responses to “The Wise Old Owl, The Big Black Crow*

  1. A really interesting topic, Margot and thanks once again for the mention of Blake. I am truely honoured. I enjoy a spot of bridwatching, as you know, as it’s a great way to get a pair of binoculars in your sleuths hands, as Agatha Christie found! Who knows what they’ll see 😉

    • It’s my pleasure to mention Blake, D.S. 🙂 – He’s a great character. And you have a very well-taken point. By hook or by rook, it can be really convenient for a sleuth to have binoculars… 😉

  2. I love backyard bird-watching, and am happy to report that I haven’t stumbled on a single corpse yet…. 😉

    • Well, that’s good to hear, Kathy! You never know where a dead body will turn up when you write crime fiction! 😉 – I like amateur, casual bird watching very much too. I don’t have the photographic equipment or the knowledge to really make a hobby of it, but they’re wonderful to watch.

  3. I fear I’ve read so many crime novels where someone is using binoculars as a way to spy on neighbours I always feel incredibly guilty any time I take my own binoculars out! 😉 If memory serves me right, another neighbourhood snoop who hid behind the birdwatching excuse was Mrs Rainbird (I think) in ‘The Killings at Badger’s Drift’ – admittedly I haven’t read the book, but it’s one of my favourite Midsomer Murders episodes.

    • Ah, yes, FictionFan, Mrs. Rainbird! She’s a great character, and even more eerie in the book (in my opinion) than in the TV series. And good spot on the binoculars, too. It’s funny about those things. I have to be careful myself not to look too observant or use my ‘phone camera too much when anyone’s around. I get enough funny looks from the folks who live around here when I take my blog ‘photos… 😉

  4. Christine Goff has a whole birdwatcher mystery series. I think the most recent was A Parliament of Owls. I love the authors who find these fun niches for their cozy series.

  5. Keishon

    Interesting topic as ever, thanks! Miss Marple can be pretty sneaky. That’s why I love her and her razor sharp observations about people and human nature. Fictional or not, I think a lot of what Christie says about people’s behavior is on the money.

    • I think it is, too, Keishon. And I’ve always liked the way that Miss Marple seems very well-tuned to human nature. Her observations are keen and right on target, and she is clever. I like that about her, too. And thanks for the kind words. 🙂

  6. Ornithology is one of the many areas I wish I knew more about . let’s hope it really is never too late …

  7. I love bird watching! My hummingbird feeder is providing me with lots of entertainment this summer.

    I thought Ann Cleeves did a great job with the book…she seemed to have an understanding of the culture surrounding it, too.

    • Oh, I like to watch hummingbirds too, Elizabeth! I always marvel at the way they move. And I agree with you about Cleeves. She has insight into the twitcher thinking, and she really does create good characters, in my opinion.

  8. My father liked bird watching and worked with boy scout groups on bird identification. I have always wanted to read Ann Cleeves books about George Palmer-Jones and his wife.

    • If you do, Tracy, I hope you’ll like them. I think George and Molly Palmer-Jones are great characters. Your father did a good thing, in my opinion, in helping young people learn about birds. I think volunteering is important.

  9. Thanks for the shoutout Margot, proud to have inspired you! I thought of Anne Cleeves too, as you say she likes a bird sanctuary. I think she worked on one herself? And I’m remembering another book by her featuring a female cook at a nature reserve? Can’t remember which one it was….

    • Always happy to mention your blog, Moira. And yes, Cleeves does such a good job with birding and bird sanctuaries. I couldn’t say for sure whether she worked on one, but I wouldn’t be surprised. And about that book…might you be thinking of Blue Lightning? That one does have a lot of action at a bird sanctuary, and there is a cook/housekeeper who figures in it…

  10. Col

    Not something I have encountered yet in my reading.

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s