When prominent scientist and bird enthusiast Cameron Brae is found swinging from a tree in the coastal marshes of Norfolk, England, police inspector Dominic Jejune has no choice but to step in. His reputation as a crack detective already attracts more public attention than he’d like, and investigating a celebrity’s death won’t keep the spotlight away. But to figure out who tied the noose, the cops must hack the meaning behind a stack of birding life lists the victim left behind—a task Jejune is equipped to accomplish, given that he himself is a birder. And so begins A Siege of Bitterns, the first crime novel in Steve Burrows’s fictitious four-part series, a “Birder Murder Mystery.”
Many writers have incorporated birds into their novels, but Burrows intertwines avians with the classic whodunit in a completely original way. Each book shadows Jejune as he investigates murders meant to deter environmental-justice campaigns in the United Kingdom and South America. The mystery then builds on a trail of bird-related clues. In A Siege of Bitterns, for example, “Am. Bittern” was found written on the dead man’s calendar multiple times, even though he hadn’t traveled to the United States, where the bird resides. Other times, the theme is more blatant, like the two bodies left on the floor of a giant bird cage in A Pitying of Doves. The series is already on sale in the United Kingdom and Canada; its U.S. release is set for spring of 2018, along with the most recent installment, A Shimmer of Hummingbirds. (While the books aren't officially on sale in the United States yet, they can be purchased through online retailers.)
As both a birder and murder-mystery fan, Burrows combines his fascinations with the distinctive sleuthing style of traditional English greats, including Arthur Conan Doyle and G.K. Chesterton. Or, to use Burrows’s own description of the job, “the old British tradition, the Masterpiece Theater sort of thing.” But the U.K. transplant to Canada does depart in his writing in one way. From Poe’s The Raven to Agatha Christie’s The Stymphalean Birds, avians are typically cast as the harbingers of insanity—or worse. For Burrows, however, birds do more than menace: They drive narratives that mystery aficionados, science buffs, and birders can all enjoy.
The idea to write fiction didn’t occur to Burrows until later in life. His master’s degree in environmental science landed him a job at Asian Geographic, where he covered wildlife news stories from around the continent. He preferred crafting articles with a heavy dose of narrative, which made him think he should give the world of novels a chance. In 2013, he sent a a few drafted chapters to Toronto-based Dundurn Press and hoped for the best. (Sorry, future novelists—the publisher no longer accepts unsolicited texts.) That shot in the dark turned out to be a wild success: Burrows's debut book, A Siege of Bitterns, won the Crime Writers of Canada Award for Best First Novel in 2015, and also earned him contracts for sequels with Dundurn.
To piece his elaborate stories together, Burrows starts with extensive background research. He visits the locations mentioned in the book to get a sense of the habitat—down to which plants are blooming in season. While he's there, he gets to know the locals to learn what vocabulary and tones to give to his characters. “Birders have a great eye for detail,” Burrows says; if his readers can identify a species from just a glimpse of a feather in a tree, they’ll notice if the facts in the murder plot and scenes are wrong. He also values good prose as highly as accuracy. People often assume that crime novels leave literary qualities behind for the sake of thrilling plots, he says, but the stories can be just as well-written as they are entertaining.
As the stories develop, Burrows keeps them a secret from everyone, including his wife. But he did have a close friend and fellow birder critique the first book before it hit shelves. The acquaintance told Burrows that he nailed the birding aspect, a sentiment that other readers have shared throughout the years. Most of the fiction that discusses their hobby just doesn’t get it, they say. (Even the titles, which all include a creative collective noun for a specific species, show Burrows's depth of knowledge.)
Burrows takes pride in being the exception to the rule. In fact, it’s why he started his series: to cast birders in a new, deserved light. “I think the non-birding public is not always well-served by what we see in the media,” he says. Birder stereotypes of lumpy, tongue-tied men dominate most pop-culture interpretations. Jejune, on the other hand, is so smooth around people, he can detect lies and persuade others to confess. More importantly, the character reflects the frustrations most birder face—of missing sightings by seconds and failing to get quality photographic evidence. In the end, however, Burrows says he wants to emphasize how birding can be used as an outlet, something relaxing that can “take [Jejune] away from his world of murder.”
Jejune’s creator finds a similar respite in birding. His favorite form of the hobby involves sitting outside, maybe around his office, watching bird flocks interact. (During his interview with Audubon he happened to be spying on some Double-crested Cormorants.) Despite his success, Burrows still works a typical day job at a college in northern Ontario; crime writing is left for the late-night hours, as it should be. Most of his colleagues don’t know about his indie stardom, but a few have found out. “I think they’re surprised this novelist is sitting behind the desk,” Burrows says. Turns out Dominic Jejune isn’t the only man of mystery here.
A Shimmer of Hummingbirds, by Steve Burrows, Dundurn, 376 pages, $13.14. Buy it online at Amazon.