A Siege of Bitterns, A Birder Murder Mystery

 by Steve Burrows

Before the new DCI, Domenic Jejeune, came to the Saltmarsh Division of the North Norfolk Constabulary, he was involved in a number of high profile cases. That is why DCS Shepard had gone out of her way to entice him to Saltmarsh in the first place. Not that it took too much work on her part. Convincing a birder to settle on the north Norfolk coast of England couldn’t have been that hard. Jejeune and his girlfriend, Lindy, had already taken up residence in a two-storied cottage on the marsh at the end of a long dirt road. Constable Holland couldn’t imagine why his new boss would want to end up in the middle of nowhere, living out his own remake of Little House on the Prairie. Every time his Audi A5 hit a pothole, Holland cursed having drawn the short straw to pick up Jejeune.

But, there had been a murder. Not just any murder. Cameron Brae had been murdered. Brae was known across the country as The Marsh Man. His television show reached millions of viewers. To them, he was the face of nature conservation.

So, what had he done to deserve being strung up from a tree? It couldn’t have been suicide. There was no ladder. Sergeant Maik was already on the scene when Holland arrived with Jejeune. Maik was ex-military and a good detective. He had to wonder when the new DCI began asking Dr. Porter, the local veterinarian who had discovered the body, about birds. Jejeune heard that the doctor had been out on the marsh hoping to spot a bittern. Porter was sporting a pair of high-end Opticron binoculars, but the fact that he had also brought along his dog made the DCI suspicious. The animal was all muddy as if it had been trampling about in the marsh. No one hoping to sneak up on a bittern would bring a dog along with him.

Porter turns out not to be a suspect, however, there are plenty of other possibilities. Brae had once been embroiled in a dispute with Peter Largemount over a wind farm Largemount wanted to install in the area. He had also had words with Archie Christian. Before settling in the area, Christian had led a criminal lifestyle. There was Professor Alwyn, who had once worked closely with the Marsh Man, but no longer wanted anything to do with him. Brae’s own son, Malcolm, an environmental activist, hated him. And, of course, there was the pretty, younger wife, now a widow.

Then, there were those bird lists. In going though Cameron Brae’s papers, Jejeune discovered lists of species seen on the marsh. These had been solicited by Brae from the local birders for some study he was involved in. No one’s list yet included 400 species. Brae was probably the closest. Could his murder have been over a list.

Jejeune also notices a strange entry by Brae himself, “am. bittern”. Had he seen an American Bittern on the Norfolk marsh? The chances of this were next to impossible according to local bird expert, Quinton Senior. There were Eurasian Bitterns of course. But if Brae had seen an American Bittern, others would have noticed it as well. What was going on?

Fortunately, by the end of the book, the reader does find out what’s going on. In great mystery fashion, the murderer is not even one of the most obvious suspects. But there is lots of guilt to go around just the same. Jejeune uses his experience as a detective and as a birder to solve the case. Half the fun is watching the way he baffles his otherwise competent staff with his seeming bizarre behavior. The setting is well fleshed out and Burrow’s descriptions of the marsh and the Norfolk coast make you want to be standing there too.

The title of the book comes up when Sergeant Maik asks Jejeune about the possibility of a “flock of bitterns”. “It’s a siege. A Siege of Bitterns.” the DCI corrects him. “But they usually occur singly, when they occur at all.” Might the same be said of murderers? The book is available in paperback and electronic versions.

Carroll County Chapter of Maryland Ornithological Society

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