Title: A Bird in the Hand
Author: Ann Cleeves
ISBN: 0449133494/ Fawcett, 1986
Cozy Mystery, #1 George and Molly Palmer-Jones
Protagonist(s): George and Molly Palmer-Jones, retired birdwatchers
Setting: mostly Norfolk, England in the mid-1980s
First Line: It was a warm May evening, a Saturday, and a small boy was playing with a home-made model boat at the edge of a pool.
I've read the first two books in Cleeves' Shetland Quartet mystery series and loved them. I'm also a birdwatcher, and lately I seem to keep stumbling over birdwatcher-themed mysteries. When I learned that Cleeves had written just such a series, I couldn't rest until I'd tracked the first one down. Once again, Paperback Swap came through for me.
George and Molly Palmer-Jones are both retired; he from the Home Office, Molly from a career as a social worker. George traded in his Volvo for a Morris Minor van, and now he and Molly travel around the country in search of rare birds. George loves spending his time this way; Molly loves spending time with George. When Tom French, a rather well-known "twitcher" is found dead in Norfolk, a mutual acquaintance asks George to look into the murder. George and Molly find themselves traveling around England in search of clues--and sighting a few birds along the way.
Nowadays, it seems there are cozy mysteries with every theme known to humankind: knitting, scrapbooking, interior design, coffee, tea, chocolate, cats, dogs...you get the picture! The problem I've found with several of them is that knitting, tea, whatever, is just a gimmick to get a person to read the book. Once you get into the book, there's very little of the theme that captured your interest in the first place. Fortunately A Bird in the Hand is not one of these. I learned so much about birding in Britain, the slang that birding fanatics use, and some of the better areas for sighting rare birds, that I feel as though my IQ went up a notch or two. For once I found a segment of the British population that doesn't seem unable to travel more than ten miles from home. Just read this description of twitching-- the madness that comes over some people when they hear a rare bird has been sighted:
"On the Friday night the news was received and passed along the grapevine with intense excitement. Anxious parents consulted timetables, packed up sandwiches and let schoolboy sons, rude and uncommunicative in their fear that the bird might have gone, spend their first night away from home. Students waited until pub closing time, walked through evening streets to motorway exits, and began to hitch-hike to Norfolk. Responsible family men cancelled family plans, filled their cars with students and schoolboys and drove across the country, revelling in the irresponsibility of the night-time drive, the madness and the expense of it all. That was the attraction of twitching: the escape from anxious parents, lectures and essays, work and families, the knowledge that, despite all the effort and the movement, in the morning the bird might have gone."
Although A Bird in the Hand was written in the 1980s, it didn't really seem dated, except for the lack of cell phones. (Cell phones must be a British birder's best friend in this day and age.) The plot moved along well, and as the pages turned, I saw how the characters of George and Molly were so well suited to each other. George, prickly and impatient in piecing together the clues, needed Molly's level head and calming influence more than once. This is a very good debut novel, and in it I can see the seeds of the wonderful Shetland Quartet that was to come.