Thursday, April 9, 2015

Review: A Rant of Ravens (A Birdwatcher's Mystery)

Besides birding, the other pastime that looms large in my leisure time is reading, and mystery novels, in particular, feature heavily in the latter. Being so familiar in the genre's tropes and style, I'd been eager to get my hands on one of the birding mystery novels I'd heard about and find out how they stack up against less esoteric titles. You can imagine my excitement when Astor + Blue asked us to review Christine Goff's A Rant of Ravens, the first in her "Birdwatcher Mystery Series." I wish I could say that that excitement survived the first chapters, but I'm afraid it simply didn't work particularly well for me, either as a mystery novel or as a work of birding literature.

Firstly, for a novel explicitly appealing to birders, the dialogue comes off as stilted and over-explanatory. Rachel Stanhope, the story's heroine, is a non-birder going through a difficult time in her marriage and seeking consolation from her Aunt Miriam. Miriam, who runs a bird rehabilitation center, as well as hosting weekly meetings of her local birding group, invites Rachel to come visit and take over for her while she travels abroad (we're given a convoluted explanation for why someone more qualified can't do this). The premise allows uninitiated readers to learn along with Rachel as she encounters the argot and the norms of a birding community, including what a life list is, and how to abide by the ABA's Code of Ethics.

That's all fine, in theory; in practice something just seems off. After news breaks that a vagrant Le Conte's Sparrow was spotted nearby, we find the group asking the questions you might expect before going off to chase a rare bird: has the ID been confirmed, has the hotline been notified, etc. The actual discussion just sounds too deliberate or wooden, especially for a bird that's just a few minutes' drive away. And now that the bird's been called into the hotline?
"That means Elk Park is under an official rare bird alert," Gertie said, her shrill voice rising to a shriek.
Birding aside, interactions between characters are unnatural-seeming: they don't assign the proper weight to events that unfold in the novel, and the words used to describe their actions often don't seem to fit the situations they find themselves in. Add to this the fact that the novel was first published 15 years ago, and describes how "Rachel connected her laptop computer to the kitchen telephone line, clicked the Internet icon, and asked the driver to search for PETE." This would have been a cumbersome description even if it didn't date itself. 

This is a particular shame, because the mystery at the heart of the story is actually quite a good one. After a dead body turns up and her aunt goes missing, Rachel has to plunge into a decades-old bird trafficking scheme, as well as understand how different factions of the early conservation movement could have contributed to a whole new round of crimes. Sadly, the author doesn't seem to have been up to the task and the story's resolution ultimately rests upon assorted leaps of logic, lucky guesses, and plot holes.

I truly wanted to enjoy this novel, but it just wasn't for me. There are a number of "cute" bird references throughout the book that I think older readers would enjoy, and a lot of the story could easily appeal to a wide swath of novice or beginning birders. There's even the occasional thrilling scene told grippingly, but on the whole it's not enough to overcome a cavalcade of one-dimensional characters, and a thoroughly unsatisfying resolution. A Rant of Ravens is a nice try to integrate birding into the mystery genre, but in a number of important ways, it simply falls short.

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