Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Review: The Scarlet Kingfisher

The Scarlet Kingfisher: Discovery of a new species
August 2014
Robert Henry Benson

Genre: Fiction ("Birder murder mystery"?)

When Mr. Benson asked me to review his new novel I did let him know that I had never reviewed a fictional book before. In fact, I remember reading only two fictional books in the past 25 years--both science fiction. Now, wait; the protagonist in "The Scarlet Kingfisher" is a scientist discovering a new species, so this is science fiction, right? No? Well, I'll give it a try anyway. But be forewarned, I called David Sibley's 2014 update to his groundbreaking book on birds "unreadable." But that wasn't the material; it was the microscopic font size.

This fast-paced story is very engaging, and becomes more so as the story reaches its climax. The story begins with the protagonist--a biologist, Dr. Beach O'Neill--locked out of his field research area on a private ranch in southern Texas. Apparently, some ranch hand reported an improbable undescribed bird in southern Texas. Dr. O'Neill sneaks on to the property to reach his study area, but comes upon a dead body! Now he's the prime suspect in the murder! He has to evade the bad guys and the sheriff, repair his relationship with his girlfriend, save his career, and somehow clear his name! And all the while search for the improbable titular bird.

Written by a birder, Mr. Benson takes us on a realistic drive through the south Texas countryside. We see the geography, botany, and birds through his accurate descriptions of what is really there. Likewise, we get a realistic glimpse into academia, in this case Texas A&M University. There is also some history of Texas towns and people, but how much is true and how much is fiction? Nevertheless, it made it personally realistic to me, because I would pay the same exact attention to the plants and animals.

The fast-pace of the book necessitated shallow character development of many of the characters. I found the antagonists rather stereotyped and lacking in character development. The falconer/bird trapper was an unkempt individual with no redeeming qualities. The "muscle" killed without remorse. The bad guy was a shadowy egomaniac. On the other hand, O'Niell's girlfriend botanist and fellow professor at the university was almost "too good." But by the end of the story, as events were reaching a nail-biting and page-turning confrontation, none of that mattered. Good story-telling carried the day.

Though there are sixty-one chapters in the book, there are only 211 pages. Thus, the chapters average less than 3.5 pages each. Personally, I might have increased the descriptive elements of the story even further (landscape, birds and animals, character development). For instance, in places Texas or desert-specific vegetation is named, but not described. I am reminded of the "Ox-Bow Incident" where more than half the book is devoted to a 15 or 20 minute period building the suspense for the quick actions at the end of the book. The painfully long time to get to the action actually increased the tension of dread of what was inexorably coming. The "Scarlet Kingfisher," on the other hand, kept building tension by moving quickly, then just before climax, switching the story line to another character's perspective of the same time period.

There were some brief uncomfortably graphic descriptions in the killing of a couple birds and one man. The bad guys did some swearing. The sex scene... That was a sex scene? Bullfrog? Really?

An engrossing, fast-paced, bird-themed murder mystery adventure. I have never read anything like it before.

Ps. Marlene loved it!

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