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A Diverting Cozy

A review by Jim Wright

The Kiskadee of Death, by Jan Dunlap

North Star Press, 2015

256 pages, $14.95—softcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books

The seventh in Jan Dunlap’s Bob White Birder Murder series, The Kiskadee of Death is a light confection of a mystery, the sort of book you might read on the plane on your next big birding adventure when you get tired of perusing the field guide.

In fact, the book’s action takes place on just such a week-long birding trip. The aforementioned Mr. White—high-school guidance counselor, ardent birdwatcher, and amateur sleuth—has persuaded his lovely wife, Luce, to escape a brutal Minnesota January and search for life birds and rarities in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas. Think of them as the Nick and Nora Charles of the Swarovski set.

Layout 1I had not read any of the six previous volumes in the series, so a couple of alarm bells went off as soon as I saw the book’s title and the name of its sleuth and narrator. I enjoy wordplay as much as the next guy, but a steady 210-page diet of puns can lead to a bad case of the groans.

Mercifully, the wordplay turns out to be brief—and effective. It sets a light-hearted tone that says, yes, the book may begin with the mysterious death of a Texas birder, but this is no hard-boiled crime novel. The latter is my preferred guilty pleasure, but this offers a breezy change of pace.

“It’s an occupational hazard,” Bob’s wife explains at one point. “He’s a birder who happens to find bodies.” That describes both the detective and the gist of the plot in a nutshell.

This time, Bob sees the corpse through a spotting scope at Estero Llano Grande State Park in Weslaco. The body belongs to one Birdy Johnson. Mercifully, there are no “Bye Bye Birdie” jokes, as I had feared.

Did Birdy drown, or was he a victim a foul play? It turns out to be the latter, and the game is afoot.

As Bob observes,

With my body count now up to eight over the last few years, I was beginning to harbor the suspicion that maybe I was in the wrong business with my job as a high school counselor. The idea of making a career out of searching for bodies was not one that filled me with excitement, though I had to admit, I could generally depend on finding more avian rarities when I was trying to help the police solve a murder case than I ever could manage from my tiny broom closet of an office at Savage High School.

The Kiskadee of Death is a diverting cozy, with plenty of suspects, motives, and the avian equivalent of red herrings. Mix in ample references to habitat loss, bird-safe glass, bad signage (one of my pet peeves), and species descriptions that range from Vermilion Flycatchers to Green Kingfishers, and what’s not for a mystery-loving birdwatcher to like?

BINbutton

The setting couldn’t be better. “The Lower Rio Grande Valley is where two major migratory corridors—the Central and Mississippi—converge, making it the best place in the United States to see more than 500 species of birds,” as Bob explains. “Not only that, but the Valley is also the meeting point of four different climate zones—temperate, desert, coastal, and subtropical—along with the birds who thrive in them,” he continues. “Throw in the South and Central American birds whose northernmost range ends at the Rio Grande, and a Minnesotan like me can potentially see birds I’ve only dreamed about.”

The Kiskadee of Death includes some other real-life places that birders might want to look into, among them a microbrewery (Roosevelt’s), a not-to-be-missed doughnut shop (Shipley Do-Nuts, part of a chain), and a birding-oriented B&B (The Bird’s Nest), all in McAllen.

The travel aspect of the book really added to my enjoyment. Although I have taken numerous birding trips, I have never been to that part of Texas, and I did not know that the region markets itself as the home of the World Birding Center, a network of nine sites with habitats ranging from chaparral to coastal wetlands.

Nicely rounding out the plot, the book also touches on several issues that apply to the Lower Rio Grande Valley: illegal immigration, drug smuggling, drone surveillance of the border, and a SpaceX launch facility.

I do have a few quibbles, mostly coming down to a suspicion that The Kiskadee of Death is a book more for bird lovers who like to read mysteries than for mystery lovers who may or may not like to read about birds.

For example, the supporting characters seem a bit too loosely drawn, so much so that I had trouble telling several of them apart—especially the members of the local birding club, a group of retirees who tend toward “Hawaiian shirts, floppy hats, hearing aids, and binoculars,” in Bob White’s description.

Similarly, at times I found the amateur detective team of Bob and Luce White lovey-dovey to the point of cloying. The beautiful, brilliant Luce comes across as a tad too flawless to be believable. Here’s a taste: “Our mutual passion for birds may have been the first sticks in building the cozy nest of our relationship, but Luce’s amazing cooking skills were some of the saliva that held it together.”

As I said, I gravitate toward hard-boiled mysteries, and The Kiskadee of Death is a soufflé.

One other note: My review copy was a pdf that I read on my laptop and tablet. My only major disappointment came when I asked whether the final digital version of the book would include hypertext links to all of the nifty bird species and natural areas and other local attractions that adorn and enrich the plot.

Alas, the author informed us that the e-book will be published without links. She continued, however:

It does spark an idea for me—I could post a list of links for the book on my own website. In fact, I could post links for all the places in the earlier books as well…I think I have a new project….

That’s a great first step. For future books in the series—and I suspect there’ll be many more—Dunlap might put the links right into the digital version itself. And if the setting is anything along the lines of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, I suggest supplying a link to a map of the plot’s main locales as well.

Jim Head shot Wright

Jim Wright is a nature writer, blogger, and photographer, as well as the birding columnist for a daily newspaper. He is the author of four coffee-table books about nature, two crime novels, several children’s books, and assorted ghost stories.

Recommended citation:

Wright, J. 2015. A Light Confection of a Birding Mystery [a review of The Kiskadee of Death, by Jan Dunlap]. Birding 47 (5): 65.

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