THE MURDER BIRD is a compelling little psychological thriller of dark family secrets. At first, I thought it was going to be a story of a woman who stabs her sleeping husband to death, and the effects on her and her young children. But although the book begins and ends with this story, the main action soon shifts to Raph Howes, a barrister who may, or may not, take the defence. Raph, it turns out, lost his own wife, Kirsten Waller, in a sad case of "self murder". Kirsten was a renowned American poet, and although she had split with Raph, the couple still got on well. It is Kirsten's daughter, cellist Sam Boswin (short for Samphire) who alone refuses to accept that her mother took her own life, and is determined to discover who killed her.
Raph's family is initially somewhat confusing to sort out: he gets on well with his brother-in-law Johnny but Johnny's wife Miriam (Raph's sister) is repressed, childless and prone to debilitating migraine headaches. Raph and Miriam's mother, Diana, is a rather vague woman for whom everything has to be "nice" or she can't function. Added to the mix are Raph's new trophy girlfriend Lola, his pupil Mick Brady, Sam's natural father Davy Boswin and his second family, as well as Judy, the owner of the Cornish cottage where Kirsten died, who had been Kirsten's friend but had cooled towards her when Kirsten's creative reputation eclipsed Judy's.
Sam, being young, is uncompromising about her determination to solve the mystery of her mother's death, putting everyone's backs up. Early in the book, she breaks into Raph's house, where she is convinced she will find her mother's missing journal containing the poems she was working on when she died, and therein a clue to her death. Instead of finding the journal, she encounters Mick and Lola in a drunken post-party flirtation, and has to beat a retreat.
Later, Mick finds himself drawn to Sam despite himself, and begins to believe her story that her mother could not have committed suicide. We then see in flashback the genesis of Kirsten's poem "The Murder Bird", written during a disastrous family weekend some time previously, and which Sam is convinced will hold the key to her mother's death, if she can but find where Raph has hidden it.
The book is clever in that the seasoned crime-fiction reader will guess early on the most likely identity of the murderer – but will the reader be right? Another neat touch is the existence of a ruined tower in the house that Johnny and Miriam have managed to own despite the opposition of Johnny's elder brother, who inherited it and wants to sell. As soon as we learn that the floor of the tower has rotten wood, we know that someone is likely to fall through it.
Joanna Hines is aware of these genre cliches and takes the reader beyond them into a haunting mystery involving all the characters in this disjointed family. Sam is not a conventional, likeable heroine, but she is all the more attractive as a character because of that. Through her, we get to know her talented, unconventional mother and to understand her life and what led to her death.