Go to Homepage   Julia Wallis Martin: The Bird Yard


Hodder & Stoughton (Hardcover),
ISBN 0-340-68928-5
The Bird Yard, Julia Wallis Martin's second mystery, haunted me. Why? The subject matter -- the fates of preadolescent boys "gone missing?" The atmosphere -- a bone-chilling October and November in Manchester, England? The locations -- an aviary of mesh and nylon net attached to a row house condemned to the wrecking ball; a curio stall in a market under a glass dome, grimy windows blocking the light; a forest so overgrown and dense that darkness descends early? The "bird yard" keeper -- Roland "Roly" Barnes, whose aviary shelters his exotic finches, not native to England? The juxtaposition of beautiful birds dwelling in Manchester's urban blight?  

One November day, a wrecking crew discovers a body in a row house, not far from the aviary. The narrative jumps back to October, and the entire story unfolds. As of October, a boy had been missing for five years. Then another lad disappears a few hundred yards from where the first vanished.  

The Greater Manchester Police, led by Detective Superintendent Parker, respond. The first missing child case, never solved, rankles Parker. He vows to find the second child. The investigation stalls until Parker meets Brogan Healey, a twelve-year-old boy fascinated by Roly's birds. 

The Bird Yard suffers from "second book slump." Martin's first mystery, A Likeness in Stone, delved into each character's psychology and motives. Plot twists, all believable, surprised the reader. The perpetrator, when exposed, revealed an inhumanity without remorse. 

These qualities elude The Bird Yard. The characters, except for Brogan, lack depth. The book offers little suspense or surprise.  

In addition, the book fails the plausibility test on two important points. First, the missing boys and Brogan come from broken homes with uncaring or absent parents. Does Ms. Martin believe a child never disappears from a loving nuclear family? For example, after the first boy vanishes, his mother converts from slut to saint, finally holding a job. Parker notices "a total transformation" of her apartment, from slovenly to pristine. The conclusion? Bad mothers and fathers lose their children. 

Second, Parker strong-arms Murray Hanson, a London psychologist specializing in "offender profiling," to work on the second case. Although U.S. authorities embrace this forensic technique, Parker distrusts it. Parker often dismisses Hanson's opinions! Once Hanson enters the narrative, Martin introduces an irrelevant, distracting sub-plot. 

Now -- that haunted feeling. Finally, I realized what caused it. Forget the people! Martin fully depicts the birds -- features, actions, fears and mistreatment -- bonding me with them! They became the main characters, innocents condemned to death when the police destroy their refuge. 

The birds were gone and [he] didn't have to see the evidence to know that, without exception, all were dead. If the cold hadn't killed them, native birds or lack of the type of seed they required were bound to have done so, and he pictured their remains as a scattering of colour in the gutters and the gardens of the city and its suburbs. 

At least, The Bird Yard evokes sorrow for Roly's birds. This reviewer, not an Audubon aficionado, mourns the birds' fate. Whether or not you read The Bird Yard, visit your local bird sanctuary. 

Lynn I. Miller

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Readers Respond:

I just read Lynn I. Miller's review of J. Wallis Martin's The Bird Yard. It wasn't very complimentary. Do I detect a little female jealousy here? Will Ms. Miller be revising her opinion now that Publishers Weekly voted The Bird Yard one of the best crime novels published in the US in 1999?

John Addison
Manchester, UK