Birdwatching in Suffolk: An unlikely inspiration for crime novelist James Henry

James Henry

James Henry - Credit: Ant Jones Photography

James Henry’s foray into the world of birdwatching in Suffolk provided the backdrop to his latest crime novel | Words: Catherine Larner

James Henry

James Henry - Credit: Ant Jones Photography

It’s been a while since he’s been up at 4am to listen for nightingales, but James Henry remembers his experiences of the Suffolk dawn chorus with great fondness. Twice a year, at spring and autumn, he’d leave London on a Friday evening and meet friends at The Ship in Blaxhall.

At sunrise they’d search for nightingales at Snape, then go on to Minsmere. Sometimes they’d chance upon hobbies on the River Deben or peregrines on Hazelwood Marsh.

They were hosted by Myles Archibald, who worked for a leading publishing company, overseeing the natural history reference titles. With his expert knowledge, and a home in Suffolk, Myles knew all the best places to view bird life.

This was James’ introduction to a pastime which has enthralled him for 10 years, and which has provided an intriguing backdrop to his latest crime novel, Yellowhammer, published this summer.

James Henry

James Henry - Credit: Ant Jones Photography

His first book, Blackwater, was set in West Mersea and Colchester in Essex in the 1980s and explores the rivalry between the police and the military police stationed there.

“I wanted my policeman, Nick Lowry, to be different from the norm. He had been a boxer, and I thought if I also made him a birdwatcher then this would be perceived as an unusual pursuit for a man of that type.” The book was well received and interest in Lowry was such that James felt his second novel should include more details about birds and their habitat.

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“I like to write about the seasons because I enjoy being outdoors and where I live is quite rural. I came to birds late. Previously I had spent all my free time windsurfing.”

He finds birding therapeutic. “As a publisher, and as a reader, it’s nice to use your eyes in a different way. I found that, when I went birdwatching, I used my eyes and my ears and I wasn’t thinking about anything else. It’s very absorbing.”

James Henry

James Henry - Credit: Ant Jones Photography

Seeing yellowhammers in the hedgerows near his home, he thought the name would make a good title for a book and, when he started researching the bird, discovered folklore attached to it.

The novel revolves around the lives of members of the Essex police force, who were introduced in Blackwater. This time they investigate a double murder at a farm. There are several lines of enquiry which take the investigating team across the border to Suffolk, interviewing an inmate at a borstal – inspired by Hollesley Bay prison – and meeting members of the antiques trade, referencing Long Melford and Dedham.

“There are enough locations mentioned for people to picture the setting and to think of it as real,” James says. “But I’ve used some artistic licence to add elements needed for the plot. If you’re too literal, it can get in the way. It’s a work of fiction.”

For the past seven years James has been writing prequels to RD Wingfield’s Frost books. “Wingfield only wrote six books in 30 years, and he died in 2007,” says James. They were turned into a successful TV series, starring David Jason. “People felt it was a shame there weren’t more stories, so I had the idea for a prequel.”

James Henry

James Henry - Credit: Ant Jones Photography

Working in publishing, James knew one of his novelists wanted to write crime, so he suggested they collaborate. “I saw it as a challenge to write a novel, I wanted to see if I could do it.” They merged their names to create ‘James Henry’. “There were advantages in working together,” he says.

“You can talk through plots and we would both pick up different elements of the original books. So I suppose it benefited from an analytical process. But we didn’t write any quicker through there being two of us!” They parted after that first book, but James (real name James Gurbutt) continues to use the pseudonym for his novels.

James completed his last Frost book, Frost at Midnight, the fourth of the prequels, last year, so now will be focusing solely on his own novels, when he finds the time between work, windsurfing and birdwatching.

“I write in fits and starts. I have an appalling attention span. I write on the commute, or in the evenings, or at weekends. If the trains are delayed I’m generally more productive.”

Yellowhammer is published by Quercus

‘Scribble lark’ legend

The yellowhammer inspired poems by Robert Burns and John Clare, and its characteristic song has influenced works by Beethoven and Messiaen. Legend links the yellowhammer to the Devil.

Its tongue was supposed to bear a drop of his blood, and the intricate pattern on the eggs was said to carry a concealed, possibly evil, message. The unusual appearance of the eggs also led to ‘scribble lark’, an old name for the bird.


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