<b>The naturalist's holy grail</b>Martin Davies constructs his suspenseful new novel from two separate stories, both fictional, but one of which rests on actual events of the 18th century. The relationship between past and present is established in an adventure of discovery, reminiscent of A.S. Byatt's splendid literary novel, <i>Possession</i>. In this case, however, the focus is natural history and less directly, art.
The contemporary chapters are narrated by London taxidermist Fitz Fitzgerald, who quickly informs us that he also teaches Natural Science and rents his upper floor to a Swedish student named Katya. In the first few pages, Davies introduces the reader to major players, real and fictional, and to the facts upon which he builds the story. We learn that The Mysterious Bird of Ulieta was discovered in 1774 by Captain Cook's expedition to the South Seas. Subsequently, the distinguished natural scientist Joseph Banks acquired the specimen, but its fate thereafter is unknown.
<b>The Conjurer's Bird</b> is premised on the characters' belief that the specimen still exists, and they compete to be first to find it. Obsession and passion drive all the characters, real and imagined. Fitz and his associates are obsessed with following fragile leads to The Mysterious Bird of Ulieta and are passionate about their subject. Human love proves inseparable from love of the search. Joseph Banks, who became famous during his lifetime, also pursues his vocation compulsively. Like Fitz, the famous naturalist is caught in a web involving love for a woman and the demands of his work.
From Banks' broken engagement, which is documented, Davies creates a romantic yet believable story that introduces art into the world of nature. Fitz's position as protagonist assures us that his motives are honorable. Until the last page, however, we are not sure about the motives of others. Still, Davies' characters are sufficiently complex to evoke the reader's sympathy, even though at times we may be inclined to dislike them.
A producer for BBC television, Davies has written two previous novels that feature Sherlock Holmes' housekeeper. In <b>The Conjurer's Bird</b> he has created an enchanting fiction that will delight nature lovers as well as readers of good mystery. <i>N.
A. Ransom writes from Nashville.</i>