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The Conjuror's Bird, by Martin Davies

Biologist turns sleuth in quest for mystery bird - and its DNA

But a few years later it disappeared from Banks's collection and has never been seen again. The specimen would be of immense value if traced, especially now there is the real prospect of recreating an extinct species through DNA.

Martin Davies has discovered another real-life mystery in Banks's biography. Shortly before Banks's encounter with the Lost Bird, he broke off an engagement and began an affair with an unknown woman, who appeared briefly, dressed in male clothing, awaiting Banks in Madeira. He never arrived, having cancelled his second expedition with Cook. The woman is known to history only as "Miss B".

In this novel, Davies has created two gripping, intercut narratives. The story of Fitz, a modern biologist turned taxidermist sleuthing on the trail of the bird, is entwined with that of Banks's love affair, and how the specimen came to leave his collection. The prose of the 18th-century narrative is unstodgily rendered, and Davies writes with a lyricism that captures the joy of the natural world.

The modern story is more of a chase. Fitz's ex-wife turns up with the offer of untold wealth if he can locate the bird: a billionaire collector is creating a DNA ark of lost creatures. A stray clue sets Fitz and his new girlfriend on the trail, which becomes a race against sinister characters.

Fitz ends up tracing a Lincolnshire family connected with Banks's shadowy mistress. Eventually, a tatty stuffed creature is discovered in a dusty glass case. Is it the lost specimen? And which will win out: venality or science?

Davies's first novel is a highly successful and informative entertainment. Fitz is an attractive creation: an intellectual Philip Marlow, disillusioned, shabby, but clinging to a few shreds of principle. This is fiction, yet underlines the extent of the damage humanity has inflicted on the world - and the treasures we have lost since Banks first gazed upon the wonders of the South Seas.

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