The hunt for an ornithological marvel is entwined with a period love story.
BBC producer Davies (Mrs. Hudson and the Spirits’ Curse, 2004, etc.) roots his twin-pronged story in historical fact. Captain Cook’s second voyage of discovery produced the only known specimen of the Mysterious Bird of Ulieta, which ended up stuffed in the collection of Sir Joseph Banks, the naturalist who accompanied Cook on his first voyage. Here, “the rarest bird ever recorded” becomes the subject of a double-crossing, three-way race involving unconventional British academic Fitz and his lovely young sidekick/lodger Katya. Invited to help find the bird by Gabby, Fitz’s old love (and wife) and her new, rich partner Karl Anderson, they think they are tracing a source of DNA to be added to the private Gene Ark project. But the bird’s display case is also reputed to contain rare botanical paintings, thereby bringing slippery American sleuth Emeric Potts to the party. Interleaved with the story of Joseph Banks and his mistress Mary Burnett, the modern tale moves sluggishly. Much greater animation infuses the historical chapters recounting the impossible love between Banks and the disgraced countrywoman he saves from penury and shame. Burnett moves to London as Banks’s kept woman and their briefly transcendent involvement inspires his suggestion that she accompany him on the second Cook expedition, disguised as a man. Burnett, whose drawing and painting skills are exceptional, meets the ship in Madeira, but Banks is not on board, having withdrawn, insulted, after a change in cabin arrangements. Although reunited, the couple can never marry and after the birth of their daughter Sophia, Burnett slips out of the picture, taking the gift of the bird. Back in the present, Fitz dupes Anderson and Potts. The paintings were lost in a fire; the bird will stay in the loving possession of Sophia’s descendants.
A good-natured combination of hammy modern and more sensitive historical mysteries, amounting to something rather less fabulous than The Maltese Falcon.