The worlds of egg-collecting and wildlife crime may be relatively esoteric, but Hammer crafts a decent thriller out of his material, largely by making much of Lendrum’s feats of derring-do: abseiling down Patagonian cliff faces, dangling from helicopters in Canada and the like. He works hard to structure the book as a classic “cop vs criminal” story, the dastardly but “athletic” Lendrum being (in stark variance with photos available online) “trim and good-looking, with large, deep-set eyes”; his righteous nemesis, Andy McWilliam of the UK’s National Wildlife Crime Unit, “a burly man with . . . a square jaw, and a thatch of tousled grey hair”. The two are profiled in great detail, though McWilliam’s role as Lendrum’s dramatic antagonist is somewhat undercut by the fact that he’s not actually summoned to play any part in his 2019 trial.
The Falcon Thief is a fast-moving narrative, written to entertain, yet Hammer weaves into it enough hard-to-find literature to make it a valuable primer on oology, raptor biology, Rhodesia, oriental falconry and the birth of wildlife law enforcement in Britain. The author retraces his subject’s most ambitious trips to reconstruct them in breathless detail.
One caveat about this absorbing, entertaining and well-written book: Hammer’s grasp of ornithology is shaky. There is no such species as black pelican; lapwings don’t dive for fish, they eat invertebrates; harrier hawks don’t occur in Britain; a ‘lesser gull’ is really a lesser black-backed gull; they are — oddly perhaps — called Canada geese, not ‘Canadian geese’; and lesser yellowlegs are not woodland birds but waders. Most erroneous of all is what Hammer chooses to call ‘the fragile, symbiotic relationship between man and the wild’. Almost every falconer we meet in this book suggests that no such relationship exists.