In this paper we develop an in-depth analysis of non-reversible Markov chains on denumerable state space from a similarity orbit perspective. In particular, we study the class of Markov chains whose transition kernel is in the similarity orbit of a normal transition kernel, such as that of birth–death chains or reversible Markov chains. We start by identifying a set of sufficient conditions for a Markov chain to belong to the similarity orbit of a birth–death chain. As by-products, we obtain a spectral representation in terms of non-self-adjoint resolutions of identity in the sense of Dunford  and offer a detailed analysis on the convergence rate, separation cutoff and L2-cutoff of this class of non-reversible Markov chains. We also look into the problem of estimating the integral functionals from discrete observations for this class. In the last part of this paper we investigate a particular similarity orbit of reversible Markov kernels, which we call the pure birth orbit, and analyse various possibly non-reversible variants of classical birth–death processes in this orbit.