Ann Cleeves, Cold Earth (2016), White Nights (2008)

I’m woefully behind in posting about books (10!! I don’t think I’ve been that bad in a long, long time), so I’m going to lump these two up. I’ve recently read a Vera mystery by Ann Cleeves, and it proved just as good as the TV series, so that I decided to continue in the same vein for the Summer Book challenge. I’ve watched several seasons of Shetland on TV with Douglas Henshall as detective Jimmy Perez, but had never tried the books before. A lot of the appeal of these mysteries are the beautiful landscapes of the Shetland islands, but not only… (If you don’t want to be sitting in front of this blog post forever, don’t start me on Douglas Henshall… Some people have Brad Pitt or Bradley Cooper… 😊 To each their own…). So I came to the book with high expectations (and also a bit disappointment that I wouldn’t see… Douglas Henshall… but I digress)

Following my own rule of being totally unrully when it comes to series, I had #2 and #8 in the Shetland series (that’s Amazon special offers for you), and I started with… the late one. My reasoning was that the #2 might have had a TV adaptation which I’d seen. Which proved actually wrong (or I am becoming even more forgetful than usual). Jumping back from #8 to #2 was indeed a little spoilery, but having followed the TV series I’m pretty much all spoilt already 😏. But for the sake of clarity I’ll report on them in chronological order.

In White Nights, the action takes place in summer, when the Shetland islands have long days because the sun never sets on those Northern latitudes. People do all sorts of wild things during this period, we’re told, especially as they want to enjoy this period before storms, rains and darkness come back for the rest of the year. The book opens with tourists getting down the boat in Lerwick. An art opening is taking place at an upscale gallery on the beach, organized by famous painter Bella Sinclair, and also presenting some paintings by Fran Hunter, who happens to be… Jimmy Perez’ girlfriend. During the gathering a man with an English accent, whom nobody can really place, makes a bit of a scandal and Jimmy Perez escorts him outside. But the next day, the man is found dead, hanging from a rafter in a nearby shed. As it happens, it’s not suicide, but finding who this man is proves to be a challenge, as is the rest of this investigation. If nobody seems to know the victim, why would anyone want to kill him?

I really enjoyed the story and its quiet pace. Every character is well developed and full of his/her own faults and story, even people you hardly see for more than a few pages. For example, one woman on the island is a shopkeeper who reads novels and is very shy, I’m glad Cleeves took the time to develop her, although one feels that Perez never considers her a suspect. The person in England who knows the victim has her own backstory too. Shetland has small communities where everybody knows everything from their neighbors, and so you wouldn’t think it possible to have so many lies, treasons, bitterness and heavy feelings hidden from one another (and from the police) for years. My only reservation is that the resolution seemed to come out of the blue; although it made sense in terms of motive and opportunity, I still found it a bit unrealistic.

Cold Earth takes place years after White Nights, and let’s cut the chase to state that a lot has happened since then and Jimmy Perez’ girlfriend is no longer Fran Hunter. The opening scene is formidable: a burial on a rainy, winter day in Shetland triggers a landslide, which engulfs the road and a nearby house and kills a woman. A woman in a red silk dress in a cottage that everyone thought empty. Who was she? Perez is obsessed, especially as he learns that she was in fact killed before the landslide. The landslide’s scene struck me, especially as I have recently watched the Crown (season 3) covering the Aberfan disaster in 1966 (I had no idea of this historical event and it is presented in a very powerful way). Here the cemetery is literally pushed by the mountain and the rain into the North Sea, and the mental image is sure to leave a mark.

Perez works on this case with a Scottish police chief detective named Willow, and there’s definitely a spark (and more) between them. That’s the thing about reading books out of order. Now I have to tell you that Fran Hunter is, in fact, dead, and Jimmy Perez is still grieving, and also taking care of Fran’s little girl (in the TV series, the daughter is a lot older, so I was confused for awhile). Will he be able to get over his grief to allow himself all the feelings for Willow? Don’t worry, Ann Cleeves steers clear of the romance territory, we’re still very much in the cozy mystery/ thriller genre and the pace is rather more gripping than in the White Nights. Once again, I have a tiny bit of reservation with the resolution, but I’m totally ok to follow along whatever Douglas Henshall… erh, Ann Cleeves has in store for me.

I enjoyed this one even more than White Nights, and I might get back to read the books in-between, if during the colder months I’m in urgent need of rainy, windswept landscapes, Scottish accent, and Douglas Henshall.

Ann Cleeves, The Darkest Evening (2020)

I watch Vera Stanhope mysteries on TV, but I must confess that I haven’t read many Ann Cleeves mysteries in book format. In fact, I only read one, The Glass Room, and it was back in 2014! This is definitely something I should work on, because Ann Cleeves delivers a solid plot with characters I enjoy, and instead of wasting my time with some stories that hook you up but stretch your credibility beyond reasonable limits (I’m thinking Domestic noir, Girl on the train and friends), I should turn to classic British countryside whodunits such as this one.

The Darkest Evening starts with a snow storm, something that’s always nice to read about when you’re at home in summer (even if the weather is not really summery these days. Vera takes a wrong turn on the road, and she finds an empty car, doors open, stuck in a snow drift. Inside the car is a baby in his snowsuit, unharmed, but not trace of any adult around. Vera takes the toddler to the nearest shelter she finds on that road: her cousins’ big mansion.

If you’re familiar with Vera Stanhope, you probably know of her stinginess, her propensity to call everyone “love” and her dogged determination to solve crimes, even if it means bossing her team around at ungodly hours or in bad weather to follow some clue. I remembered from TV episodes that her father was an excentric and raised her on a lonely, run-down house on the moor. In this book, we get to learn that her father was the black sheep of an otherwise rather wealthy family. The Stanhopes are the lords and ladies of the manor, overlooking the villages and the farms but the manor itself is in bad financial shape.

I enjoyed this book with its numerous characters with secrets and backstories, the gossips and lies and the reveal totally took me by surprise. It’s always fun to see people underestimate Vera because of the way she talks or walks. I could picture Brenda Blethyn playing in this story. I don’t want to wait another 6 years to read another book by Ann Cleeves!

Ann Cleeves, The Glass Room (2012)

After ranting about Tana French, I got back to a classic whodunnit, in the traditional setting of a confined location with a small group of people who all have reasons to murder  the victim. Wanna play Cluedo, anyone? (Wikipedia tells me it’s called Clue in the US)

Here, it’s not the Colonel Mustard who has been killed in the library with a candle stick, it’s a literary critic who has been stabbed in the glass room of a writing retreat. Setting the crime in a writing retreat where aspiring writers are taught about crime fiction is a nice tongue-in-cheek idea. There are a lot of considerations (perhaps Cleeves’ own) about the publishing process and why people want to write. Vera Stanhope, not a big book lover herself, is at first baffled that anyone would be killed over a book, but we know better, right?

The plot is classic, à la Agatha Christie (every suspect is reunited near the end, I was nearly expecting Vera to explain the case in front of everyone like Poirot would, except there was a last twist), but it doesn’t mean it’s easy to guess. I found the pace rather mellow, but as I enjoyed the characters and the police team I was in no hurry to finish.

I have discovered Inspector Vera Stanhope’s adventures thanks to DVDs, and I quite enjoyed Brenda Blethyn’s interpretation, so it was only natural that I’d get back to her creator and books. I’m slowly learning UK’s geography thanks to crime fiction, and the Northumberland coast seems pretty familiar to me (although it seems pretty cold and wet, so I’m not sure we’d go there for a holiday but who knows?). It seems like the perfect setting for a writers’ retreat and it made me consider it with envy.

The Glass Room is my first read by Cleeves, although it’s not the first in the series (I rarely respect series order, because I take whatever the bookshop / library has), but it definitely won’t be the last!