The Darkest Evening, by Ann Cleeves
Oh, the joy: a new Vera story! Even though, as I’ve mentioned before in this respect, there is a disparity between the characters in the source material & the televised dramatisations, it is still possible for me to enjoy these stories, and this one doesn’t disappoint; although, that said, there are perhaps one or two signals that Vera might be entering the final phase of her career: I hope not, but as the saying goes, all good things……… This story starts in what is now referred to as ‘the run-up to Christmas’, and Vera herself commences the narrative by uncharacteristically having a minor mishap on the road on her way home from work, despite driving her customary ancient Land Rover, because the road she takes is made treacherous by snow. She discovers an abandoned car, but it is suspicious for two reasons: although the motor isn’t running, the driver’s door has been left open, and a small child has been left strapped into a car seat in the back. Thankfully, the child is unharmed and, apparently, unperturbed by its abandonment [gender thus far unknown] so, despite being not the most maternal of females, Vera decides that the safest thing for the child will be for her to take it to a place of safety, given that no mobile signal is available.
The nearest possible place of safety is a manor house, called Brockburn, which just happens to be the ancestral home of the Stanhope family, of whom Vera herself is one, albeit the daughter of a persona non grata member, Hector. Despite not having visited since she was fifteen years old, and the fact that guests are either already present, or expected for a dinner evening, she is made welcome there by all except the dowager Harriet, whose deceased husband, Crispin, was Hector’s nephew: Hector’s older brother, Sebastian, the heir to the estate, and wife, Elizabeth, are long dead. In short order, by the simple expedient of a nappy change [not by Vera herself!] it is established that the child, approximately a year old, is a boy, and subsequent to her call using a landline to the police station, the owner of the car is identified, but she is a 67-year old woman, so unlikely to be the mother. After speaking to Constance Browne, the mother’s name is given as Lorna Falstone, and she has general permission to borrow Connie’s car, but Connie was unaware until Vera’s phone call that the car was in use that day; no father of the child is available, and according to Connie, Lorna’s relationship with her parents, who also live locally, is somewhat distant. Before Vera can ascertain any further information, a local farmer, Neil Heslop, who had arranged to collect his two daughters, who had been waitressing for the evening at Brockburn, arrives in his tractor to report to the police that he has found a woman’s body: this launches Vera into the next phase of the incident.
What follows thereafter is the regular police procedural [although directed in Vera’s inimitable style] which produces an unravelling of the tensions in the relationships between all the characters in the story, who are all either interviewed informally, or just spoken to casually [but no information goes unremarked], over a period of the next few days, to establish salient facts and eliminate potential suspects, of which there are a few, as usual. There is another murder before very long, and in her usual style, when she has decided the identity of the killer, Vera inadvisedly confronts the person alone, risking her own death in the process, but I think it is safe to reveal that she survives, as I wouldn’t like to frighten devotees of this lovable detective into thinking that this is Vera’s last hurrah! All in all, this is a worthy new member of the canon, and the hardback I read was published in 2020 by Pan Macmillan, London, ISBN 978-1-5098-8951-8.