Book Review

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Blue Lightning, by Ann Cleeves

This is one of Cleeves’s earlier Shetland stories, and it seems odd that I haven’t already reviewed one of them: I feel sure I must have read at least one of them already, because the characters are familiar to me, not exclusively because of the later TV series which I have watched, but I shall have to introduce my readers to the series here, which is not necessarily a bad thing, given that it is an earlier story, as stated above. Jimmy Perez is a very different character from Ann Cleeves’s other, by now, famous one, Vera, the overweight but canny Northumbrian Detective Inspector; as the name might suggest, he is of Spanish ancestry, a couple of generations back, but these forebears have lived on the smaller island of Fair Isle which, although considered as part of the Shetland island group, is actually some 50km south of the mainland, almost exactly midway between there & the northernmost Orkney island, North Ronaldsay. There are normally regular connections between them, by ’plane, and boat: the Good Shepherd, captained by Perez’s father, James.

Perez is normally based in Shetland’s capital, Lerwick, near where he has an old fisherman’s cottage, but in this story, he is marooned on his home island because of a storm, which has severed connections to the mainland, quite common in this location, and he is there with his fiancée, Fran, whom he is introducing to his family, before their forthcoming wedding. Of course, this wouldn’t be a crime story without a murder, so almost within hours of Perez & Fran arriving, a woman is murdered. She is the scientist at the field centre, which is in the buildings below the north lighthouse, which was automated some years ago, on the island; people normally assume that she is the centre’s administrator, but that is actually her husband, Maurice, some years older than she is. It is convenient that Perez is on the island, but he soon feels that, despite his being an inspector, the case will too much for him, notwithstanding that forensic support will not be available for at least a couple of days; similarly, it will not be possible to remove the body for post mortem examination for the same length of time, even by emergency helicopter.

The fact that there are no obvious immediate suspects, apart from the victim’s Emo stepdaughter, with whom she had a fractious relationship—but not one necessarily one with murderous intentions from the girl—means that Perez has to work slowly [although that is his usual style, to be fair] and interview all the possible perpetrators, which is actually nearly all of the occupants of the field centre. Perez even learns that his father could be involved, but he is unwilling to go so far as to include him in the list of suspects, without convincing evidence. Part of the early narrative is described, albeit in the third person, from the point of view of the centre’s cook, who is there for her second season, and very much enjoying it, until the scientist, Angela, exceeds her authority—perhaps coincidentally because her husband is seen to be somewhat ineffectual—by telling Jane, the cook, that her services will no longer be required after the end of the current season. We know from Jane’s thoughts [assuming they are genuine] that she is not the killer, and before long, we learn that she thinks she knows who the killer is, but she wants to ‘crack the case’ herself, rather than passing on what she knows & believes to Perez.

There is more action before the killer is identified; and there is a significant & tragic dénouement which I cannot, of course, reveal, but as is often the case, several people turn out to be hiding aspects of their past, and how they might be connected with other characters in the story; there is also the pastime of birdwatching, which can be undertaken quite obsessively for a variety of reasons, and this also has a bearing on this story. Cleeves makes the claustrophobic atmosphere brought about by the enforced isolation on this small island very much a part of the story, and it is not difficult to understand people’s desire to escape it as soon as possible, after the violence. Whether Cleeves will write any more stories for Perez, now that Douglas Henshall has departed the televised version, remains to be seen, but there are at least seven Shetland stories, so there are plenty to be enjoyed with him as the lead character. The paperback I read was published in 2015 [2010] by Pan Books [Macmillan], an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, ISBN 978-1-4472-7447-6.

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