Book Review

Photo by Walter Martin on Unsplash

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.

Book Review

Photo by Johnny Briggs on Unsplash

Deadlock, by Quintin Jardine

In common with the other one of Jardine’s books which I have reviewed, The Roots of Evil, which immediately precedes this one in the timeline, there is a plethora of characters, and their relationships & individual characteristics might become more comfortably familiar after reading a couple more [and there are plenty to go at!], but I still struggle, occasionally, to always remember who does what [if job designations aren’t given], and how they are related; but I feel I am, at least, starting to get to know them. As this is set in Scotland, and the structure of policing there is somewhat different from that of England, there is a division of labour between the two primary police bases in Glasgow and Edinburgh, although it is not unknown for officers from both cities to work on the same cases, as happens here, eventually. I use this qualification advisedly, because I was beginning to wonder, by the time I had nearly reached the half-way point in the book, if I was going to read about anything other than the complex personal & professional relationships between some of the characters, and the machinations arising therefrom.

The crime aspect of the narrative starts slowly, and is not actually recognised as such immediately: Bob Skinner, now happily retired from his Chief Constable position with Police Scotland, is an executive with an international media organisation, although he still maintains contact with officers he has latterly been a mentor for, and is prepared to offer advice on cases, if requested; he is also still a Special Constable. The pandemic is now a regular feature of recently-written stories, and as part of his personal public service remit, he joins a group set up by a friend, author Matthew Reid, for the purpose of helping local elderly people who might be struggling in one way or another as a result of the lockdown [which doesn’t seem to unduly restrict Skinner’s freedom of movement, however]. Unfortunately, two of these ‘clients’ die in quick succession and, whilst the circumstances of their deaths don’t give rise to any cause for concern from all the usual authorities, Bob Skinner’s instincts begin to worry him; the husband of one of the deceased also died not so long ago but, again, in ostensibly unsuspicious circumstances, and this fact is brought to the attention of a mid-rank police officer, by a daughter who persists in thinking something was missed in the original verdict of natural causes. The only common link between these cases that can be found, initially, is the presence of a young lad on a bicycle, but no-one knows who he is, or what his involvement might be.

The story, whose only crime-related interest hitherto has been this low-level investigation, is then given a significant injection of excitement when a particularly gruesome murder is discovered in Glasgow, and there are implications of security service involvement. Bob Skinner still has connections with MI5 which, as far as the public is aware anyway, does not operate in Scotland, so there is an obvious incentive for this status quo to be maintained. Unfortunately, it soon becomes apparent that the recently retired Chief Constable, Andrew Martin, could be the perpetrator but, given his previous status, and his current political ambition—reckoned to be a shoo-in—this is an investigation that will have to be handled extremely sensitively; his fractious relationship with Bob Skinner doesn’t help, of course: Martin had a liaison with Skinner’s daughter, Alex, while he was still married to another police officer, which doesn’t endear Martin to Skinner in any way. Until very near the end of the narrative, it appears that the deaths of the elderly people, if they were, in fact, murders, might have been motiveless crimes, but Skinner discovers that someone of his acquaintance has been deviously clever: identifying the person is one thing, but can the person be found, given that the person has made very strenuous and well planned efforts to disappear?

I am very happy for a narrative to unfold slowly, providing a reason for a crime story is presented before too long; otherwise, it is a story about a potentially confusing network of personal relationships which, on its own, is not really my cup of tea. This story really delivers, however, using the pandemic as a plausible background to the story, and I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that the plotting, and the planning of the killer are worthy of the Mistress of Murder, Agatha Christie: there is even a major clue in the narrative, but of course, hindsight is very useful in recognising this, and I will certainly not be revealing it! A new Bob Skinner story, The Bad Fire, is already available, so I will eagerly await its arrival in my local library! The paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021] by HEADLINE PUBLISHING GROUP, London, ISBN 978-1-4722-8285-9.

Book Review

Fabrizio Verrecchia on Unsplash

Paris Spring, by James Naughtie

Listeners to BBC Radio Four (of whom I have to confess I am not one) will very likely be familiar with this name, but as a presenter, rather than an author (unless either or both of his novels to 2016 has/have been reviewed on that august station). His previous, first, novel was called The Madness of July, and it also featured this book’s main character, Will Flemyng, and was set in the mid-1970s; it garnered a 2.78 star rating on Goodreads. This current book is a prequel to the first, being set in 1968, and Flemyng is stationed in Paris, at a very volatile time for the world in general, but for Paris in particular, with revolution in the air. A handful of years later, Flemyng will be a Foreign Office minister, but the use of the term stationed should indicate that previously, he was, according to the blurb on the back of Paris Spring, a “secret servant at the British Embassy”. Will has two brothers: Mungo, who lives at the ancestral home (not a mansion, however) in Scotland, and lives a relatively hermetic life; and Abel, who does a similar job to Will, but for the Americans, for reasons which are best explained by the narrative.

The primary element of the narrative is the contact that is established between Will and a young man who presents himself as being implicitly East German, and who obviously wants to either set himself up as a contact on the communist side for the British, or who perhaps even wants to defect. This is where the aspect of the book which I found slightly irritating is evident; it soon becomes apparent that the young man is not what he seems, but establishing exactly what he is becomes complicated by the elliptical nature of the dialogue: by this, I mean that people & situations tend to be alluded to, rather than specified clearly. Perhaps Naughtie is trying to emulate the author who must indubitably be a guide for him in these endeavours: John le Carré, given that there is a cast of Secret Intelligence Service bods who don’t seem to be able to operate without letting their own tensions and social resentments influence their activities. Having said that, Flemyng’s superior, Freddy Craven, as well as being experienced & capable is a likeable and avuncular figure who is very protective towards Will, and is clearly and easily worth whatever he might have been paid, not that he would have accepted that this was the primary motive for his employment.

The irritating nature of the dialogue aside, the tension in the story develops quite nicely, building on a slightly unexpected murder in a world-famous location, and the revelation of the identity of the young man who makes contact with Will on a local train at the beginning is something of a surprise; this is after the three brothers have spent more time together intermittently than the schedules of the two peripatetic siblings have allowed hitherto, and this is something of a relief for the predominantly homebound brother, who is almost permanently concerned about Will; although his lifestyle, and at best sporadic contact were primary causative reasons for that. I found the dénouement, with the death of one of the main characters genuinely moving, so overall I would say that this novel is a success, and I would relish reading the first book ‘in the right order’, chronologically speaking; other readers might not find the elliptical dialogue quite so irritating! Paris Spring was published by Head Of Zeus Ltd. in 2016, ISBN 9781784080211 .