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.

Book Review

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Cragside, by L.J. Ross

What attracted me to this book initially was the very tangential connection I have with the place, which actually exists, although I have never visited it or worked there myself; the latter is more relevant, because some of my acting colleagues have worked there in a rôle-playing capacity, responding directly with members of the public who visit this property, which is managed by the National Trust, although in the story, it has continued in private ownership from its earlier owner in the 1800s, William [later Lord] Armstrong. The description in the book slightly exaggerates the gothic eccentricity of the building, although the book’s cover does show an accurate pictorial rendering, and it does indeed possess a variety of features not present in most large manor houses: it was first built as a shooting lodge for Armstrong in 1862-4, but it was enlarged until assuming its present form in 1882, and it was the first house in the world to be lit using hydroelectric power. The detailed Wikipedia page about it can be found here.

All of Louise Ross’s DCI Ryan stories are set in, or near, glorious Northumberland, where she was born and, again, now lives. Detective Chief Inspector Maxwell Finley-Ryan; generally known just as Ryan, partly to distance himself from his privileged background; is renting a cottage in the grounds of the eponymous stately pile, because his apartment was contaminated by his previous case, when he fought a murderous criminal known as the Hacker, so he has decided to sell the apartment. Ryan’s fiancée, Doctor Anna Taylor, lost more in the way of property in the course of the case than he did, because her Durham riverside cottage was destroyed in a fire, so she is sharing the longterm holiday cottage with Ryan for the summer while they recuperate and think about wedding plans, as well as working: Anna is finalising her latest historical textbook, on Viking Northumberland, before the start of a new academic term. After residing peacefully on the estate for almost four months, they are invited to a murder-mystery-themed party [actually the staff summer party], which is an indication that they have been accepted into “Cragside’s select community”. Very predictably, this is where the story really starts!

During the course of the evening, the current owners’ valet, Victor Swann, a well-preserved man in his seventies, is found dead; initially, the circumstances are interpreted as non-suspicious, and ostensibly & tragically accidental, given that he appeared to have hit his head as a result of a fall down some stone cellar steps, but Ryan—no doubt using his detective’s well-honed sixth sense [something most of them seem to possess: the good ones, anyway]—has indefinable suspicions. He then has to assert his authority to lead the enquiries, and before long, another death occurs: although it could also have been accidental, it would seem much less likely than the previous one. Up to this point, the reader is left to wonder how the event described in the prologue, which occurred forty-one years previously, in the summer of 1975, connects with the current scenario: a ship under construction on Tyneside explodes in a fireball, killing many shipbuilding workers, and consequently leaving many children fatherless; but it should not be too difficult, as the narrative progresses, to arrive at the conclusion that the deaths are somehow connected with someone’s obsessive quest for revenge, although this does not become clear until quite late in the story.

Overall, this is a well-constructed story, and the perpetrator was not at all obvious: it could have been easy to be misled, which is the mark of a good writer. Ross has written fifteen DCI Ryan stories, including this one, so there is plenty of opportunity to become familiar with the main characters; she has also written three novels featuring the character of forensic psychologist Doctor Alexander Gregory, who is based in Ireland. Criminal profilers is another popular crime genre, these days. Despite Northumberland famously being Vera territory, there is surely room for another senior detective based in the same area, and Ryan is, necessarily of course, a horse of a different feather than the rumpled & overweight beloved detective creation of Ann Cleeves. The paperback I read was published in 2020 [2017, LJ Ross] by Dark Skies Publishing, ISBN 978-1-9123-1006-7.

Book Review

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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.