I spent a great evening hearing about two fictional British detectives yesterday. Two totally different people – the frumpy, middle-aged Vera Stanhope (pronounced Stannup) from Northumberland, and the descendant a Spanish sailor from the Armada who was shipwrecked at Fairisle in the Shetlands.
Both were created by Ann Cleeves, who had escaped for the evening from a writers retreat at St Hilda’s college in Oxford to come and talk to us at Mostly Books in Abingbdon.
Anne talked at length about her two detectives, how they came to life and the experiences that gave her the ideas for the novels. Ann was really witty and entertaining, telling us about some of the funny little details that she believes make novels. She also told us of her love of translated crime novels – particularly Henning Mankell’s spectacular beginnings, (cf Sidetracked).
She also spoke about the experience of having them transfer to the small screen: Vera is 2 series in on ITV starring Brenda Blethyn; and Shetland’s Jimmy Perez will be on the BBC this November, portrayed by Dougie Henshall, (who lacks the Jimmy of the book’s Mediterranean ancestry, but Ann thinks will be great). Although having had to hand over her characters for the TV series, Ann was very pleased to have been involved throughout the process, and is particularly delighted that parts of Shetland were filmed in situ, bringing work there and helping to promote tourism. She met her husband while working on Fairisle as a cook at a bird sanctuary many years ago, and they return to the Shetlands regularly.
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Which brings me to Raven Black – the first novel in the Shetland Quartet…
It’s New Year’s Eve and Magnus is ready for visitors, revellers, not that he’s expecting any, but you never know. He doses, then he’s woken up by a banging on the door …
‘Come in,’ he shouted. ‘Come in, come in.’ He struggled to his feet, stiff and aching. They must already be in the storm porch. He heard the hiss of their whispers.
The door was pushed open, letting in a blast of freezing air and two young girls, who were as gaudy and brightly coloured as exotic birds. He saw that they were drunk. They stood, propping each other up. They weren’t dressed for the weather yet their cheeks were flushed and he could feel the health of them like heat. One was fair and one was dark. The fair one was the prettier, round and soft, but Magnus noticed the dark one first; her black hair was streaked with luminescent blue. More than anything, he would have liked to reach out and touch the hair, but he knew better than to do that. It would only scare them away. (page 2)
It’s not giving the game away to tell you that one of the girls will soon end up dead, and that, for various reasons, suspicion will fall on Magnus who has a murky past. Inspector Jimmy Perez has to get the investigation started, and call in the crime scene experts from the mainland; it’ll be his first murder case. The pressure is on to solve it before Up Helly Aa – the Shetlanders’ Viking fire festival later in the month. They send in a team from Aberdeen to speed things up, and Inspector Taylor, a hyperactive Scouser, takes charge. He and Perez take to one another and work together to solve the case, (working together – unusual for a crime novel!). Taylor’s expertise and Perez’s local knowledge will both be needed to unravel the tangled webs of relationships on this island where everyone knows everyone, or at least think they do.
As Ann explained, the major theme of this novel is outsiders. The old guy Magnus is an outsider because of his past; the murdered girl’s family are incomers from London; and Perez – although an islander, is from Fairisle outside the main island group, and with his Mediterranean heritage is also an outsider of a sort. That’s not to say that Jimmy doesn’t know how Lerwick’s society works though – when he was eleven he’d had to come from Fairisle to stay with the other pupils from outlying islands in the hostel for school. Perez is conflicted between his love for Fairisle and the possibility of returning to become a crofter, and the love of his job and the possibility of a more exciting life.
I liked Jimmy Perez very much, and am really looking forward to the next in the quartet, White Nights, which is set at midsummer. Raven Black won Ann the first Duncan Lawrie Dagger Award (which replaced the CWA gold dagger). If you’re not read any of the Quartet, Ann recommends starting at the beginning, whereas the Vera novels are more standalone.
Despite being a crime novel set in the depths of winter, Shetland is a really alluring setting. That, combined with Jimmy and a plot that is strong on interrelationships made Raven Black a brilliant read. (9/10)
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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Raven Black (Shetland Quartet 1) by Ann Cleeves. Pub Pan Macmillan. Pbk 320 pages.
White Nights (Shetland Quartet 2)
The Crow Trap (Vera Stanhope 1)
Vera Series 1-2 [DVD]