Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope is “enjoying” a rare visit to the gym – and whilst in the sauna, realises with a shock that her fellow occupant, Jenny Lister, isn’t asleep, as she first assumed, but dead. Strangled.
As Vera and her team start their investigations, links start to form between Jenny’s death and a case that she was involved with some years previously. Jenny was a social worker and in one of the cases that she was indirectly responsible for, a young mother drowned her child in the bath.
Vera thrives when she has a case to investigate – work is the main part of her life – but might her enthusiasm for tracking down a murderer put someone else in danger?
Another book from The Murder Squad – as I’ve mentioned before, there’s a book coming soon (sitting with pride of place on my coffee table) called The Starlings, consisting for short stories from Chris Simms, Margaret Murphy, Cath Staincliffe, Ann Cleeves, Kate Ellis and Martin Edwards. Regular readers will know that the last two authors have been regulars on the blog and that I’ve recently reviewed books from the first three. So that leaves Ann Cleeves (who happens to be the editor of The Starlings).
Ann Cleeves has been writing crime fiction since 1986 – starting with the George and Molly series (bird-watching mysteries – I really should take a look at these) followed by the Inspector Ramsay books. But it was the books featuring Vera Stanhope – set in the same locale as the Ramsay mysteries but with a change of protagonist – that made her name, along with the Shetland quartet – which now consists of six books. I’ve read one book by Ann before – the impressive Raven Black, the first of the Shetland books – and thinking back, I’m a bit confused as to why I haven’t come back to her work before.
The easiest way to describe the format here makes it sound like a stereotypical crime novel. It’s a police procedural with a detective with issues where the killer is identified by evidence discovered late in the day rather than deciphering clues from the early stages – the reader is encouraged to make an intelligent guess of the identity of the killer to fit the given facts, rather than being given a direct pointer. However, there’s a reason why that stereotype recurs – because it works very well, in the hands of a good writer. And Ann Cleeves is an excellent writer.
The plotting is exemplary – a relatively small cast of suspects revolving around each other and while the killer is a bit guessable, it isn’t obvious and there’s a good use of red herrings towards the end. But it’s the character which lifts this one, in particular the character of Vera herself.
I thought I’d drop in to Book 4 in the series – my dad is a fan and he assured me that it won’t spoil earlier ones – as I feel that I may have done Chris Simms a disservice by reading the first of his books. As with most detective inspectors in fiction, Vera has issues, but not ones that swamp the story but ones that enhance the narrative. Her character, who dominates the tale, makes the difficult scenes of people discussing the case very enjoyable, rather than just bridging chapters to the next reveal. Her loneliness induces sympathy in the reader despite you wanting her to give her a bit of a slap over some of her attitude (which seems to be the cause of said loneliness). Maybe I need to read some more to get a better handle on her character…
And I am going to read more – back to the beginning of the series – as I really enjoyed this one. An excellent example of the genre, so, if you like police procedurals, then this is Highly Recommended. I definitely won’t be leaving it four years before revisiting Ann’s work next time.