Friday, November 28, 2014

She Knows her Place: Ann Cleeves' Shetland Island Thrillers

Place always preceded plot for the late novelist P. D. James, remembered this week with thanksgiving by crime fiction afficionados.  Her legacy lives on in a series by Ann Cleeves.

Cleeves makes the Shetland Islands (northwest of Great Britain) more than a backdrop for novels Raven Black (2006), White Nights (2008), Red Bones (2009) and Blue Lightning (2010 - I've just begun to read it).  Certainly the starkness of life that clings to the rocky edges of these remote islands provides striking scenery: black ravens swarm a corpse on the snow, waves higher than a house crash against the craggy coastline, fog approaches a ferry boat and swallows the horizon, a farmhouse on a spur of land overlooks the sea on three sides, a row of homes and little shops comprise an entire village, eerie never-ending twilight casts shadows on an incongruously remodeled art gallery, relentless storm winds buffet a repurposed lighthouse while rain hits the trembling window panes "like bullets." 

But the location shapes the action, too.  First, where communities are so small and routinely immobilized by rough winds, everyone's into everyone else's business.  Old rumors define life for the developmentally challenged Magnus (Raven Black), for the artist who once hosted a sort of artsy-hippie-commune (White Nights), and for the relatives of a scandalous widow (Red Bones).  Cleeves folds layers of culture into her setting:  a clash of the ancient and the contemporary in a touristy pagan festival, a pop star who trades on his quaint background, and an archaeological excavation of violent deaths from the 16th and 20th centuries.  Then, as islanders are infiltrated by contemporary commerce and by visitors from "down South" in London, opportunism and class resentments provide motives for characters to behave badly, a plus for any mystery series.

Ambivalence to the islands gives detective Jimmy Perez something to care about besides the crime at hand.  Dark-skinned descendant of a Spanish sailor shipwrecked from the doomed attack of the Armada  in 1588, he's both native and outsider, taciturn and curious, diffident and intuitive.  He falls in love with the divorced mother who discovers the corpse in Raven Black, and ever after wonders what his life has to offer her, a sophisticated artist transplanted from London.  He is nagged by the thought that he has disappointed his parents by choosing not to ride the fishing boats with his father and the rest of "the boys" on Fair Isle. 

The most exotic location of all, in my favorite pages of the series so far, turns out to be the one most familiar to readers: a city street.  It's strange only to deputy Sandy Wilson, lowbrow island native. On impulse, Perez has sent him to interview a victim's mother in London. "[Sandy] was still astonished that his boss had trusted him to do the interview, felt extreme pride and extreme fear in the space of a minute" (217).  Afraid of the underground because it's "unnatural being shut in a tunnel" and "too complicated," Sandy boards a bus where he can't get help from any sympathetic fellow-passenger because their eyes are closed or they don't speak English.  More closed off from the horizon than at any time in his island life, he feels claustrophobia and "a feeling that the city was endless; there would be no escape from it" (218).  Afraid of being flattened on the sidewalk if he doesn't keep pace, struggling to make the receptionist understand his thick accent, lost in the grandeur of his room at the Travel Inn, he feels even more out of his depth when confronted by the witness, a wealthy member of Parliament who suppresses her own emotions when she mentions her late daughter's many letters to her:
       Sandy wondered fleetingly if he should try writing to his mother.  'I don't suppose you kept her letters?'
       'I did actually.  Isn't that sad?  I have them all in a folder.  When I feel especially lonely I re-read them.  And do you know, she probably thought I just glanced at them then threw them away.'
       Sandy didn't know what to say so he kept quiet.  That was what Perez did.  'Just give her time and sense that you're really listening to her.' (221)
Silence works for Sandy.  Within moments, the mother trusts him, and he has the presence of mind to request the SIM card containing the daughter's distraught voice in a final phone message.  Then the mother explains how she'd been so relieved of constant worry when her mentally-troubled daughter had moved to the remote Shetlands:
...She paused, breathed in a sob.  'Now I'd give anything to have the worry back.'
       Sandy held his glass and sipped the wine.  He wished he could say something to make it easier for the woman.  Perez should have come.  He would have known what to say.
       "Do you think Hattie killed herself?'  Gwen's question came at him so hard and fast that it made him blink.
       'No,' he said without thinking.  Then, blushing, realizing what he'd done, 'But you mustn't take any notice of me.  That's just my opinion and I get things wrong all the time.'
       She looked at him.  'I'm grateful that you've come all this way.'  (225)
Following this great personage's benediction for his arrival at a new maturity, Sandy contemplates taking the Underground back to his hotel, but chooses instead to walk through "the mild city night all the way back to his hotel" (226). 

Sandy's more fun, and more appealing, than the snippy London-based detective Taylor who intrudes on Perez's earlier investigations. Sandy's rise from comic bit player to a role of trust and responsibility makes Red Bones the most emotionally rewarding of the series, so far as I've read.

So place may define the story, but character fills it.  Plot comes in distant third.  When all was revealed at the end of any one of these novels, I have to admit that I only half-understood the motives and means, content to have lived awhile among these islands and their people.

See some of my other posts about Cleeves's works:

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