Friday, December 19, 2014

Blue Lightning: Ann Cleeves Thriller

[See photos of the Shetlands.]
For the fourth in her series of thrillers set in the Shetland Islands, Ann Cleeves follows her detective Jimmy Perez when he brings his fiancee Fran home to meet the parents.  "Home" for him is Fair Isle, one of the northernmost of the British Isles, rocky and remote.  His parents want to lure him back to their isolated community; he feels guilty for disappointing them.  She wants to like the quaint, provincial life, so different from her London background.  To please Jimmy, she becomes the life of the party that Jimmy's parents throw at the local bird reserve on the campus of the village's lighthouse.  Murder of the celebrity birder who runs the reserve -- white feathers twined in the corpse's luxuriant long hair -- turns this situation into a story.

Reading Blue Lightning at the same time that I'm re-reading Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express (ca. 1930), I'm struck by one all-important difference.  Christie focuses on the thread of the investigation.  Characters' quirks, descriptions of spaces, and dialogue are all about matters pertaining to the crime, as Poirot selects one seemingly odd detail from every encounter to fit his evolving theory of the solution to a puzzle.  I just read, for example, how an oil stain on a passport, mentioned once in passing, may be obscuring a character's initial.  (See my reflection on Christie's work on page and screen.)

For Cleeves, the thread of the investigation is only a unifying feature for exploration of the place and its characters.   Cleeves' chapters alternate among various "central consciousnesses,"  often coming at a certain incident from two or more perspectives, told by an expressive third person narrator cognizant of the characters' memories and deepest insecurities.  This works well, though the field of suspects narrows every time we learn that another character has no clue -- not that this matters much to enjoying the story.

Cleeves is also interested in the atmosphere.  Her title comes from Shakespeare's description of a supernatural storm in Julius Caesar, matched in this novel by the relentless winds and thrashing rains that give the first chapters of this book a feeling of dread and claustrophobia.

Without spoilers, I can't tell about a couple of effective jolts that we receive during the story, made strong by Cleeves' care to draw us into the characters' world.

Here's a link to my reflection on the first three of Cleeves' Shetland thrillers, and a link to a reflection on the first chapters of Raven Black, comparing them in style to a best-seller by Mary Higgins Clark.

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