Monday, April 06, 2015

Dead Water by Ann Cleeves

[Link to photos of the Shetlands.]
Detective novelists are in the same boat as sports announcers:  everyone knows the broad outline and moment-to moment rhythm of every basketball game, and the only question is, will the favored team win?  So NPR's sports announcer this morning had to fill that outline with background and themes, Coach K's playoff history with Duke,  Wisconsin's penchant for surprise last-second three-pointers, and the many upsets of this particular round of "March Madness."

With Dead Water, Ann Cleeves extends her Shetland Islands series of detective novels with fresh characters, new angles on the natural and social environment of the craggy archipelago,  and some pleasingly bizarre discoveries of corpses -- equivalent to slam-dunks and three-pointers.

Cleeves alternates points of view, chapter by chapter, giving us each character's take on the events and on the other characters.  It's a useful technique, though some characters are more fun to be with than others. 

Our chief detective Jimmy Perez is in mourning, so there's welcome focus on his diffident sidekick Sandy, whose well-earned modesty makes his foibles endearing, his successes satisfying.

Cleeves fleshes out the character of Perez's boss, an official known as "The Fiscal," taking her out of her office and impeccable wardrobe, and putting her in a boat with a body, in a place where she feels vulnerable.

We also meet Willow, a young woman attractive to both Sandy and Perez, immediately inimical to the Fiscal.  She's tall, frizzy-haired, daughter of hippies, product of commune life, with a "hard edge" from the way the trusting community was betrayed (128).  Willow gives Sandy some insight into why her parents persist on that old commune, or why anyone persists a lifetime in something unrewarding: "How can they admit to themselves that they made a mistake?  It would be as if they've wasted the last thirty years" (129).

When Willow realizes that she's out of her depth, her faltering self-confidence stimulates Perez, who wants "to look after her, to give her small treats" as he does for the child of his late fiancee (284). Learning that the victim, a journalist bent on tell-all exposes, turns out to have been a recent convert to Christianity, Willow's rad-lib atheist background makes her incredulous,.  She wonders with alarm if Perez "might be a god-botherer too," being native to islands where "superstition would be rife" (231).  Perez offers the insight that the victim, meeting a Christian girl with a fortune, may have wanted to believe, to please the girl, and "to become the center of attention again"  (243).

Cleeves engaged me in the texture of her story and its characters, while the line of the plot ramified; chapters 46 and 47, telling us who did it, how, and why -- comprise the least interesting, least believable part of the book. In fact, glancing over the last pages just now, I realize that I'd forgotten the culprit.  Well, no matter:  Final score is 45 to 2.

[See my Detective Fiction page for more about works by Ann Cleeves and others, with capsule book reviews and links to reflective essays.] 

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