Friday, July 08, 2016

Ann Cleeves' Vera Stanhope:
Silent Voices and Harbour Street

Detective Vera Stanhope, we read, "was large and shambolic, with bare legs and blotchy skin.  She never wore make-up. Vera looked poor"(SV 46).  She huffs and puffs up a stairway in pursuit of a suspect; at home, alone, she drinks herself into a stupor at the end of a frustrating day's investigations. She sometimes sees herself through others' eyes: "ageing, ugly, slow.  Felt their pity" (SV 216).

In the series of novels by detective writer Ann Cleeves, Vera has intelligence, intuition, a remarkable ability to gain the confidences of witnesses, and prickly relationships with her underlings.  There's Holly, privileged, younger, prettier, fitter, ambitious; Vera savors moments when she can set Holly down a peg.  There's Charlie, a slovenly middle-aged man who drinks too much, but doggedly gets the information she asks him to find.  And then there's Joe, handsome, young, ambitious, father of two young daughters. His wife Sal, frequently mentioned but never encountered in the two books I've read, resents Vera's hold on her husband.  For her part, Vera takes perverse pleasure in keeping him at work early and late, to take him home for a drink and planning session long after work is over.

Cleeves tells her stories in third person through the perceptions of Vera and Joe mostly,  occasionally through Holly.  We get to know the victims deeply through the detectives' interviews with suspects.

In another series of crime novels, Cleeves has made locations in the remote Shetland Islands into a pervasive character alongside the human ones (see my Crime Fiction page); more than halfway through Silent Voices, though, I had no sense of where we were.  In fact, I had to look at Cleeves' website to learn that the Vera novels are set in Northumberland, a wide area bordering Scotland on the east shore of Great Britain.

In the Vera books, we do get to know the social substructure of peculiar neighborhoods.  In Silent Voices, it's a village bookended by a power couple in a big house at one end, a cottage with the town's pariah at the other.  In Harbour Street, a murder on the commuter train leads us to a boarding house, only residence remaining on a street of small-scale industry and boarded-up businesses. 

The fun in these novels is in the interplay of Vera and her detectives, and in the slow uncovering of the victim's past.  Events from two to twenty years ago have impacts on the investigations, giving the stories texture.  I have to admit that Cleeves has trouble with the denouement in every one of her novels that I've read.  After combing out so many possible motives and means from the cast of characters, Cleeves has trouble tying all the loose ends together.  In each of these books, there's a connection and motivation that I just don't buy.   

That makes five per cent of a novel that's a chore to read, ninety-five per cent that draws me on, chapter after chapter.

The two novels by Ann Cleeves are Silent Voices (2010) and Harbour Street (2014). I read the novels on Kindle.

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