Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Moth Catcher

The grownup mystery novelists I liked best in sixth grade contrived murders with a nursery rhyme theme, or killings in locked rooms, the stagier, the better. Later I learned to appreciate nuanced characterizations and textured social commentary in the investigations of more mundane crime, but I missed the kind of macabre puzzle that used to give me a shiver of delight. Ann Cleeves hits both sweet spots with The Moth Catcher.

Detective Vera Stanhope is investigating the murder of a young man found outside the grand estate where he was house-sitting, when she finds in the victim's attic room another corpse, a middle-aged man in a grey suit.  What connects them?  Did the same killer do them both in?  In what order?  In order to do what?

Another turn of the screw: both victims shared a passion for moths.  The young man set traps to draw moths to the garden; what drew these men to their deaths?

Ripples from this set of bizarre circumstances widen to encompass social and personal implications for Vera and the young detectives on her team, Joe Ashworth and Holly Clarke.  In the valley surrounding the garden, three retired couples in newly-developed homes form an enclave of self-styled "hedonists," among whom Vera senses "desperation" to feel satisfied with the lives they've led (108). The circle widens to London where the man in the gray suit did IT for a social-work agency; to a prison, where the incarcerated daughter of one "hedonist" couple is preparing to return home; and farther out still to the home of the young victim's mother, a stately woman of substance and means.

As Cleeves put Joe Ashworth's own daughter in jeopardy to bring him out more in a previous novel, she stretches Holly in this one.   Holly suddenly thinks, "I don't have to live in a northern city with people who despise me, helping strange middle-aged men undress the dead.  I'm smart and young enough to make a change....  I don't want to end up old and single and married to the job, like Vera Stanhope." (87)   In this early mid-life crisis, Holly shocks herself by her own revulsion at an elderly woman with dementia. "A thought flashed unbidden through Holly's mind. Why do they allow old people like that out in the community? Wouldn't she be more comfortable in a home somewhere?  Knowing that it wasn't the woman's comfort that she was thinking of, but her own." (120)  

While the two young detectives confront some of their own demons, Vera Stanhope seems to be having a great time.  Vera pauses in a moment of panic to realize what she's feeling:
An excitement.  Because this was a new case that was different from anything she'd ever worked before.  Two bodies, connected, but not lying together.  And nothing made her feel as alive as murder. (22)

But for Vera, as for any good mystery novelist, murder is only a pretext for the joy of constructing a narrative from the characters and the given "facts" of the case.  Much later, Joe watches Vera with admiration, as she does what any good writer does:

This was a masterclass in witness interrogation.  The individuals who'd seemed little more than puppets previously - the dutiful wife, the jolly husband, the dying artist, the grumpy academic - seemed to become real in front of his eyes.  Her words blew life into them. (354)
Holly thinks her boss has no life, but that may change, as she experiences her own Vera moment:

Then, her fingers resting on the keyboard and without any conscious effort, suddenly she was inside Lizzie's head, seeing the world through her eyes.  She knew precisely what the young woman was planning.  This flash of intuition was dizzying and was so unexpected that Holly sat for a moment without moving. (362)
I have no doubt that author Anne Cleeves, at some point of writing this story, rested her fingers on a keyboard and found herself suddenly inside a character's head, "blowing life" into "the dutiful wife, the jolly husband," etc. It's that imaginative insight into character that makes Vera such a good detective for fiction, and her author such a good read. 

Cleeves, Anne. The Moth Catcher. Kindle edition.

More About Anne Cleeves in this Blog

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