Perhaps it's because with a murder mystery we can be pretty sure that the narrative will carry us along whether we actively engage with the plot or not. And there will be be resolution. Maybe it's the reassurance of that certainty which makes a detective novel seem so appealing when one is seeking to escape, briefly, the vagaries of real life.
All rather bizarre if one thinks about it - so it’s probably far better not to.
Suffice to say that last time I needed a bit of therapeutic snuggling under the duvet with a good read and frequent large mugs of tea, I reached for Hidden Depths by Ann Cleeves, which had been sitting in the TBR mountain for a while.
It’s certainly the kind of book which rewards reading straight-off, and I found it very enjoyable in the all the right ways. Cleeves writes in a wonderfully lucid and apparently effortless style. Her characters – even the minor ones – are drawn with psychological and emotional insight. Yes, of course they’re pawns in the skilfully plotted game that Cleeves is playing with her readers and with Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope, but they’re satisfyingly well-rounded pawns.
The book is set on the Northumberland coast (so I found myself back in the landscape of The Sea Lady sooner than I’d expected), and there’s a terrific sense of place and atmosphere. Four of the principal characters are keen bird-watchers, whose varying degrees of obsessive behaviour are convincingly portrayed. When I read more about Ann Cleeves on her website on after I’d finished the book, the reason for such verisimilitude became clear!
Julie Armstrong arrives home late in a taxi, rather the worse for wear from a night out, to discover that her teenage son has been murdered and laid out in the bath, strewn with flowers. Shortly afterwards, a pretty young student teacher is found dead in a rockpool not far away, her body similarly bedecked with flowers. Why is the murderer creating these artistic tableaux with his/her victims?
Inspector Vera Stanhope is in charge of the investigation. What a brilliant character. Overweight, almost beyond caring about her appearance, her diet or her excessive drinking, Vera stomps around in fat sandals, threatening to destroy flimsy chairs and acting just a little bit dim in order to lull her suspects into an immediate sense of their own intellectual as well as physical superiority. She’s just fantastic – and a refreshing twist on the usual dishevelled hard-drinking-damaged-personal-life male detective.
At the end of the novel it’s clear that Cleeves has employed not one single detail or word more than absolutely necessary to drive her plot and carefully place her clues. Her heroine may be a bit flabby and shambling but her writing most certainly is not.
I’m now resolved to read Raven Black , which is the first of a quartet set in the Shetlands won the prestigious Duncan Lawrie Dagger (aka Gold Dagger) Award for the best crime novel of the year in 2007.