Monday, 24 March 2008

Hidden Depths

What I’d very much like to know is this: why, when one is feeling a bit fragile and fancies curling up with a good cosy read, does one’s thoughts turn so readily to crime fiction? Why – of all things - should a good murder mystery feel cosy? What on earth possesses one, when feeling rough, to read a book that’s guaranteed to revolve around the death (often in grisly circumstances) of another human being – possibly several human beings, in fact? Same with telly. Feeling like a good relaxing slump on the sofa? What could be more cosy than doing so in front of a re-run of an episode of Morse or Rebus? New series of Miss Marple? Oooh, goody, that’ll be really cosy. Plenty of stabbings and poisonings – the more the merrier!

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.


Unknown said...

Heh, I don't know what it is about crime novels either - I adore them and choose them for "light" reading, even when the body count is in double figures and a seriously disturbed psychopath is on the loose. I agree with your analysis and I also wonder if it's because we know the killer is not really "out there" that reinforces the feeling of "safeness" inside our home.

Martin Edwards said...

I admit to being biased, because Ann Cleeves is a friend of mine, but I think that if you like Hidden Depths, you'll love Raven Black. Her earlier, less well known books such as The Sleeping and the Dead and The Healers are also well worth seeking out.

Juliet said...

Hi WS - well, I'm not so sure about the 'safeness' issue myself. That's certainly true of vintage novels - all tweedy spinsters and poisoned golf-clubs in the library, etc. But the world of much contemporary crime fiction is often all too horribly credible and possible. They make me more nervous about real life, rather than less so, I think! Perhaps, having crawled under the duvet, such books simply give one a perfect excuse to stay hidden under there!

Martin - I'd already popped Raven Black into my Amazon shopping trolley (which is actually about ten trolleys all chained together) - after having read about it on DYWUYON. I was intrigued by the Scottish island setting and now I've discovered how much I like AC's writing style, it will doubtless work its way into trolley #1 quite soon.

Unknown said...

Aye, today's crime novels are horribly credible, but statistically it's fair to say the chance of becoming a victim of such a type is still minuscule. So I remain unbothered. Perhaps I'm unusual.

Mind you, Red Dragon did seriously freak me out. It was 2am when I read the passage about Will's analysis of the crime scene and I was genuinely too scared to put the light out afterwards. It's rare for a book to terrify me as much as that.