There oughta be a subgenre: Women’s Detective Novels. There probably is, somewhere, genre description being as unrestricted and disorganized as it is. If there was such a designation, Anne Cleeves’s Vera Stanhope series would be right up there near the top.
None of that Mickey Spillane/Mike Hammer stomping in and bullying everyone to comply. Vera uses meticulous attention to detail, careful observation and low-key interviews where the subjects spill everything out to the empathetic listener who hardly ever asks a question. This detective confines her acerbic comments to her team, who live in fear that they will disappoint her and face her sharp wit. This is a woman who agonizes over the fact that she’s happy to have an interesting murder to investigate.
Anne Cleeves is a writer of intricate detail. As befits a detective novel, conversations, scenes and actions are all laid out with finesse. Vera unravels the clues the same way, noting fine details and understanding personalities.
So we have to read carefully. Any missed detail, any skipped-over description might be the key to the solution of the crime. These are psychological detective stories, and learning the minds of the players is an important part of the experience.
Every since Nero Wolfe and his orchids, detective novelists think it is important to spice their novels with some interesting hobby or occupation,. In this case, it’s bird watching, which Cleeves seems to know a lot about. However, she slips the bird watching scene in gently, as she does all her other extrinsic material, to give us insight into the personalities and interactions of the characters.
The point of view of this story switches frequently, which gives us insight into the feelings of those who are collateral damage of the murder, especially the victim’s mother and the various suspects. However, Cleeves does take this to extremes. Intrusive techniques for giving the reader information like, “She didn’t stop to consider that…” are more usually found in Romances rather than in the Detective genre.
This novel is a rich and closely woven pastiche of details, but we can’t quite let go and become immersed in the setting and characters, because we might miss that one point upon which the solution hangs. Recommended for fans of female detectives, and all those who love fine detail in their reading. Five stars out of five.