I have been watching some Anne Cleeves adaptations on television lately: one of the Mysteries of Shetland, and several of Vera, a very similar series set in Yorkshire: both full of broad accents, barren scenery, and dour people. And I have discovered one reason why these books are so much better than any film or TV version.
You see, there is a lot of dramatic, barren, landscape in the world that is very impressive when you first see it. But after the wonderful first gasp it soon gets very boring. After all, that’s the whole point of barren, isn’t it? There just isn’t much there. So, if you’re watching the story in some visual form, you soon become affected by the barrenness of the settings. For most of us, this is not a good effect. After all, murders are pretty depressing, when you come to think of it. Anyone who has seen the Wallander Swedish detective series knows what I mean.
However, when you are reading a book, you aren’t seeing the barrenness firsthand. Your view is being filtered through the consciousness of the writer. So every time he gives a description of the landscape, it is tinged by his rosy-tinted lenses, and makes us realize anew how beautiful it is. Which it probably isn’t, but we don’t realize that.
So the first thing I have to say about Anne Cleeves’ writing is that her descriptions are wonderful. The stark beauty of the landscape is closely tied to the people, who are the most important part of the story. But the loneliness and the contrasting claustrophobic society of small, isolated villages is a palpable part of every story. Whether it’s midwinter, and mostly dark, (Raven Black) or midsummer when the sun never sets (White Nights), the landscape always affects everyone.
In all good detective stories, it is the people that make the plot work, not the other way around. This is true of the Shetland Mysteries. Each character, lovingly detailed, fills his or her part of the social mosaic, and each holds a unique place in the upheaval that happens when the work is torn by murder.
The main character is Jimmy Perez, whose strange last name may have come from an ancestor wrecked from the Spanish Armada. Every character has some sort of individuality like this. All stand out in the reader’s mind. Jimmy is a detective, a local boy with no desire to leave. It is his knowledge of local customs and characters that gives him the edge on his foil, the detective inspector from the Mainland who comes to take charge of each murder. And the story progresses, with these two detectives peeling back the surface of the islands’ social fabric to expose the deeply hidden connections beneath.
In fact, I think Cleeves gives us perhaps too much of the inner characters. She always follows several points of view, and in order to keep us tuned in to each of these important characters, their backgrounds and their reactions, we spend a lot of time inside their heads, being told by the author what they are thinking, rather than the more usual technique of showing characters by what they are saying and doing. So while we get into the heads of these characters, it is in a rush, through the author’s eyes, and we miss the opportunity provided by a more concentrated technique of becoming empathetic towards a single character or two through observing them as an outsider would.
And when it comes to the climax, there is a short, tense scene, but by then the pieces have all been woven together, and there isn’t a whole lot of tension. The main satisfaction comes from the feeling that society has knitted itself together again, and life will go on as it has for the last several hundred years.
A complex and satisfying series of detective novels. Recommended for fans of Scotland and stark, striking landscapes and people: 4 stars out of 5.