Ann Cleeves is a British writer of crime fiction, probably best known for her ‘Vera Stanhope’ series, which has been adapted for television starring Brenda Blethyn in the lead role. However, she has also written a number of other novels, including the Shetland quartet, which features Jimmy Perez as the main character. Much to the delight of fans, the Shetland quartet is going to be adapted for television too.
Ann Cleeves has had an adventurous life, which she has managed to use to great effect in her novels. She has spent time in Shetland, contributing to the atmospheric setting of the Shetland quartet; she has also lived in Northumbria, the setting for the Vera Stanhope novels and she has lived on an island in the Dee Estuary, where her husband was a warden. As the only people on the island, it was there that she started writing, needing something to fill her time. It clearly also developed her knowledge of what it is like to be lonely.
Jimmy Perez is a detective living on the Shetland mainland, although he is originally from Fair Isle and has spent some time working in the more salubrious parts of mainland Scotland. He is a sensitive man who has been hurt in the past as the result of a failed marriage. His mother and father, who still run a croft on Fair Isle, are desperate for him to return and take over, but he is concerned that he will miss the relative excitement of the more populated Shetland Islands. Certainly, he seems to manage to find plenty of murder and mayhem to keep him occupied; just because the Shetland Islands are remote doesn’t mean that people don’t hate each other to the point of murder, just like elsewhere.
Despite his failed marriage, Perez hasn’t given up on love and that he manages to find in the form of Fran Hunter. Fran is also divorced; she is not a Shetlander, but her ex-husband is and still lives there. She wants to bring up their daughter in Shetland because she believes it is safer for her than her native London and, as she is an artist, she finds plenty of fodder for her work. In the first book, ‘Raven Black,’ Fran finds the dead body of a neighbouring girl and is instrumental in working with Perez, whom she meets for the first time because of the case, to uncover the murderer. By the second book, ‘White Nights,’ they are a couple and their relationship continues to develop throughout ‘Red Bones’ and ‘Blue Lightning,’ the third and fourth book in the quartet.
It is partially this relationship and its development that makes the quartet so readable, although it is far from being a slushy, romantic relationship that overshadows the stories. Each of the four stories is strong; unlike many other series, where it is immediately obvious that one or two of the books are better than the others, there is no obvious first and second place in the Shetland quartet. Each of the stories revolves around a different Shetland community, with Perez, Fran and one or two other supporting characters being the only continuity. The murders are all cleverly done, making the books extremely readable.
Although the stories are excellent, it is perhaps the atmospheric location that makes the books so very memorable. Although the Shetland Islands are classed as part of Scotland, there are a number of Nordic links, which gives the books a rather exotic, yet at the same time earthy, feel. This is most apparent in ‘Black Raven,’ which takes place around the time of Up Helly Aa, a series of fire festivals held in Shetland around yule-time. The search for a kidnapped child amongst all the celebration is breath-takingly done.
Descriptions of the scenery and the weather are well done and the fact that the summer days are virtually endless, while the winter nights encroach upon the days is used as a way of developing the atmosphere. For example, in ‘White Nights,’ Cleeves describes the effect that the endless days of summer can have on visitors: “The lack of darkness hit people from the south too. Occasionally their reaction was even more extreme than the locals’. They weren’t used to it: the birds still singing late into the evening, the dusk which lasted all night, nature slipping from its accustomed pattern, all that disturbed them.”
The loneliness of island life is another way that Cleeves explains some of the characters’ odd behaviour. She describes small communities that are very much wrapped up with one another and in which a slight can become a major tragedy, never to be forgotten, resulting in people who have known each other all their lives turning against each other. Although Ann Cleeves is not a native Shetlander, from the point of view of the reader, she may just as well be.
‘Blue Lightning’ was published in 2010, but Ann Cleeves has no plans to write any more books in the series. This may be an advantage, ensuring that the she bows out while the series is on a high. However, fans will no doubt be disappointed that there will be no more Jimmy Perez Shetland-based stories forthcoming. Fortunately, Cleeves shows no signs of ending her writing career, so hopefully, she will work on other series, which are almost as strong as the Shetland quartet.