Top positive review
Brilliant expose on violent crime in a peaceful community, marred only slightly by a questionable motive of the murder.
20 April 2017
After the atmospheric first in the series, Raven Black, Ann Cleeves follows up superbly with a brooding and equally menacing portrayal of life at the height of summer in Shetland and the curiously unsettling effect of the 'simmer dim' on life in the islands. In the long summer nights when it never seems to get dark the islands are a hive of activity with tourists flocking to the area on the cruise ships. With folk kept awake by the light an edgy and heightened sense of anxiety seems to pervade the region, with outsiders observing the way of life and the eccentricity of the inhabitants. Biddista is a small community isolated from the rest of the island by a hill on one side and a sea on the other. The opening of an art exhibition bringing the work of the noted Shetland artist, Bella Sinclair, together with outsider and new talent, Fran Hunter, turns into something of a damp squib when a poor turnout and even the presence of Bella's nephew, Roddy, serenading on his fiddle doesn't rejuvenate the atmosphere after a distraught stranger falls to his knees and starts weeping. Inspector Jimmy Perez is on hand and his first opinion in a simple case of midsummer madness and the theatrical hysteria that it routinely brings. Feeling almost duty bound to assist, when Jimmy offers him an ear he claims to have lost his memory, with no knowledge of how or why he arrived at the event. Seeming an unlikely candidate for suicide but reluctant to be left on his own, the mystery man slips away from the exhibition leaving Perez wondering and feeling a sense of responsibility.
When the morning brings a call of a man hanging from a rafter in the communal fishing hut, Perez is guilt ridden that he could have done more to help the unidentified man. Evidently an Englishman who neither Bella or Fran claim knowledge of, the manic grin of a plastic clown mask that covers his face in death recalls the performer entertaining the incoming tourists from the cruise ships earlier in the day. Later confirmed as the same street performer who distributed flyers announcing the cancelling of the evenings exhibition due to death in the family, Perez and the locals wonder just who is he and why has he come. When confirmation is given that the man's death was not suicide, chillingly showing signs of a premeditation that is a rarity in violent crimes on Shetland. More bizarrely, just what is the intended significance of the sinister clown mask? The confirmation of murder brings DCI Roy Taylor, a Liverpudlian based in Inverness to Biddista. Still smarting from Inspector Jimmy Perez being credited with solving the first case they worked on together he is a little uneasy with Perez and the lack of urgency that seems to be a trademark of life in the area. Marked out by his distinctive colouring which seems to set him apart from the more easily identifiable Shetlanders, Inspector Jimmy Perez stands out like a island in the midst of choppy waters.
Jimmy Perez's unconventional attitude and acceptance of the way things function on the islands immediately makes locals infinitely more comfortable in his presence. Never appearing awkward or rushing to fill in the gaps in conversation, his equanimity makes him an excellent judge of character. Indeed he is the focal point for the investigation. Jimmy and Fran's burgeoning relationship gives readers a more rounded take on his personality and the early days of the romance have all the headiness of teenage sweethearts. Anxious-to-please Whalsay lad, Sandy Wilson hangs eagerly onto Perez's coat tails, but never quite seems to process the actual import of a violent murder in a peaceful community. It soon becomes clear that the victim might have been an outsider, but the answer to his death lies in the history in the Shetlands.
Cleeves is a captivating chronicler of the landscape and the locals, bringing a true appreciation for the remoteness, often bleak weather and the way in which every scrap of privacy is cherished. The investigation itself revolves around the handful of families that live in Biddista and artist, Bella is first to fall under the spotlight. Cleeves fleshes out her characters so well, weaving in resentments, past acrimony and intimate affairs and uncovering a host of hidden secrets, making for a captivating novel which swiftly becomes all consuming It fascinates me how Ann Cleeves makes the lives of the inhabitants in a isolated community so fascinating, particularly when their lives and occupations are so diametrically opposed to the life that most of us know and live. Four families that go back generations and are connected by everything from the broken hearted older brother of Kenny disappearing after a failed relationship with local sophisticate Bella Sinclair, to the petty grievances and sniping surrounding a broadside on a piece of amateur art. A second murder on the shape of Roddy Sinclair however brings new angles to the case and Perez knows that the answer lies in the history of the natives. Whilst the resolution and identification of the killer was a little unsatisfactory to my mind, with a slightly implausible motive detracting from the revelations, it will not dim my enthusiasm for this series. Cleeves provides plenty of subtle clues along the way making this an ideal novel to test eagle-eyed readers.
Review written by Rachel Hall (@hallrachel)