I came to this, the first of the Vera Stanhope novels, after thoroughly enjoying the five novels that make up the Shetland series. Here, it seems to me Ann Cleeves' strengths and weaknesses as a crime writer are more sharply defined.
As in the Scottish island series this novel exhibits the author's mastery of plot. Not only are there twists and turns aplenty, but as in the finest of whodunnits, the reader is given the clues necessary to see the truth, while at the same time distracted by all manner of red herrings from arriving there. There is, too, a strong and convincing sense of place, though not so very far removed in spirit from Shetland, albeit that we are now in northern England. She also writes well, particularly in the descriptive passages. Dialogue is more variable.
I find the environmentalists who gather together for their research well-drawn, interesting characters, but the male characters seem to me much less skilfully drawn, in all cases close to unconvincing stereotypes. Those who are supposed to have dynamic, attractive or charming qualities, never really give evidence of these in word or action. We rely too much on what we are told about them.
That leaves us with Ann Cleeves' detective: Vera Stanhope. On her initial introduction she comes across as a larger than life, assertively eccentric character, but all too quickly subsides into a sadly watered down version of what might have been and what was promised.
In order to elaborate such a complex storyline, I can see that it is necessary to write at some length, but something of the tightness of structure of the Shetland novels is lost; I'm not really convinced that this story justifies its 500+ pages.
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