Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Ann Cleeves has become justly recognised for her psychological thrillers. Both her Shetland Quartet and her Vera Stanhope series have won her quite a lot of fans, especially since the adaptation of her Vera Stanhope series for television. This feature can only be made better by a closer look at some of Cleeves’ work, so let’s do that today. Let’s turn the spotlight on the first of the Shetland Quartet, Raven Black.
Raven Black begins on New Year’s Eve in the fictional town of Ravenswick, Shetland. Eccentric loner Magnus Tait gets a visit from two teenage girls Sally Henry and Catherine Ross. The two have already been drinking but Tait invites them in to toast the New Year. Afterwards, the girls leave but they’ve made an impression on Tait. A few days later he sees Catherine Ross on a bus and when the bus arrives at Ravenswick, Tait invites her in for a cup of tea. The next morning, local artist Fran Hunter discovers Catherine’s body not far from Tait’s home. The police are called in and Inspector Jimmy Perez begins work on the investigation.
Tait was probably the last person to see Catherine Ross alive. Besides, he is quite possibly connected to the disappearance of another young girl Catriona Bruce several years earlier. So Perez and his team are particularly interested in him. And yet there is no physical evidence that connects Tait with Catherine Ross’ death and Tait claims that he is innocent.
As it turns out, Tait is not the only suspect in this murder. For one thing, Catherine Ross didn’t care very much what people thought of her. In a way that made her a very strong character, but it also made her vulnerable. Then it comes out that she was making a film about Shetland and its people as a part of a school project. Perez and the team try to locate the film and any notes Catherine might have made about it but the film has disappeared and so have Catherine’s notes about it. The files have even been deleted from her computer and that’s not something that Magnus Tait would likely have done.
Perez begins to trace Catherine’s last days and weeks to find out who would have a strong interest in keeping Catherine’s film from being made public. In the process he uncovers several things that some of the locals do not want made public. That’s when Fran Hunter discovers the long-hidden body of Catriona Bruce. Now Perez has to find out whether those two deaths are connected. If they are, did Magnus Tait commit both murders? The solution to both of these cases turns out to be rooted more in psychology than in anything else. And no, I promise – this isn’t a ‘crazed serial killer’ novel.
One of the strongest elements in this novel is the Shetland context. It’s a very small and close-knit community – even claustrophobic. Everyone knows everyone and most of the people in the community are related in some way or another. For example, Fran Hunter’s ex-husband Duncan is having a relationship with Celia Isbister, whose son Robert develops a relationship with Sally Henry. There are many other examples of this kind of intertwining throughout the novel and that network of relationships plays a role in the investigation.
We also see the Shetland physical context in the novel. Here’s just one description:
‘She came to an area of flat ground before the land started to rise steeply. Everything here was soggy, the ditches full of melted snow, the peat soaked and spongy. There was a pale sunshine which reflected from the standing water, the pools and puddles which had appeared overnight.’
There’s also a strong taste of the Shetland culture too. For instance this novel takes place just before the annual Shetland celebration of Up Helly Aa and there is plenty of discussion about the holiday.
Another important element in this novel is the effect of sudden death on those left behind. Catherine Ross’ father Euan is truly devastated by his daughter’s murder and without being maudlin Cleeves makes it very clear just what a loss he feels. We also get the chance to ‘meet’ Catriona Bruce’s parents and brother and it’s obvious that they too have been shattered by Catriona’s death. Because Shetland is close-knit there’s a ‘ripple’ effect of both deaths on all the residents really. Everyone knew both girls and their deaths have affected the entire community.
In many ways you could argue that Catherine Ross’ personality and character led to her death. That’s also arguably the case for Catriona Bruce. In fact their characters are central to the novel. And because Jimmy Perez didn’t know them he tries to find out from others what they were like. The slow unfolding of especially Catherine’s complicated character and the way in which others perceived her are also elements in this novel. We learn about her through the eyes of several of the other characters, so readers who prefer only one point of view will be disappointed. But to me anyway (so feel free to disagree if you do) Cleeves’ choice of multiple points of view adds depth to the story and gives us a fuller picture of what Catherine was like.
The mystery itself makes sense given the psychology and history of the people involved and that’s where the suspense in this story really lies. Jimmy Perez is a cop, and so we follow along as the police look for evidence, interview witnesses and so on. So the story is grounded in what the police actually do. But really it’s an understanding of psychology that leads Perez to the truth.
Raven Black is an absorbing psychological thriller that takes place against a unique backdrop. It features a cop who’s grown up in the Shetlands and knows the culture well, and a fascinating look at the way networks of relationships work in small communities. But what’s your view? Have you read Raven Black? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 22 October/Tuesday 23 October – Dying to Sin – Stephen Booth
Monday 29 October/Tuesday 30 October – Blood and Groom – Jill Edmondson
Monday 5 November/Tuesday 6 November – Executive Privilege – Philip Margolin