In The Spotlight: Ann Cleeves’ Raven Black

Hello, All,

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


Filed under Ann Cleeves, Raven Black

33 responses to “In The Spotlight: Ann Cleeves’ Raven Black

  1. Thanks as always Margot for the profile of something new to me (I have a lot to learn) – the Hispanic origins of the name ‘Jimmy Perez’ seems very out of place, or is this not the same Shetlands I’m thinking of (i.e. off the Scottish mainland)?

    • Sergio – It is indeed the same Shetlands. And Perez’ surname is actually a topic of conversation in the novel. The story he’s been told is that it comes from the days of the Spanish armada when one of the ships blew off course. Some of the sailors made it to land; one of Perez’ ancestors was one of those sailors. Perez’ family has lived on Fair Isle for many, many, many generations but his surname sometimes does raise questions.

  2. jonmichaelsen

    Sent from my iPhone

    On Oct 15, 2012, at 2:55 PM, “Confessions of a Mystery Novelist…” wrote: Margot Kinberg posted: “Hello, All, 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 adaptati”

  3. This series is near the top of my TBR pile and I will be reading this book in the next few months. Looking forward to it based on your overview and reviews I have read. And the Quartet now has a fifth book coming out?

    I have read some of the Inspector Ramsay series and hope to try some of the other series too.

    • Tracy – Oh, I heard that a new Jimmy Perez novel is coming out too and I’m very excited about it. I do hope you’ll enjoy the series. I think it’s really very good.

  4. Thanks Margot for reminding me how much I enjoyed this book – a random choice from the library – and how I went on to read the rest of this series straight away and a number of her other books since then. There’s nothing like discovering a new author is there?

    • Moira – I know exactly what you mean. Isn’t it wonderful when you take a chance on an author and it pays out so very handsomely? This is a terrific series and I think Cleeves has so much talent.

  5. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It was, of course, Ann’s ‘breakthrough’ novel winning the CWA’s Gold Dagger, then sponsored by Duncan Lawrie – making it the “Duncan Lawrie Dagger” – with prize money to the tune of £20,000 back in 2006. I think the sudden increase in prize money put more attention on the winner, which was fabulous for Ann. We now have the Shetland Quartet and, in addition to Vera, that too is being transferred to screen. I undertand they are starting with the third novel, but readers are recommended to start reading with Raven Black, the first in the series.

    Hard to believe it’s now – gulp – six years ago! I remember it being a wonderful story within a closed community; a combination of police procedural with psychological thriller. And Magnus Tait was the perfectly portrayed, eccentric and misunderstood loner. A fine book.

    • Rhian – Thanks for that background on the CWA. It was wonderful for her that she won at that time and even better for us as we now have several of her series to enjoy. I agree with you 100% too that it’s best to enjoy the Shetland series in order. It really does help in terms of character development and backstory I think.
      And you’ve described Raven Black better than I could; thanks :-). Magnus Tait is indeed a beautifully drawn character – as you say, the misunderstood loner.

      • I hasten to add, you said ‘eccentric loner’. I only added ‘misunderstood’. 😉

        I remember reading and being taken back to the 60s and 70s when people with what we now see and know as mental health issues were considered weird and to be avoided. As children, we were warned to avoid such people. Understanding was missing. I think Ann captured that perfectly.

        • Rhian – Right you are indeed! Sorry for that and I’ve gone back and fixed it. You are right about your larger point too. People with mental health issues have for too long been misunderstood and for that reason badly treated. I’m very glad that now we understand much more than we did about those who have mental health issues. And you’re right; Ann captures it beautifully.

        • I really could not take all that credit you were chucking at me there… 😉

  6. Margot: When I read the book I was reminded of the small community in which I grew up in which each person, such as Tait had in Raven Black, had a reputation whether justified or not by fact.

    I also had some connection with Perez as I left home to go to boarding school when I was 15.

    I do have a reservation about Raven Black. I found the book slow going at the start. It was well worth the effort to continue with the book.

    • Bill – Since you grew up in a small community I’m sure that you did feel a connection to the small community in the novel. As you say, people do get reputations in those settings whether or not they are justified.
      I didn’t know you’d been to boarding school. You’ve got me thinking now actually; there are lots of fictional sleuths who’ve had that experience. Thank you for providing me with an inspiration for a post.
      I’ll agree with you that the novel doesn’t begin with a lot of action, but as you say, it is worth the read.

  7. kathy d.

    I haven’t read this series nor Vera Stanhope’s adventures either. There’s just so much good reading out in the crime fiction world, but it’s impossible to try everything. I just got notice that the first season of the TV episodes of Vera are waiting for me at the library in dvd form — and I’m going to watch them quite contentedly.

    • Kathy – I hope you’ll enjoy Vera. I know what you mean too about how many good books there are out there. I can never catch up with all of the novels and series I want to read….

  8. This is really funny timing, I picked this book up at the library yesterday before seeing this post! I’m looking forward to reading it. It is my first Ann Cleeves book.

  9. I’ve read ‘Raven Black’ and enjoyed it very much. I do keep meaning to read more of the series so thanks for reminding me.

    • Sarah – I’m glad you enjoyed the novel; it is an excellent entry in an excellent series I think. And I know what you mean too about wanting to read more of a series. There are at least a dozen series I’d like to follow more closely than I do *sigh.*

  10. This is one of my favourite books from one of my favourite authors. I’ve read all four of the Shetland Quartet and looking forward to the next book & to the TV series too.

    I still haven’t read any of the Vera books,yet! A treat in store.

    • Margaret – Isn’t the Shetland Qaurtet terrific? I’m so glad you like it as much as you do. I too am really hoping to get the chance to see the series; I’m looking forward to seeing how the novels come across on screen. And in my opinion you are indeed in for a treat with the Vera Stanhope series.

  11. I read a very early – I think it was, anyway – Cleeves book quite some time ago, my only recollection is it had a great deal to do with birds, or bird watching, and the murder(s?) were tied in to that somehow. I liked it well enough to buy another, yet unread and not at hand.

    • Richard – Do you perhaps mean Blue Lightning? That’s another (the fourth) in the Shetland Quartet and in it, Perez brings Fran Hunter to Fair Isle to meet his family. The two of them then get involved when there is a series of murders on the island. That one involves bird-watching information and I thought it was terrific. I hope you get the chance to read others in this series.

  12. Margot, didn’t she do a series about a couple who was birdwatchers, the Palmer-Jones series? In the eighties? I haven’t read any of those but they are on my list to look for.

    • Tracy – Right you are and good memory! She did indeed. I’ll confess I’m less familiar with those novels than I am with the Shetland novels and the Vera Stanhope novels. I hope you’ll enjoy them if you do get the chance to read them.

  13. Deb

    Raven Black was the first Ann Cleeves’s mystery I read and I liked it enough to seek out others; I think I like the Jimmy Perez novels best of all. I enjoyed a lot of Raven Black–the small community, Jimmy’s somewhat outsider status, the repercussions if the two deaths (which you have pointed out). There was one aspect of the book, however, that I found a little puzzling and I’ll try to share it without giving anything away: at several points during the book, we read the interior thoughts of a character who, we eventually learn, is the killer. This is always a tricky thing for a mystery writer to accomplish and I don’t think Cleeves was completely successful in doing it.

    • Deb – I’m glad you liked Raven Black as much as you did. I too thought the setting, the devastation of the two deaths and so on were very well done. And I’m glad you brought up Jimmy Perez’ status as an outsider of sorts because you’re right; that does flavour the book and it’s done well. As to your concern about that character, I thought about that myself. As you say, it’s not easy to do that well. I think it puzzled me less than it did you (although I noticed what you mean). But I can see how you might have thought that not done as well as it could have been done.

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