Raven Black by Ann Cleeves
“One does see so much evil in a village,” said a certain old spinster from St. Mary Mead. And this famous line from Miss Marple could equally refer to Raven Black, the first in the hugely successful Shetland series from Ann Cleeves.
People don’t come and go; they know each other perhaps too well, and there is space to examine human nature in detail. Everyone has secrets; everyone has a dark side. And maybe, under the right circumstances, everyone could commit murder.
By setting her murder mystery on Shetland, and making the islands themselves the star of the show, Cleeves gives the format a vitality and an irresistible freshness.
The evocation of the landscape, and the way it impacts on the lives of the people who inhabit it, is nothing short of beautiful. This book will have you googling holidays in Shetland before you’ve got through even a couple of chapters.
Yes, there is a closed community who can be intolerant of difference and unwelcoming to strangers. But you get a sense that this is all rendered trivial by the sublime natural world around them.
And besides, Cleeves can’t help but find the goodness in her characters, perhaps because of the perspective given by the grandeur of the setting.
Our sleuth, Jimmy Perez, is a native Shetlander of Spanish ancestry. The story of how his forefather arrived with the Armada and got blown off course in a storm is brilliant - certainly worthy of a book in its own right. Perez has a soft heart and sees the best in everyone.
Apparently Cleeves doesn’t plan the plots of her books.
She just starts writing and sees where it all goes. This came as a surprise after reading Raven Black as this book is so coherent and well-structured.
But perhaps that’s the key: by letting her characters become fully-formed, and following where they lead, she allows their actions to feel real, rather than imposing a predetermined set of events upon them.
Despite the brutality of the murder, this is a book that very much falls into the comforting whodunit category.
People can be evil, but Cleeves is more interested in the flaws, the sadness and the loneliness that lead them to that evil.
In a claustrophobic village we see the evil itself, but with the perspective of wide open space and big skies, we see a fuller picture of the frailty behind it.
This is as gentle, forgiving and lyrical a murder mystery as you will find.