In a remote Scottish island community, a teenage girl is found dead. Chief suspect is Magnus Tait, an old, strange man who lives in the nearest house to the field where the body is discovered. Some years ago, another young girl disappeared in mysterious circumstances near to Magnus's house, but a body was never found.
Much of the subsequent action is told through the eyes of Fran Hunter, single parent of a young child, whose marriage to Duncan, a local millionaire, failed when he took up with an older woman. The local detective in charge of the case, Jimmy Perez, is clearly extremely competent but when the body is found, has to defer to a younger superior from the mainland. As a schoolboy, Jimmy was a close friend of Fran's ex-husband, but the two men fell out. So are his suspicions of Duncan fuelled by a distaste for his lifestyle, coupled with an increasing liking for Fran?
Ann Cleeves has written an absorbing study of a remote community. She provides plenty of insights into the attractions of living away from the pressures of urban, cosmopolitan life, and the associated boredom that this rural, cold existence offers to the young – and indeed, the not-so-young. Whether it be an expensive boat or an expensive house, there are compensations for living so far from what many would like to call civilised society, but are these compensations enough, or are the frustrations unbearable?
The treatment of these questions is both the strength and the weakness of the book. Perhaps the most interesting character is the murdered girl, and the reader is only allowed to find out about her towards the end. Most of the book is diverted from the murder investigation into the thoughts and lifestyle of various inhabitants of the community: a series of vignettes of the dead girl's father, teachers, school friends and neighbours providing the bulk of the book. In the end, one feels the author is more attracted by these descriptions than in constructing a convincing reason for the crime or in driving the plot forwards, so for me the middle part of the book was rather aimless, only picking up when the investigation shifts to the dead girl herself, and what she was doing that led someone to wish her dead.
Despite these flaws, the writing style is absorbing, and I hope that we will read more about Fran Hunter and Jimmy Perez in future. Other characters in this book I will not be sad to leave behind. Although I was thrown off scent in terms of the mystery – the person I thought must be to blame faded out, and the perpetrator was, if not the least likely candidate, and if not exactly a cheat, rather an unsatisfactory villain – I enjoyed reading this book, and look forward to reading more by this author. I hope that next time, she will be slightly less diverted by the atmosphere and somewhat more inclined to increase the pace (or decrease the length).