The third in Ann Cleeves' "Shetland quartet" (earlier volumes are the prizewinning RAVEN BLACK and the equally impressive WHITE NIGHTS) is a very satisfying read. This series is growing in maturity; RED BONES seems to me to have an added depth in portrayal of the characters (familiar from previous books as well as new to this volume) and their environment, as well as a more confident plot. Perhaps this is in part due to the fact that the author focuses here on only two regulars, the police detective Jimmy Perez and his slightly slow subordinate, Sandy Wilson. Jimmy's partner, Fran, and her daughter Cassie, are in London for most of RED BONES, and other detectives, including Roy Taylor from Inverness, do not make an appearance.
The main part of the book is set on the island of Whalsay, where Sandy and his family come from. Two young students are conducting an archaeological dig on a small croft owned by Mima Wilson, Sandy's widowed grandmother. The old lady is unconventional and gets on well with the young women, until the students discover a skull and some bones buried on the property. Hattie, one of the students, is tremendously excited by the find as she believes it will vindicate her theory that there was a well-established old trading route, confirming the island a powerful commercial force in its time.
However, the discovery of the bones sparks not one, but two, tragedies, which Jimmy and Sandy increasingly come to feel were not accidental. As their investigation continues, we learn more about the Wilson family as well as their neighbours the Coulsens: their role in the "Shetland bus" in the Second World War in which the islanders helped members of the Norwegian resistance to escape from the Nazis; and the tensions between the men who became rich by working on the fishing boats compared with those and their families who have to scrabble around for a living on the unforgiving land.
Much of the appeal of this book lies in the wonderfully conveyed sense of place, the convincingly sympathetic portrayal of a way of life, and astute characterisation. But as well as these elements, there is a good solid mystery plot: I worked out parts of it before any revelations, but found the whole satisfyingly tied together in ways that I had not anticipated. It was sad to me that, in an echo of the first in this series, RAVEN BLACK, the two most interesting and likeable characters in the book (excepting the sweet Sandy and the rather dreamily lovely Jimmy) were the victims: the second of these is particularly upsetting. But of course, the extent of the tragedy also makes the reader more involved in desiring the police to discover the perpetrator(s) of the crime. RED BONES is an excellent, absorbing, slow-burn of a book.