Blue Lightning, by Ann Cleeves

 

The last book in the Shetland Quartet is set on Fair Isle, childhood home of detective Jimmy Perez. Jimmy and his fiancee Fran fly to this remote island in the teeth of terrible storms to spend a few days with Jimmy's parents, whom Fran hasn't previously met. She's slightly apprehensive about meeting the older couple, but James – even more silent than his son – and Mary, a traditional housewife and active in the community, all enjoy meeting each other. Mary is friendly with the cook-housekeeper at the famous bird-watching centre at North Light lighthouse, and together they have organised a ‘surprise' engagement party for Jimmy and Fran using the centre's facilities.

This being a crime novel, the inevitable soon occurs. A body is found at North Light the very day after Jimmy and Fran's celebration. As the island is tiny and the seasonal weather so terrible, Jimmy is the only police presence, so it falls to him to investigate. It transpires that only a few people could have committed the crime – the staff and visiting birdwatchers staying at the centre.

Ann Cleeves has cleverly set up a traditional murder mystery (with an explicit nod to Agatha Christie) on an isolated island with few suspects and little outside involvement, yet has made it a plausible, fresh, compelling modern tale. Jimmy bears the brunt of the investigation, but is in touch with his team as well as the fiscal and her office, some of whom fly in to help as soon as the dreadful weather permits. Forensic work does suggest a few avenues of investigation, but at its heart this is a classic story of a war of wits between the criminal and the detective who is trying to unravel a motive to put together with what he already knows of the means and opportunity available to one (?) of his small number of likely suspects.

Not only is the mystery plot told with great skill and suspense, but the reader's interest is held by the author's deft portrayals of old and new characters. As demonstrated in her earlier novel THE CROW TRAP (not part of the Shetland Quartet), Ann Cleeves has a clear understanding of the emotions that underlie dry reports of academic success, which combined with her deep knowledge of life on these remote island communities and the experiences of those who live there, as well as family dynamics and tensions that have built up over years and inform current behaviour, make a very satisfying, but in the end, unnerving and tragic, novel.

As with almost any novel, one could find a few quibbles if one wanted to, for example Jimmy's inexperience with internet searching compared with many of the civilian characters seems unlikely, and a rather obvious clue near the end of the novel is overlooked, leading directly to tragedy. Overwhelmingly, though, the novel is a masterly accomplishment, reminding me of the writing of J K Rowling or Susan Hill in its insidious way of drawing the reader into sympathy with a character, followed by a ruthless shock. I don't know if the denouement of the Shetland Quartet was planned from the outset of the series or if it was devised only in this final book, but either way I cannot recommend the novels too highly. Together they represent a superb achievement, both as excellent crime fiction and as sensitive evocations of the meshing of age-old lifestyles with the priorities and technologies of the modern world.

Review first posted at Euro Crime, January 2010.

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