Author of the Month

Name: Ann Cleeves

First Novel: A Bird in the Hand

Most Recent Book: Blue Lightning

'The tension simply builds up and up...'

Detective Jimmy Perez is bringing his fiancť Fran home to the Fair Isles to spend time with his parents on their croft. The autumn storms are keeping the islands isolated. Everyone from the long term inhabitants to the temporary residents on the birding station know each other, and more than one has a secret to keep. Fran has to adjust to the closed community and is apprehensive about her possible future if Jimmy chooses to return to the islands.

Maurice is the birding centre administrator and when his wife, scientist and celebrity Angela, is found dead with feathers threaded through her hair, Jimmy Perez is left to investigate without any of his normal backup. Angela had a knack of antagonising people and amongst the locals and visitors there are several who would have a motive for killing her.

The pressure is on for Jimmy as the killer must still be on the island and may still need to kill again. He is also on edge as Fran and his parents get to know each other, and begin to plan an engagement party on the island...

In the previous books of the series, the close-knit community of Shetland seems both supportive and a touch claustrophobic to the outsider. Life on the Fair Isles moves this up to another level. When the storms are raging, no boat or plane can come or go, and those who remain on the islands are completely dependent on each other. It is an interesting take on an Agatha Christie-esque country house murder when the cast of suspects are so contained and mutually suspicious.

Ann Cleevesí descriptions of the life of the islanders are both sensitive and understanding and contribute to the atmosphere of the story. In fact, the emotional needs for fulfilment and for secrecy contribute to the plotting of the story. Place is definitely intrinsic to this quartet of books. The importance of the connection to the place is beautifully described.

Jimmy Perez is a very sympathetic character - a man of the islands who uses his inbuilt knowledge of the people to understand and consider the motives for crime. Not a career policeman desperate for advancement, but a man who needs to find out why and what has happened for justiceís sake.

The tension simply builds up and up as more and more pieces of information emerge about the characters leading to an exciting and gripping denouement. The ending is Ėwell, surprising- but on reflection it has a sort of inevitability with a dash of sadness.

Reviewed by: S.D.

CrimeSquad Rating


1) What makes a truly great crime/thriller novel?
Character of course. We have to believe not just in the central characters Ė the detective figures Ė but also in the perpetrators, the victims, everyone involved in the action. Iím a bit of a traditionalist so I love the cheap thrill of a surprise ending. Itís not always easy to combine this with psychological credibility but itís such a treat when the author manages it. And place is important too, not just as a background to the action, but to explain the characters who are rooted in specific communities.
2) Now that the crime/thriller genre represents the largest section of fiction sold in the UK and Ireland, do you think we do enough to celebrate the quality and diversity of the writing?
I think people involved in the business of crime-writing work hard to do this. The CWA promotes new writers and translated crime through the Daggers, we have websites like CRIMESQUAD.COM, passionate bloggers, great festivals. But as the High Street retail market contracts things are very difficult. Even well-known authors find it hard to get their books onto the shelves and supermarkets seem reluctant to stock titles by new writers unless theyíve had a huge marketing spend.
3) Did you have the idea to set these stories in Shetland and then arrange to go there, or were you a frequent visitor and then decide it was an ideal setting for a detective story?
I first went to Shetland more than thirty years ago Ė Iíd dropped out of university and was offered the job as assistant cook in the bird observatory on Fair Isle Ė so BLUE LIGHTNING takes me right back to where it all started. Iíve been visiting ever since and have great friends there. The idea for the first story came during a trip in mid-winter.
4) Did it involve a great deal of research and visits to the islands mentioned in the books?
Yes, lots of tax-deductible trips to Shetland! Lots of time spent sitting in croft kitchens and listening to stories. Really no hardship! I love the islands and visit three or four times a year. Shetlanders have been astoundingly gracious about the books, considering Iím an outsider. The manuscript is always read by a friend before it goes to print.
5) I felt that as the books moved on the atmosphere and understanding of the people of the islands also grew. Is this something you were aware of, or even deliberately developed?
Characters always develop as you think about them and write about them. Certainly I know Shetland much better now than I did when I started RAVEN BLACK. Iíd spent more time in Fair Isle then than I had in Shetland mainland. I take an interest in the preoccupations of the islanders, read the local paper, just talk to people.
6) Were the four books planned from the outset- the colours in the titles suggests that maybe they were- and if so how much detail is required for each plan?
RAVEN BLACK was going to be a stand-alone novel. My editor thought it would stretch credibility to have more than one crime novel set in such a small community. Then it won the Dagger and got good reviews and we thought againÖ It was obvious to use the seasons as a basis for a quartet: Shetland is so far north that each season varies dramatically. Itís almost like writing about a different place. And thereís no plan at all. I start the book without any idea whatís going to happen.
7) Do you feel sad now that the quartet is finished, and are you tempted to pursue Perezí career, wherever it may take him?
Iím sad to have completed the quartet, but I havenít finished with Shetland. Iíve left the possibility of a return, though the central characters might be rather different. Thereíll be a gap - Iím concentrating on the Vera Stanhope books for a while because ITV has filmed one of the novels Ė but I certainly intend to go north again.
8) The longest serial character of yours lasted eight books. Inspector Ramsey, lasted six books, the Stanhope novels stand at three and Blue Lightning is evidently the last of a quartet featuring Jimmy Perez. Are you not keen on being trapped with a particular character for a long time or do you get Ďitchy feetí and need to explore new people from your imagination?
I think I would feel a little claustrophobic if I were to stay with the same central character without a break. Although I shift point of view throughout the book, I am seeing the world pretty much through my heroís eyes for the time Iím writing. Shetlandís an interesting world but Iíd like to explore other ideas that donít fit in well to that environment. Iím very much enjoying writing about Vera Stanhope again now and coming home to Northumberland.
9) What do you think drives a story best Ė plot or characters?
Iím not very good at plot Ė thatís one of the reasons I write traditional crime. The storyís set out for me: thereís a murder, a limited number of suspects and a hero who brings about a resolution at the end. Iím much more interested in writing character and relationships and the action is driven by that.
10) In a dream scenario who would you like to direct and star in a film/TV adaptation of your book?
The director would be Douglas Mackinnon. Heís done a lot of great popular drama on television and he has a passion for Shetland because his mother came from Yell. He understands the place and anyone directing would need that. The actor for Jimmy Perez? David Tennant. But that would be a dream scenario!
11) What is your favourite movie adaptation of all time of a crime/thriller novel?
Iím horribly ignorant about film, but Iím a radio addict, so can I choose the Smiley season thatís running on radio 4 at the moment? I love Le Carreís novels and the adaptation is brilliant.
12) What is your favourite crime/thriller novel of all time?
This is impossible and I change my mind every time Iím asked. Iíve just come back from a holiday in Paris, so anything by Simenon.