Author of the Month

Name: Ann Cleeves

First Novel: A Bird In The Hand

Most Recent Book: The Moth Catcher

'...a brilliant addition to this addictive series from an author at the zenith of her creativity.'

Valley Farm is a small community made up of a large house and estate, a small development of luxury houses and one or two old cottages. When the owners of the large house are away they employ a house sitter to look after the house and garden. This young man, Patrick, is found dead in the nearby lane, and when the police come to investigate, they find the body of an older man in the big house. The only thing that the two dead men had in common was a love and knowledge of moths.

Closer investigation of the idyllic development finds several people with secrets to hide. These may have a bearing on the apparently motiveless deaths. On the surface every one is friendly and gets on well with each other. There is even a regular social gathering most weeks, but when Vera starts to probe and uses her instinct for rooting out secrets and unsettling relationships, the truth slowly begins to emerge. It touches on the past from academia to prison.

‘The Moth Catcher’, the seventh book in the Vera Stanhope series, is set in the picturesque part of Vera’s bailiwick. The great strengths of Cleeves’ writing are the beautiful and convincing characterisation and the storming story line.

Vera is a wonderful character, a strong woman with immense warmth as well as infuriating habits. Above all she is a consummate detective. The attraction of the character is demonstrated by the huge success of the TV series. Apart from the central character, there are a whole cast of supporting characters whose motivations and actions are beautifully drawn. Ann Cleeves shows great understanding of human nature and above all has the talent to pass this understanding on to her readers.

The plot strands are intricate and interwoven carefully, but always based on Ann’s knowledge of the way people work. Even the villains are understandable and on occasion invoke sympathy. I have enjoyed Cleeves’ books for many years now and she gets better and better with every new book. ‘The Moth Catcher’ has everyone’s favourite detective, an intimidating landscape of breath-taking beauty and harshness in equal measure and a plot Christie would have been proud of. This is a brilliant addition to this addictive series from an author at the zenith of her creativity.

Reviewed by: S.D.

CrimeSquad Rating


1) You were the Programming Chair of the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival this year. You presided over an extremely successful event. What do you look back on with particular pleasure?
Oh, there were so many lovely moments, partly because Harrogate is always a place to catch up with friends and meet new writers and readers. I’m proud of the Readers’ Tea that we hosted for the first time this year.bIt was a chance for first timers to be made welcome and for publishers to get to grips with some very useful ways to engage with their readers. I was delighted that Brenda Blethyn, who plays Vera in the ITV adaptation of my books, could be there when our character won best detective at the Dead Good Books Award. Neither of us expected that! It was programme chair’s perks to have two of my favourite authors – Sara Paretsky and Arnaldur Indridason – as special guests.
2) At Harrogate this year you were in conversation with Lisa Gardner. You put yourself firmly in the camp of writers who do not ‘do research’. Do you stand by your statement and if so, have you ever found yourself making a mistake which has been pointed out to you at a later date? Or do you feel a writer should write about what he/she knows?
Many times! Though I do often research once the book is finished. That way I know where my areas of ignorance lie and can fill up the holes. It prevents lots of time being wasted finding interesting facts that I’ll never use, and from those facts throwing the novel out of shape. I’m fortunate to have made some very good friends – a former Crime Scene Investigator, a forensic soil scientist and a pathologist – who do lots of the work for me.I wrote a Shetland non-fiction book earlier this year – it’ll come out in October – and while I enjoyed discovering more about the islands I found it much harder to do than I expected. Facts are hard and troublesome things and you can’t bend them to your will!
3) In ‘The Moth Catcher’, Vera has the varied Northumberland landscape to work with, from industrial wasteland to a rural idyll. As with the ‘Shetland’ series, you base your books in areas you know well. Do you feel that the landscape is as important as plot?
I really don’t think that you can separate the two. One of my daughters is a human geographer – she studies the way people’s lives are influenced by the places they live, whether those places are physical or political. I think all novelists are aware of those influences on their characters and their plots. ‘The Moth Catcher’ is about a remote and peaceful valley in inland Northumberland. Part of the plot is about how newcomers adjust to rural life and what locals think of them. Vera has grown out of the hills where she was born. Shetland has been altered by the arrival of the oil business in the seventies and that too will feed through into characters and plot lines.
4) Your books tend to have some connection with nature and the ‘big outdoors’. You are also a keen in ornithology. What passions drive you to include burning issues of the day within your books?
Ah, I’m not keen on ornithology. That’s my husband, who spent all his working life in conservation. This is more about writing what I know. Some of my husband’s passions have seeped into my consciousness and we spent a lot of our early married life in wild and remote places. ‘The Moth Catcher’ was triggered by memories of a contract he did for the RSPB in mid-Wales. We had a flat in a big house, very similar to the hall in the story. Besides, I’ve never lived in a city, so I’d find it hard to understand the small details and irritations of city life that would bring a story to life.
5) There was a six year gap between Vera’s first novel, ‘The Crow Trap’ and her second, ‘Telling Tales’. Did you start off with the intention of writing a series or was it just that Vera was such an attractive character you couldn’t let her disappear?
I hadn’t realised it was quite that long! ‘The Crow Trap’ was certainly intended as a stand-alone and I wrote another couple of non-series novels, ‘The Sleeping and The Dead’ and ‘Burial of Ghosts’, before coming back to Vera. Now I love her. It’s great to write two series because there’s the joy of coming back to an old friend, someone you’ve missed, when you start a new novel.
6) Both ‘Vera’ and ‘Shetland’ have veered away from your books – in the case of ‘Shetland’ in quite a severe way. Do you have any input as to where the script writers are taking your characters? Do you feel protective about the people you have created and make sure they are not tampered with too much by the time they get on the small screen?
I don’t have any formal input at all into the adaptations and I wouldn’t want that responsibility. I know nothing at all about writing for the screen except that it must be a horribly stressful – usually there are ridiculously tight deadlines, and lots of other people give last minute notes. I do like showing scriptwriters round my patch – whether that’s Shetland or Northumberland – and I think that’s helped. The TV dramas and the books are quite separate forms and I honestly don’t mind about the production companies cutting out characters, adding sub-plots, or even changing the identity of the murderer! More important is the tone and atmosphere of the piece and in both cases I think they’ve got that perfectly. I can’t quite keep up with the demands of the filming so many of the scripts are original stories – though ‘The Moth Catcher’ will be episode three of Vera series 6.
7) The character of Vera is beautifully portrayed in the TV series by Brenda Blethyn: she is just as I imagined she would be. More importantly, is she as you imagined Vera? You must be pleased with the end result. Did you have any say in the casting?
Isn’t Brenda magnificent? No, I didn’t have any say in the casting. I knew that ITV were showing her the script and I was delighted when she agreed to do it. Her Vera is absolutely my Vera. I feel I have a representative on set. And although he looks quite different from the Perez of the novels, Dougie Henshall is my Perez.
8) For writers who are just starting out on their ‘novel journey’, what one piece of advice would you give?
Get to the end. It’s very tempting to re-write the first chapters – much better to have the skeleton of the story complete before you start tinkering with the details. That gives you huge confidence. And write the sort of book you would enjoy reading rather than the sort of book you think will sell.
9) Are you a fan of crime fiction in general? What would you say are the top three crime novels that have made a lasting impression on you?
This is so difficult. I’ve always been a fan of crime fiction but I hate being asked to give my favourite crime novels – I don’t want to leave out my good friends - but here we go:

Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham

The Roth Trilogy by Andrew Taylor (I know – that’s cheating!)

Sidetracked by Henning Mankell