Hidden Depths – Ann Cleeves (2007)

Single mother Julie Armstrong arrives home from a night-out in Newcastle to discover that her son Luke has been strangled then laid out in the bath
surrounded by flowers. Inspector Vera Stanhope is assigned to the case and
her initial enquiries seem to be heading no-where; then a second body is
discovered laid out in a rock pool and again strewn with flowers. It is discovered by a close-knit group of four long-term bird watching friends. Vera finds the case a complex one as she searches for links between the two seemingly unrelated victims, some slowly emerge but the hunt for the murderer is an arduous one for Stanhope and her team.

I’ve been reading Ann Cleeves for a long-time now – I can’t recall when
exactly I discovered her but I was first aware of her as the author of the
George and Molly books of which the first (A Bird in the Hand) was in 1986
and the last of the seven in 1996. I then followed her second series –
Inspector Ramsay – which ran over six books from 1990-1997. She was never an absolute must-read in the past but I also read her two one-offs at some point and have been utterly delighted by the first two books in the Shetland Quarter (I have not yet got around to the third – Red Bones – which was published in February). I offer this probably somewhat boring resume of my history with Cleeves partly just to remind myself but also for two further reasons. In the first place just to observe that it is possible to see in
her career evidence of a writer who just steadily got ( and gets) better –
not perhaps with each successive book (for instance A Day in the Death of
Dorothy Cassidy was in my view the best of the Ramsay series although two
books followed it) but certainly in general terms. In my view she hit a
plateau of real excellence with Raven Black in 2006 – it may be that Telling
Tales from 2005 marks this point as I have not read it. This is not to argue
that Cleeves is not always readable. Although she dismisses some of the
George and Molly series I don’t think there are any really bad books. But it
is certainly possible to see her progress in her craft and skill and touch.
This is always satisfactory.

The second point however is that, as those who have read any of them will
know, the George and Molly books featured a pair (well George was always
keener than Molly admittedly, as far as I can recall) of ornithologists and
always had a back-ground of bird-watching (which makes the series pretty
unique!); the Inspector Ramsay series on the other hand featured a
Northumberland policeman. In Telling Tales we have both a Northumberland policewoman and a group of bird-watchers – so it can be seen in some ways as Cleeves returning to familiar themes and territory. Familiar but different. Vera Stanhope is very different from Inspector Ramsay. But it is in the way in which the material is handled that I suspect one would see the biggest difference if one went back and read a George and Molly book, or a Ramsay book, and compared it against this. Reading this book one is always aware of just what a good writer Cleeves has become – the way in which narratives weave in and out of each, the switching of perspectives and voices, the use of landscape and cityscape, the careful pacing building to a highly taut but never over-the-top climax. Cleeves is now a really good mystery writer.

It should be said that this is apparently the third book in the Vera
Stanhope series. Now I have to admit that I had entirely forgotten that she
appeared in The Crow Trap, another very good book which appeared in 1999. I don’t know when Cleeves decided she wished to run with her as a series character because she didn’t re-appear until Telling Tales in 2005 which appears a bit of a suspiciously long gap. She makes however a splendid series character – individual, slightly but not overly screwed-up, at times sympathetic at times definitely not so – she’s a very human protagonist and I hope that Cleeves continues with the series. The only failing in Hidden
Depths is that I did guess the murderer some way out; admittedly Cleeves
throws in some clever tricks to mislead late-on, but it turned out I was
right. However such is the quality of the characterisation, plotting, pace
and writing that I was willing to forgive even this. Hidden Depths is
another fine example of the plateau of excellence Cleeves has now reached.

(May 2009)