Ann Cleeves : Telling Tales (2005)

Inspector Vera Stanhope is called in to re-investigate a ten year old crime when new evidence emerges which proves that the woman, Jeanie Long, found guilty of the murder of fifteen-year-old Abigail Mantel was in fact innocent. Tragedy and poignancy are added to the investigation by the fact that Jeanie has recently hung herself in despair at the fact that no-one will believe her long-affirmed innocence. The discovery that Jeanie was innocent and launch of a new investigation mean that old sores are rapidly revived for the inhabitants of Elvet, the East Yorkshire village where the murder occurred. The original investigating officers, Abigail’s father, Jeanie’s father and the family of Emma Bennett, who at the time of the murder was Abigail’s best friend, are among those who come under Vera’s scrutiny. When another murder occurs it is obvious to Vera that it is connected to the first, but the Yorkshire police, resenting her as an outsider, refuse to assist her making her path to the truth even harder.

This is the second in the Vera Stanhope ‘series’ ; the inverted commas are because this series has a rather peculiar history – launched in 1999 with The Crow Trap, it was 6 years until Telling Tales appeared and a further 2 before Hidden Depths in 2007. Recent excellent news is that Hidden Depths is to be shot for TV with Brenda Blethyn playing Vera; I can think of few British mystery writers who are more deserving of the money and increased sales which a television adaptation will bring than Ann Cleeves, and one can only hope that the production will be of a high-standard. Returning to the question of the ‘series’ it has to be said that each of the books within it is highly individual. Probably the only link is Vera herself, but she is a commanding and intriguing presence so that the difference in locations and ‘feel’ of each entry in the series becomes an irrelevance. In the case of Telling Tales however the book would be outstanding even without Vera’s presence.

What makes this book so fascinating is not the plot which while more than adequate is not, as is generally true of Cleeves, overwhelmingly brilliant, but the formal experimentation and the depth with which the book approaches its themes and weaves them into the story. As far as the experimentation is concerned what we have here is an extremely clever use of the misleading narrator trope. The book opens with Emma Bennett; more specifically with Emma Bennett composing a present tense narrative about her life at the moment -one of the ‘tales’ and ways of telling them which the book’s title indicates. Now I have to admit, rather shamefacedly, that the significance of the name Emma Bennett did not strike me until I was at the end of the book. This is because I am much less of a Janeite than many readers will be ; but it is now perfectly obvious – Emma from well Emma!! and Bennett from Pride and Prejudice (less a t). The use of Emma in this context should of course alert the reader to the fact that maybe we are not to see the character in the light in either which she chooses to portray herself, or in which her character is ostensibly shown during much of book. I think I will risk a spoiler here and say that Emma is not the killer. I risk it because this never crossed my mind and I do not think that Cleeves intends the reader to view her as a suspect. No it seems to me that Emma’s unreliability and the study of her character work in two ways which dovetail with each other. First she is established as a contrast to Vera; Vera’s character is brought out in comparison to Emma. At the start of the book it seems as though Emma has everything – a child, a loving and ‘perfect’ husband, a decent standard of living and so on. But in fact her interior life is unhappy and during the book nearly every area of her life will be subjected to severe stress. But secondly I think there is some wry commentary here on the Austenian heroine herself. Too much self-dramatisation and interiority. I am not saying this is a viewpoint I share but I think it is an element in the story.

Another very powerful element is that of families and particularly the relationship between parents and children and how this can be deeply corrupt and corrupting. The book’s final revelation – and I was quite unprepared for the actual killer although my thoughts had been in the right direction – is in many ways a shocking one, but when the shock subsides one sees how it fits so well into the book’s overall scheme. In addition to these fascinating themes and explorations the book has all of Cleeves’ usual qualities – fine, clear writing, an excellent sense of location, good characterisation, an involving yet never rushed pace. As I have remarked before her recent work both in the Vera Stanhope and Shetland books mean that she is in the front rank of British mystery writers. In Telling Tales she adds that something extra in the form of some fascinating and intriguing experimentation which propel the book to the top of the pile. And on top of everything else the book has a brilliant last line; it can be read two ways as the pronoun is ambiguous but functions extremely well whichever way you take it. Who is meant? Perhaps both characters, and Vera and Emma resemble each other far more than either would want to admit. Whatever the case a mystery which seems to solve everything but then leaves the reader with an even deeper question seems to me to be achieving something exceptional.