I’d heard a lot about Ann Cleeves; I had followed her on Twitter, to a kind reciprocation; the reading groups that I joined at Wakefield One had heaped glowing praise upon her work. Yet I had never read her – it was therefore high time that I rectified matters.
I bought two of her books from Rickaro: The Crow Trap, which is set in the Pennines, and Red Bones, one of her Shetland Isles stories (I know that these have been televised, but I haven’t seen any of the programmes). I chose novels set in two different locations, because, as I’ve said before, topography is important to me. I know that Ann Cleeves has a reputation for creating fine atmospheric settings – as one of the reading group members said, Shetland ‘almost becomes a person’ in the books set there – and I wanted to see how she achieved it.
I’m not, however, going to write here about her use of setting, because, although I endorse everything that has been said about it by others, I have nothing new to add. What I’d like to focus on especially, therefore, is her skill at character portrayal, particularly of women. I find her female characters fascinating, not only because of the way she draws them, but because she captures with subtle and skilful nuances some of the ways by which women are still exploited by men – though she is by no means a militant feminist and the male characters in her novels suffer from certain injustices, too. Some of her women characters find their own ways of fighting back: Anne Preece in The Crow Trap tries to make use of both her husband and Godfrey Waugh to provide her with the lifestyle that she craves, although both in their turn exploit her as part of the chess-like game of shifting relationships that forms a fine sub-plot to this novel; and Jimmy Perez, the policeman hero of Red Bones, is continually kept guessing about the depth of feeling that his vivacious, unconventional girlfriend Fran entertains for him.
I enjoyed both of these novels immensely. Ann Cleeves writes quite unlike any other crime novelist whose work I know. If I had to choose between them, I’d say that The Crow Trap has the edge on Red Bones, mainly because, although both are set in remote areas, the Shetland novel offers less scope for variety in characterisation. Both are rural variants of the country house murder convention, each with its own subtle twists that bring new life to this sub-genre. However, Red Bones has a strong archaeological theme, which was of special interest to me because when I read it I had just completed Almost Love, which is in part about the disappearance of a famous female archaeologist and set against the activities of the members of a famous archaeological society.
I see that Ann Cleeves is a prolific writer who has written many books. I can therefore look forward to many more hours of happy reading in her company.