Saturday, 7 June 2008

White Nights

Time to say more about Ann Cleeves’ latest novel, White Nights. Her idea for the Shetland Quartet is that each book will be set in a different season of the year. Here the backdrop is summer, the time of the long white nights. It’s not always an easy time:

‘…at this time of year Edith had trouble sleeping at all…She’d put thick curtains at the window, but something about the white nights threw her body clock out. It took some people that way…He was glad when the days got shorter and she returned to her old self.’

The Shetland setting is beautifully done. Few if any modern crime writers convey the essence of a rural community as effectively as Ann Cleeves, and with the islands off the north of Scotland, she is in her element. Although she is not Scottish, she met her husband Tim on Fair Isle around thirty years ago, and she has the ability to get under the skin of the local people. There is also a lot of interesting background detail. I now know what the ‘simmer dim’ is and what ‘singling neeps’ involves, while Raven Black introduced me to the tradition of Up Helly Aa, Europe’s largest fire festival. Reading these novels has made me want to visit Shetland and see the locations for myself (one quibble is that a map would have been a welcome inclusion; I understand that one is due to appear in the American edition.)

This book begins with a masked man, dressed as a Pierrot, handing out leaflets to tourists arriving at Lerwick from a cruise ship. Then the attention shifts to Perez and his lover Fran, attending an art exhibition at which a stranger falls to his knees and begins to weep. Soon afterwards, local man Kenny Thomson looks into a hut on a jetty and finds a man, dead from hanging. He is wearing the mask of a clown.

Like the late Julian Symons, I’m fascinated by the idea of masks, and the intriguing nature of this plot device was one of the elements that drew me into the book. A second murder soon follows, and the momentum is maintained throughout, whereas the pace in the first hundred pages of Raven Black was rather more leisurely. There are a couple of features of the plot that struck me as a little unlikely, but perhaps legitimate given that the story-line involves performance and playing a part. The great merit of this book is that the people and places are described with such conviction as to ensure that the tale told never becomes unbelievable. This is a first rate crime novel.

1 comment:

Juliet said...

Having recently read and enjoyed Raven Black, I'm looking forward to this one very much. Heartily agree that a map would be an extremely useful addition. I printed one from the internet which I used as a bookmark while reading RB!