Shetland Tales

I was introduced to Ann Cleeves by spotting her as the author of the books that inspired the Vera series made by the UK’s Channel Four and the Shetland series made by the BBC. This post is about the Shetland series, marking me having finished the last of the books.

First, a word about reading the books after having watched the TV show. Every reader has their own mental image of the characters in a book. That image is rarely one that matches with the onscreen version, whether it be film or television. My experience with Shetland matches that: my image of Jimmy Perez, the main character, was and is nothing like Douglas Henshall, the actor playing the role on the TV. The book descriptions often refer to Perez’ dark swarthy skin and Henshall is the typical sun-starved Scot! However, in general I found Henshall’s portrayal to be otherwise close to the character in the books. But, while the TV show is OK, the books are much better.

I recommend the book series with the usual suggestion that, to get the best out of them, you read them in order.

Here, in order, are the books.

Raven Black. The first in the series is the weakest as the characters are not quite as well drawn or as realistic as in later books. However, it’s a worthwhile investment to read given the riches that await the reader in the next seven books. The plot is a straightforward murder mystery, the victim a young neighbor of an older, intellectually challenged individual who is the prime suspect.

White Nights. Building on the decent foundation of the first book, the writer truly gets into her stride here. The Shetland backdrop is brilliantly portrayed, and the characters take a decent three-dimensional shape. In this book, it’s Perez who finds the victim: an out-of-towner who had caused a scene at a party the night before. Was it suicide? Perez is on the case!

Red Bones. This time, Perez looks into what seems to be the tragic accidental shooting of an old woman. Of course, nothing is quite what it sems and Perez’ investigation ruffles a few feathers. Of the eight, this was the one with the weakest plot. It’s serviceable and is rescued by the quality of the writing and the generally enthralling picture the author creates.

Blue Lightning. This is one of the best in the series, featuring death in the bird-watching community. The variety and depth of characters stands out, with the authentic backdrop and the details of the bird watchers combining for a wonderful read.

Dead Water. An island boy made good as a journalist left under something of a cloud. He returns to Shetland and ends up dead. This is a contender for the best in the series. There are several twists and turns and the investigation taunts the reader with plenty red herrings. The involvement of the local procurator fiscal in the investigation – as a witness at the very least – is a nice touch. The implications are dealt with cleverly so as to maintain the right level of suspicion and mystery.

Thin Air. After a wedding party attended by a group of old university friends who travelled up for the occasion, one of them disappears overnight and is subsequently found dead. Before her disappearance, the victim claimed to have seen a ghost: a local child who drowned decades previously.  Did the sighting have anything to do with the murder? A cracking story, well told.

Cold Earth. Heavy rainfall triggers a landslide, destroying some property. In one wrecked home, an unknown woman is found, dead.  It turns out that she was dead before the landslide. So, who was she, and who killed here, and why? There are a lot of loose ends in this story, but they are beautifully wrapped up by the time the finale takes place. A wonderful piece of crime fiction.

Wild Fire. Sadly, this is the last of the series. The body of a young nanny is found in the barn belonging to a family from England who have moved up north to give a better life to their kids, including an autistic son. t’s the same barn where the previous owner hung himself. There are some shocking revelations ahead – for Perez and in the investigation – as the author puts all her skill to use in delivering a fine finish to the series. As always for me, the huge disappointment on reaching the last page was a reliable indication that I had enjoyed the books immensely.

Closing. These books are a true-to-life mix of the gentle and the harsh, the kind and the savage, because they reflect human life and society. In among the killers, most of the baddies being unhinged temporarily or otherwise, are people trying to survive and doing their best despite the challenges they face. Cleeves manages to portray her characters with sympathy and style, with care and consideration, with economy and precision. And the Shetland backdrop in all its varieties and splendor is superbly rendered. It almost makes me want to get on a boat…