Written by Ann Cleeves — As the rain batters the windows and the wind howls down the chimney, there’s only one thing to do – settle down in front of a roaring fire with a good book. Or in this case, a great one.
Ann Cleeves excels in writing about the day to day, the familiar, the normal – and turning it into the foundations of a cracking crime novel. I’ve long been a fan of her Shetland series featuring Jimmy Perez, but Vera Stanhope was uncharted territory for this reviewer. My bad! Vera is a Detective Inspector based in the North East of England. She’s getting on in years, overweight and a complete one-off who tends to go her own sweet way in her relentless pursuit of wrong-doers. This is much to the trepidation of her team, which includes straight-laced Joe Ashworth and career-minded Holly Clarke.
It’s getting near to Christmas, and the snow is falling as Joe and his young daughter, Jess, are returning home on the Metro train following her carol service. Just one stop from home, the packed train halts. It’s been stopped by the ‘wrong type of snow’ and the passengers are advised to get off and wait for a replacement bus service to their destination. Everyone complies, except for a well-dressed elderly woman who is still in her seat, apparently dozing. Jess goes over to wake her up – and discovers the woman is dead.
A post-mortem shows that Margaret Krukowski was murdered with a thin blade but no one on the train – including Joe – saw it happen. Why would anyone want to kill this reserved, elegant lady?
The investigation begins in Mardle, on the Northumberland coast, at the B&B where Margaret lived, free of charge. She helped out the owner, Kate Dewar, and was a grandmother figure to Kate’s teenaged son and daughter. As Vera and her team talk to the locals, they uncover a whole raft of secrets which have lain hidden for years – but which, if any, have a bearing on Margaret’s murder? Then a second woman is killed in Mardle. The police ponder how the deaths are linked, and Vera is convinced that the key to it all lies in Margaret’s past. However, the tight-lipped residents are closing ranks, so getting closer to the truth will be another matter.
Many readers may also know Vera from the ITV series starring Brenda Blethyn. Again, I’ll admit to having missed it though I’ll certainly look out for the re-runs in future, because she’s a character in a million. Vera may sometimes look like a bag lady, but her skills at unpicking mysteries are first rate; she has a great empathy with people, particularly the underdog, whom she invariably calls ‘pet’.
I didn’t expect the final reveal. Those cleverly disguised dead ends had me completely fooled, which is just the way I like it. But Harbour Street is one of those books that you don’t want to finish, because the journey has been so engrossing and enjoyable, and I was sorry to say goodbye to Mardle.
Harbour Street is released on 16 January.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars