Written by Ann Cleeves — Crime fiction authors seem to follow a trend. Remember when every other book had the word ‘girl’ in the title? Then there are the titles which play with famous songs providing you with the free bonus of an earworm when you’re reading. Trust English writer Ann Cleeves to be ahead of the pack. Can we expect more Chekov plays to feature in the best-selling lists now?
If you’re looking for unrequited love or Russian countryside here, you’ll be disappointed. This is DI Vera Stanhope we’re talking about, so instead we’re firmly ensconced in the North East of England, where the weather is sultry and crime appears to be on a go-slow. This is the eighth book in the series that began with The Crow Trap and Vera is currently fed up with twiddling her thumbs, so when the boss wants a volunteer to talk to the men on the Elderly and Disabled Wing at Warkworth Prison, she jumps at the chance to get out of the office.
It’s a bit of a jolly and she treats herself to lunch on the way, deciding to fill the allotted hour with an off-the-cuff speech about the effect their crimes had on their victims, then piss off home early. The best laid plans…
Among the sea of faces, Vera spots a man in a wheelchair who is jarringly familiar. It’s John Brace, former Superintendent of the CID. He’s in prison for a number of crimes which also featured her late father, Hector. After the talk, Brace is insistent that he needs to speak to Vera. He has MS, wants her to do him a favour, and in return he’ll spill the beans about a murder which may or may not implicate Hector too. Brace and Hector were half of a group who dubbed themselves the Gang of Four. The others were Robbie Marshall and a mystery man known only as The Prof. Now Brace says Robbie is dead and he knows where the body can be found…
Thus begins a case that’s destined to lead Vera to the edge of despair, and when two sets of bones are found in the hiding place highlighted by Brace, she begins to feel the pressure even more. One set belong to a woman – but who is she? Did the mysterious Prof have anything to do with the deaths? And what part did an old nightclub called The Seagull play in all of this?
The stuttering pace of a police investigation plays out perfectly here, but among the procedural elements are tantalising glimpses that add meat to the bones of a compelling cast of characters. From the tightly knit cameraderie of Vera’s team to the edge-of-despair existence of a young mother with mental issues, all are given a satisfying moment in the spotlight.
Grab a few cushions and get comfy, because this is a tale that will pull you in close and keep you there. Ann Cleeves has a canny knack of creating such vivid scenes that they play out, like mini movie screenings, on the backs of the eyelids. This book is set firmly in Whitley Bay and Cleeves should be made an honorary member of the town’s tourist board, so lovingly is it rendered in print. That 20-20 clarity is aided, of course, by the brilliant TV adaptations of the Vera books in which Brenda Blethyn is the living and breathing embodiment of our down-at-heel heroine – even the author thinks so and there’s no better recommendation than that.
I adore Vera, who is something of a cross between Miss Marple and Columbo, but unlike that pair we know her inside out. And we know, at the end of it all, she’ll get her man (or woman). Some crime heroes love to sail close to the wind, while Vera may appear to be happier paddling about in the shallows in a tattered rubber dinghy. But don’t be fooled, because beneath that tatty anorak beats the heart of a lioness and under her rain hat there’s a brain equal to that of Poirot or Rebus. More please!
CFL Rating: 5 Stars