The ending of her popular Shetland series saw Ann Cleeves turning to a new character, DI Matthew Venn, a gay man based in North Devon. But although readers said a sad farewell to Jimmy Perez in Wild Fire, there’s still one familiar face that just keeps on going. We’re talking about DI Vera Stanhope, Northumberland’s finest, who makes her 10th appearance in print in The Rising Tide.
Recent outings have seen the beloved character feeling her age somewhat, and the same is true for the band of friends who are central to this book. It was 50 years ago that they all visited Lindisfarne, known to the locals as Holy Island, for a bonding weekend organised by their hip and trendy teacher Miss Marshall. She called the gathering Only Connect, and on every fifth anniversary that has transpired since the first meeting, the old pals have met up for a weekend of spirituality, friendship, and good food and drink at the Pilgrims’ House.
It was 45 years ago that tragedy marred the occasion, with one of their number drowning while crossing the causeway to the mainland at high tide. The remaining friends still mourn Isobel – but in the present day they’re here to have a relaxing weekend, and soon set about achieving that aim. All is going swimmingly… until one of their number is found hanged in his room. Rick Kelsall had found fame and fortune in the days since the group was at school together, a fame that recently turned sour with allegations of sexual harassment that sent him out of the spotlight. Now he is dead. Did that spectacular fall from grace turn his thoughts to suicide?
Enter Vera Stanhope, crossing the causeway in her ageing Land Rover and soon setting the cat among the pigeons. The friends are a disparate bunch who’ve stayed in touch through thick and thin, with Philip a priest, Annie who runs a deli over on the mainland, and Ken who is now starting on the dementia journey. His wife Louise was a few years below them at school and is a later addition to the group. All are shocked by what’s occurred and Vera senses that all of them are hiding something. Time to settle back and watch her work, and as the roll call of suspects grows it is a pleasure to witness what transpires.
The inexorable passage of both time and tide underpin this book, giving the narrative a palpable sense of urgency, while the confined setting for all of the action adds an unsettling claustrophobia which keeps the pages turning and turning. There are some lovely flashes of humour – as Vera is called into work, she’s preparing to go to a crime fiction festival with her next door neighbour, who is an author, and when she has to cry off at the last minute it is clear that neither was particularly relishing the idea. She is also enjoying a little power play with her sergeant, Joe Ashworth, and DC Holly Clarke – setting each off on their appointed tasks and watching the sparks fly as they vie for her attention.
As we readers know, you underestimate Vera at your peril, and it seems that only Annie has her measure while others make the mistake of judging the DI by her Columbo-like appearance and demeanour. That all changes when the pieces begin to fall into place in true Ann Cleeves style.
The Rising Tide is a book that keeps the readers guessing, with a lushly rendered setting that adds drama and conflict to the narrative. Alongside the group of friends are additional characters who may or may not have an important part to play – but whatever their standing, Cleeves makes them live and breathe. As for Vera, she may be getting a little long in the tooth but that sharp brain of hers is still fully functioning, thanks very much pet. I’m already looking forward to book number 11!
CFL Rating: 4 Stars