Completed: Raven Black (Shetland Island Series)

Cover: Raven Black by Ann CleevesRaven Black
Ann Cleeves
2006, UK

Twenty past one in the morning on New Year’s Day. Magnus knew the time because of the fat clock, his mother’s clock, which squatted on the shelf over the fire. In the corner the raven in the wicker cage muttered and croaked in its sleep. Magnus waited. The room was prepared for visitors, the fire banked with peat and on the table a bottle of whiskey and the ginger cake he’d bought in Safeway’s the last time he was in Lerwick. He could feel himself dozing but he didn’t want to go to bed in case someone should call at the house. If there was a light at the window someone might come, full of laughter and drams and stories. For eight years nobody had visited to wish him happy new year, but he still waited just in case.

Outside it was completely silent. There was no sound of wind. In Shetland when there was no wind it was shocking. People strained their ears and wondered what was missing. Earlier in the day there has been a dusting of snow, then with dusk this was covered by a sheet of frost, every crystal flashing and hard as diamond in the last of the light, and even when it got dark, in the beam from the lighthouse. The cold was another reason for Magnus staying where he was. In the bedroom the ice would be thick on the inside of the window and the sheets would feel chill and damp.  (Opening)

I believe I first heard of Ann Cleeves’s Shetland mysteries by way of knitting. While that may sound a bit odd, there is a distinct style of lace knitting that originates in the Shetland Islands (and Fair Isle, known for its knitted color-work is between Shetland and the Scottish mainland). One Shetland topic–lace–led to another–mysteries–but it was finally an NPR interview with author Ann Cleeves this summer that prompted me to pick up the first in her Shetland series.

I guess it’s been a while since I’ve read any contemporary mysteries (mysteries, not thrillers). A few years at least. I say (write) this because I was about halfway through Raven Black when my oh-so-intellectual thought process became “Oh! Duh! Mysteries have conventions!” Right. In this instance, the convention of a rather small cast of characters that form the entire list of suspects. Of course, for a novel set in a small town in  remote Shetland, a small cast of characters is perhaps also realistic.

Actually, it was a certain sense of realism that I think kept me in part from remembering the mystery conventions. This is a mystery that seems plausible–the victim, the community, their motivations. Even the activities of the police seem grounded in reality–the early mornings, late nights, little to go on, waiting, waiting, questioning, listening. No grand revelations. (That said, the end did feel a bit rushed, but I so often feel that way, that I wonder if it’s me speeding up.) It is the story of a murdered girl, Catherine Ross, 16, an outsider, yet at first there seems no reason anyone should wish her dead. Which is why suspicion immediately–and naturally–falls on the lonely old man who was questioned, but never charged in the disappearance of a little girl some years previous.

The story is told from the points of view of four characters: Magnus Tait, the man suspected; Jimmy Perez, the local detective; Fran Hunter, who discovered the body; and Sally Henry, the victim’s neighbor and friend. While I didn’t notice that their voices (with the exception of Magnus) were distinct, their perspectives–what they know, what they are thinking, who they meet and talk to, their motivations–are decidedly so. It was a method of storytelling I really liked (at least here)–the different perspectives, the way it moved the narrative forward. I don’t think I would necessarily call it a “fast-paced” novel, yet I found it difficult to put down.

Of course, I think I must also be a terrible mystery reader. I never work out “who done it.” Sigh.

I’ve never been to Shetland (or Scotland, or any of the U.K.), so I don’t really know how accurate Cleeve’s portrait of the islands is, but it felt real: The descriptions of the landscape, of the town, the sprinkling in of local words (such as “peerie”), the insights on a small town. Cleeves is not from Shetland, but has been there many times, and in her NPR interview, she takes the reporter to meet some Shetland friends who review her novels for accuracy before they are published. There is a remote feel that I would expect from settlements so far from the bustling cities and easy access to–everything. (It is amazing to me to know, actually, that during the Victorian era, English women would purchase fine–ultra-fine, actually–knit lace shawls from Shetland and send them back to be washed and blocked as needed–in an era when the islands were even more remote!) It is a setting I will be happy to return to with her later books.

Raven Black is my first R.I.P. read this autumn.

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