“Nobody does unsettling undercurrents better than Ann Cleeves,” says Scottish writer Val McDermid, who knows a bit about unsettling undercurrents herself. British author Cleeves started her career in crime with the novels featuring George and Molly Palmer-Jones, a pair of “twitchers” or avid bird watchers, who travel the length and breadth of the British Isles managing to find murder and mayhem in the most bucolic of places. Cleeves published eight of the Palmer-Jones mysteries between 1986 and 1996, meanwhile also starting up a procedural series featuring Inspector Ramsay–a series of six books.
In 1999 she began the series featuring Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope, which has since been turned into a television series by England’s ITV. In 2006 the prolific Cleeves initiated her Shetland Quartet, which includes Raven Black, White Nights, Red Bones, and Blue Lightning, all featuring Inspector Jimmy Perez on duty on the remote Shetland Islands off Scotland. In a starred review, a Publishers Weekly critic found the first in the series a “ taut, atmospheric thriller [that] will keep readers guessing until the last page.” The final installment, Blue Lightning, comes out in the United States this fall. British reviewers found much to like in the concluding volume of the quartet. The Times Literary Supplement declared that “Cleeves has found a way of transforming the closed-circle elements that made Golden Age detective fiction so satisfying,” while the Telegraph observed, “Ann Cleeves has shown that if you go far enough north, Britain boasts bone-chilling backdrops that rival anything the Scandinavian crime writers can offer for bleakness…. Cleeves’s ability to combine old-fashioned, well-crafted plotting with psychological penetration makes her a rare bird herself.”
Ann, it is indeed an honor to have you with us on Scene of the Crime. A writer myself, I am truly impressed not only with your wonderful plots and characters, but also by the sheer amount of your output. We could spend a good deal of time just deciding which of your series to focus on, but let’s pay special attention to the Shetland Quartet.
Maybe we could being with a description of your connection to Scotland and the Shetland Islands?
I write two different series at present. The Vera Stanhope books are set in Northumberland, which is home. I love the contrast between the vibrant city of Newcastle, the wild countryside that runs all the way to the Scottish border and the post-industrial corner in the south-east. It’s very exciting at the moment because these books are in the process of being filmed for television with the magnificent Brenda Blethyn in the lead. I’m probably better known though, especially in the United States, for the Shetland Quartet. Raven Black, the first of these, won the CWA Gold Dagger and was very much my break through book. I’d been writing for twenty years so success didn’t come quickly or easily!
I first went to Shetland more than thirty years ago. I’d dropped out of university and met someone in a pub who offered me a job as assistant cook in the bird observatory on Fair Isle. He said they were desperate. They must have been because I couldn’t cook and knew nothing about birds. I stayed for two seasons and my cooking certainly improved, though my birding knowledge is still woefully ignorant. I fell in love with the island immediately. I arrived there in spring and the place was covered in flowers and there were seabirds all over the cliffs. Later I met my husband, who arrived as a visiting ornithologist. The place is very special to us both. A couple of years ago my daughter worked at the observatory in her university holidays, so the tradition continues.
Now I visit Shetland two or three times a year to meet up with friends and immerse myself in the place. I don’t write dialect, but there’s a certain rhythm of speech that I try to capture in the dialogue, and I lose that very quickly when I’m not there.
I write mysteries that are very traditional in form, although they’re contemporary and I hope the themes and preoccupations are relevant today. So the isolated community with very fixed boundaries is perfect for me. Shetlanders do know their neighbors and there’s a sense of violation when bad things happen. I was anxious when I first starting writing that it might be difficult to give each story its own flavor, but the fact that the archipelago lies so far north works very well for me. In winter it’s dark pretty much all day and in mid-summer it is light all night. The sun slides towards the horizon before rising again. Birds sing at midnight. Spring is often foggy and in autumn there are the storms of the equinox. So each book has a different mood and I enjoy that. Raven Black is set in winter, White Nights in summer, Red Bones in spring and Blue Lightning in the autumn.
I don’t think my Shetland stories could have been written about anywhere else. The isolation has a profound effect on the way the murders are investigated. For example it provides a tension between the local detective, my hero Jimmy Perez, and the investigating officer sent in from the south. The environmental concerns, the influence of oil money in the community, the determination to maintain old traditions – Raven Black features the Viking fire festival Up Helly Aa – all these are an intrinsic part of the plots.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
Again both plot and character are very much rooted in location. Even the name of my series detective comes from the islands. I wanted a central character who was a Shetlander but still an outsider. So I made him a Fair Islander – Fair Isle is the most remote inhabited island in the UK and nearly 3 hours by boat from Shetland mainland [the largest island in the archipelago]. And then I gave him a Spanish name. There’s a wreck from the Spanish Armada off Fair Isle. It’s called the Gran Grifon and there were survivors. So the fiction is that Jimmy’s ancestor was a Spanish sailor who scrambled ashore in the sixteenth century.
Jimmy is very ambiguous about his home. Especially about Fair Isle. He was sent to Shetland mainland when he was eleven to go to school (this is a reality for Fair Isle kids – they have to board and don’t even get home at weekends). His parents assumed he would return to work on the family croft and take his place as skipper on the mail boat, but he joined the police service in Aberdeen. Working in Shetland mainland is a compromise. His girl friend Fran is an incomer – an Englishwoman and an artist. She’s an enthusiast. I write some parts of the stories from her point of view to give a very different perspective on the place.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
Shetlanders are amazingly gracious about the books, even local writers who would be entitled to be resentful. I always launch the books there. We had a lovely launch on Fair Isle for Blue Lightning – in this book Jimmy takes Fran home to meet his family. The islanders put up my guests in their own homes and there was a party in the community hall. And Promote Shetland, the Shetland Tourist Board, has been incredibly supportive. Overseas visitors come to Shetland now to see where Jimmy lives and works. I enjoy working with Shetlanders. I do library and literature festival gigs with Chris Stout, an award-winning fiddle-player, who was brought up on Fair Isle.
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
This was a really bad one: I talked about an inquest during one investigation. Scottish law is quite different from English. There are no coroners and no inquests.
Of the Shetland novels, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
I don’t have a favorite. It’s so difficult to be objective after spending nine months with the characters. I think the very beginning of Raven Black works well. An elderly man, Magnus Tait, waits in his lonely croft house, to welcome in the new year. For eight years he’s waited in vain for someone to visit him on New Year’s Eve. This time two beautiful young women stagger in out of the cold and change his life forever.
My reading passion is crime fiction in translation. Perhaps because of the Scandinavian connection – Shetland was a part of Norway until the 14th century – I like the Nordic writers. There’s a wonderful new Swedish author called Johan Theorin.
So is it mothballs for Jimmy Perez now that the quartet is complete?
I’ve recently taken some time away from Jimmy Perez and Shetland to write more Vera Stanhope novels – ITV is running out of books to adapt! But even though the Shetland Quartet is now complete, there will be more novels set there. Jimmy Perez will be back!
Ann, thanks so much for taking the time to talks with us on Scene of the Crime.
For more information about Ann Cleeves, visit her homepage.