As periodically happens, I went on a mystery kick for a bit, re-reading Louise Penny’s A Fatal Grace (second in her Armand Gamache series) and starting a new (to me) series by Ann Cleeves. Raven Black, the first book in her Inspector Perez series, traces Inspector Jimmy Perez’s investigation into the murder of a local girl, Sally Henry, when she disappears after a night of revelry with her best friend. Magnus Tait, a mentally delayed man who was the last person to see Sally and who was supposedly involved in the disappearance of a young girl years before, is the immediate suspect, but neither Perez nor Fran, a recent arrival to the remote community with her daughter who lives close to the murder scene, are convinced. As Perez’s investigation deepens, social structures, relationships, and deeply held secrets all threaten to come undone.
This is a solid mystery. It’s set in the Shetland Islands, a new location for me in my reading. The pace of the mystery as well as revelations was good. Nothing felt gratuitous or unlikely, and every revelation or break in the case was well-supported without being telegraphed. The novel reads very quickly, and the flow was such that it was easy for me to not just keep going but to want to keep going.
Cleeves writes the story from multiple perspectives, starting with Magnus Tait. These sections, in my opinion, are some of the best. They are certainly the most upsetting. Cleeves does a fantastic job conveying Magnus’s confusion, fear, jumbled memories, and lack of understanding of what is going on around him. Her writing of him is both specific and empathetic, and these sections created both the strongest reaction and buy-in from me as I read. I also liked Perez. He is a good detective with strong instincts, and the personal conflict he was dealing with throughout the novel supported his character development without detracting from the mystery. Overall, most of the characters seemed complete, but I did feel like I was watching a lot of them from a distance, even when I was reading from their perspectives “inside” their heads. As a result, some elements of the novel felt a bit perfunctory. The stakes didn’t all feel real or seem to matter until the end, and even then, there wasn’t a visceral connection for the reader. So much of mystery writing is about convey the very real, horrible, and human emotions and experiences around such an event as murder, and for me, the characters just felt a bit detached.
Additionally, and this is a small thing, the jumps in time felt abrupt to me. For example, people are having a conversation in a car, and one sentence later, they’ve jumped 30 minutes ahead in time and are at a party in the house. The problem for me wasn’t the jumps in time themselves but the construction of those jumps–no transition words or statements to indicate time and place had moved ahead or changed. A couple of times, I had to go back and reread to make sure I knew when and where everyone was. It bothered me because it didn’t feel like a purposeful structural choice, just jarring and disorienting.
That being said, the twist at the end was great. I totally didn’t see it coming, but it absolutely made sense when it happened. I didn’t completely buy the events that wrapped up the ending, but the twist was completely earned–the kind M. Night Shyamalan can only dream of.
As far as British-style mysteries go, it wasn’t my favorite, but it wasn’t the worst. It was very different from the Slow Horses series I’d been checking out, and I think generally I like this better. However, I wondered as I was reading if it might not work better on television where the visuals of the Shetlands, which are supposed to be a huge part of the atmosphere of the novel, can have a more immediate impact. I will probably read the second one in the series at some point, but like Slow Horses, the second novel needs to be a significant step up for me to continue the series after that.