Ann Cleeves has written a whole stack of books. This is her 31st. Sunday Times Bestselling author, and an imprint on the cover of the book showing some actor’s face, Douglas Henshall, with the tag now a major BBC drama. She is everything I am not, an established author whom I’ve never heard of until West Dunbartonshire Libraries made her novel Cold Earth novel of the week. Here’s where I segue away and start talking about myself like those insecure bores at the office party. (Hi girls and guys, did I tell you I was novel of the week, the week before Cold Earth in West Dunbartonshire Libraries and my novels a lot better than that? You should check it out https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lily-Poole-Jack-ODonnell/dp/1783522356). So in a way I’m checking out the competition and I’m committed to reading other novels nominated by West Dunbartonshire Library. Some times we get locked in our own wee worlds of reading and preferences we forget we’re not wearing high-viz vests and working in exclusive reading zones and there’s a whole world of books out there waiting to be read.
I love books, so that’s not a problem. The difficulty with Cold Earth, and detective novels in general, comes from watching too many episodes of Scooby Doo. At the end of 387 pages of Cold Earth the bad guy is going to come away with the Scooby line before getting led away, ‘And I’d have got away with it if it wasn’t for you damn kids…Scooby… Scooby Doo’.
We’re talking about characters, plot and setting here. On the first page, first paragraph, Ann Cleeves knows enough about writing books to fill a book and get these three in early to answer an unasked question of why the first paragraph in a book, or short-story is so important.
The land slipped while Jimmy Perez was standing beside the grave. The dead man’s family had come from Foula originally they’d carried the coffin on two oars, the way bodies were always brought for burial on that island. The pall-bearers were distant relatives whose forbears had moved south to England, but they must have thought the tradition was worth reviving. They’d time to plan the occasion; Magnus had a stroke and had been in hospital for six weeks before he died. Perez had visited him every Sunday, sat by his bed and talked about the old times. Not the bad old times when Magnus had been accused of murder, but the more recent good times, when Ravenswick had included him in all their community events.
The setting is a Scottish island near Shetland. And if you think all Scottish islands are the same then you probably have never heard of Charles Darwin, but you probably know enough to know that they are drab, claustrophobic, rainy places where if you don’t like the weather you can just fuck off.
Plot is established. For some writers a plot is where you grow turnips. Cleeves is Janus’s face here, looking backwards and forwards. She’s saying it’s not that quiet up here, Magnus has already been accused of murder, if you want to find out more read my old books. With all that rain there is a landslide. Jimmy Perez has come to bury his neighbour, but the land washes away the gravesite and the gravestones of the dead already buried, including Fran, Jimmy Perez’s fiancée buried a few graves along after being knifed to death. Her death haunts him and she talks to him from beyond the grave in italics. Don’t do that kind of thing unless you are an established writer.
Jimmy Perez is a detective it’s not his job to find out if God was responsible for sending all that rain to a wee God-fearing island perched on a rock on the Atlantic for not going to the Kirk enough, or if it’s global warming. But when cold earth ploughs through a small croft and the body of a woman is found, and it’s not an act of God, but she’s been murdered, then it is Detective Inspector Perez’s job to find out whodunit.
What I found interesting was Perez is written as the kind of eye-candy usually associated with women. His superior Willow, for example, comes from a different lifestyle, but another of the small Scottish islands, and she, like many of the locals, fancies him rotten and they do have sex, but it is off the page. Nothing that couldn’t be seen in a Disney Cartoon. That’s murder you might say, but Scooby, Scooby Doo, I quite like you.