A hot summer on the Northumberland coast. Julie Armstrong, a divorced mother of two teenagers, arrives home from a night out to find her son murdered in their own bathroom. Luke, a beautiful boy but hardly the sharpest tool in the drawer, has been strangled, laid out in the bathtub filled with water and covered with wild flowers like a dead Ophelia.
This stylized murder scene has Inspector Vera Stanhope and her team intrigued and at a loss. Then a second body – that of beautiful student and a temporary teacher, Lily Marsh – is discovered laid out in a rock pool, the water similarly strewn with flowers. A coincidence? A copycat murder? An atrocity perpetrated by the same sick individual? Vera must work quickly to find this killer who is making art out of death and who is likely to repeat it ad nauseam.
Clues are slow to emerge from those who had known Luke and Lily, but Vera soon finds herself drawn towards the curious group of friends and bird watchers who discovered Lily’s body. What unites these four men and one woman? Are they really the close-knit, trustworthy, respectable unit they claim to be?
What I liked:
Despite the fact that Ann Cleeves has published twenty-five novels since 1986, this is the first of her books I’ve read. I admit I was intrigued when I found out that the series features a middle-aged, less-than-pretty female detective with a sharp and suspicious mind. The third book featuring Vera was available in my local library so I decided to jump right in the middle of the series and give it a try.
I admit was very happy I’d borrowed the book – it really was refreshingly different than your ordinary crime mystery. Despite the fact that the story followed each of the main characters in turn, it was fat, lonely Vera who made the biggest impression on me – no surprises here. Imagine a female senior police officer living in an old, empty railway station building and moving around dressed like your average bag lady, always drinking too much and never cleaning enough. Yes, she was often awkward with her staff and unaware that they were frightened of her; she was unable to find her bearings among posh folk but perfectly at ease while dealing with housewives, middle-aged secretaries, elderly people and ordinary workers. Her favourite trick was to make her interlocutors think she was as stupid and slow-witted as she was ugly. I loved her instantly. Time and again I thought that Vera could be indeed a ‘Jane Marple’ rebooted and refashioned for our times; what with her unabashed poking/probing into the lives of others, hunting for gossip and scandal over tea or beer, the only difference being that the police job gave Vera every right to poke into other people’s lives directly while Miss Marple remained a skilled amateur sleuth. And then there were glimpses of Vera’s sad childhood and school years, some info about her late father, a bird-loving eccentric and a drunk, finally her childlessness and ambiguous solitude emphasized by the sorry state of her home and clothes. Somehow it worked very well together.
The initial parts of the novel were slow-paced, almost quaint in the sense that the landscape, the initial introduction of the characters could all fit easily into any ‘Agatha Christie’ whodunit but I don’t complain – it allowed me to catch up with the previous parts and it made this one a stand-alone book easily. What’s more, the murder mystery was skillfully done – I didn’t guess the perpetrator till the very end.
What I didn’t like:
Apart from Vera Stanhope the characters all seemed so distant and cold; I admit I missed a kind of stronger counterpoint for the inspector because her closest co-operator and colleague, Joe Ashworth, in my humble opinion didn’t manage to carry that burden well. Overall the whole setting seemed a bit incongruous to a police procedural. The violence too was understated, almost respectful of the victims which made the killings almost artificial. Perhaps also the brilliant Vera and her team stayed clueless for a tad too long. Oh well.
A skilfully written whodunit featuring an unusual policewoman – perhaps simply an unusual woman – who does a brilliant job out of hunting criminals but can’t control her own life. I recommend it for the sheer originality of the character of Vera Stanhope. I think I will keep reading.