Recently we watched the first two seasons of the British television mysteries Shetland, set on the Shetland Islands. I thought the show was very good, although I found I had to be very attentive because I wasn’t used to the accents, and as well, the mix on our DVDs seems a little out of whack, with the music a little loud and dialog a little quiet, causing us to mess with the volume control a lot. I liked the setting and I very much liked the “un-Hollywoodness” of Shetland. I suppose if there were two poles for crime drama, Shetland would be on one and CSI on the other.
At some point I twigged to the fact that the show was based on specific books, by an author named Ann Cleeves, who also wrote the books the Vera series was based on (we’ve tried to watch that one, but I keep nodding off mid-episode). The fact that each episode is based on a novel reminded me of Wallander. We had watched the British Wallander series and then I went on to read the wonderful novels by the late Henning Mankell, which I thought were even better than the excellent television adaptations. As an aside, the other obvious comparison between Shetland and Wallander from a television perspective is the pervasiveness of the dramatic northern landscape.
I decided to read one of the Ann Cleeves Shetland books so I started at the beginning with Raven Black, the story of two murders several years apart – one the murder of a little girl and the second the murder of a teen-aged girl. A reclusive old man was blamed for the first – but not charged – and then blamed for the second and this time charged with the crimes. Of course he was responsible for neither of the crimes (I suppose that’s a spoiler, but it seems to me the guy everyone thought did it couldn’t possibly be the murderer).
I’m what you might call an occasional reader of mystery novels. I think the best ones are those in which the mystery is the form which the auther uses to tell a broader story. In the end, a whodunnit can only be so interesting if it is only about the crime. It has to work its way past the plot-line in some way.
Raven Black offers up a unique setting, a place with a very limited and isolated population, which has its own traditions, from knitting patterns to a Viking celebration. It is also a tourist destination, which affords the opportunity to build up characters from the Islands against those from away. As the books form a series, Ann Cleeves could build up her characters over time across several novels. It will be interesting to see how successful or ambitious she has been doing that.
Within the first book, we learn some about Shetland life, and some about the protagonist, a policeman named Jimmy Perez, but not in great depth. Cleeves does spin a good mystery tale, and for sure Raven Black is a page-turner. I enjoyed the read, but it left me wanting more – not more mysteries necessarily but more of the bigger story about life in that unique setting and what it tells us about us humans and how we interact in the world.
I’d call it a pretty good mystery, beyond the “good time-waster” label but not quite up there with Wallander, or to give an older example, Nicolas Freeling’s Van der Valk novels, which seem to me to transcend the bounderies of genre fiction. I rated this one 3 stars on Goodreads, and I’ll read the next one in the series sometime soon and report back.