YOU never know where you’ll end up with author Ann Cleeves.
An ongoing anticipatory game for crime fiction fans is guessing where her next book will take us.
Or rather, which of her characters will be leading our way.
Maybe dour Jimmy Perez will be donning his monkey jacket to traipse around the wind-blown Shetlands.
Perhaps we will be watching heart-of-gold grumps Vera Stanhope jollying her crew over Northumberland’s moorlands and coast.
Or, more recently, the rather pallid and low-key Matthew Venn coping with community rifts along the North Devon estuaries and marshlands.
Each are distinctive. Each has an appeal, although Venn is a bit of a damp squib yet to gain the heft of the other two.
All have been shaped by secretive back stories. These they staunchly protect and only slowly drip feed to their long-suffering colleagues.
The most recent offering is The Rising Tide. This transports us back to the north-east to focus on the atmospheric Holy Island, steeped in ancient history and religion. There we are reacquainted with Vera Stanhope and several of her team from past triumphs.
A reunion gathering of former students is shattered when one of them is found dead by hanging.
Suicide or murder? That is for Vera to unravel.
This involves digging deep into fragile friendships that began fifty years ago.
Affairs, rivalries, accusations and half-truths slowly emerge among the dank, misty and claustrophobic isolation of an island approached only by a narrow causeway that is hidden by the dangerous swirling tide twice a day.
It is an atmospheric novel embracing a community held captive by isolation, thick sea mists and the tightly held emotions and attitudes of the suspects.
The slightest move is loaded with suspicion and accusation.
Danger looms and lurks with every step the reunion members take outside their door. One of their number has already been swept away years ago when fleeing (but from what, or who?) across the causeway.
When Vera uncovers hidden links with present-day residents on the mainland, the net of suspicion is cast far wider than her team first assumed.
And it soon becomes clear that the killer – or killers – will stop at nothing to guard liaisons that have remained treacherously hidden for many years.
Cleeves does a nice line in strewing red herrings through the narrative.
Those who seem obvious prime suspects are not as guilty as they first appear. And it takes a long winding trail to lead us to the eventual culprit.
But before the thrilling denouement there is the threat of that rising tide of the title as well as several precarious moments for Vera and her team.
Another well-paced and relentless drama from one of the best.
Moorland murder and menace
In the The Crow Trap, the first Vera Stanhope book, author Cleeves sent her resolute detective traipsing across the moors of the North Pennines rather than tackling crime in her more usual coastal haunts of the later books.
This is a bleak and windswept location that is almost as obdurate and challenging as the array of tight-lipped characters that confront Vera at almost every turn.
So secretive, so unyielding.
Although first published by Macmillan in 1999, The Crow Trap has only recently appeared as a Pan Macmillan paperback. Twenty years on it is as fresh as ever and is sure to be snapped up by cost-conscious Cleeves’ fans who avoided the hardback original.
It is also an interesting document in that it shows how much the author has developed her skills since this first tale in the now long-running Vera Stanhope series.
Even in this first book Cleeves shows her mastery at describing the setting. The terrain, flora and fauna are as integral to the story as the terse dialogue and the questionable actions of those who live there.
She knows it so well and brings it as much to life as its people.
The landscape is as forbidding and treacherous as those Vera encounters as she unravels the fraught relationships between three women who gather in an isolated stone cottage to complete an environmental survey.
They are an ill-matched trio and ill-suited to being restricted by the location and the weather.
Their tense relationships are further strained when Vera arrives on the scene and insinuates herself into their daily routines.
When an apparent suicide is followed by a second suspicious death the plot – as the saying goes – definitely thickens.
It becomes a veritable mire as treacherous as the terrain that Cleeves so brilliantly describes as the backdrop to a tale of duplicity and revenge.
Decades-old resentments, professional jealousies and fragile family relationships steadily simmer towards an inevitable boiling point.
The deeper she digs, the more reasons Vera discovers for the deaths than have occurred – and for more yet to come. Childhood abandonment, alcohol addiction, falsified documents and broken marriages all come into play.
Looming over it all is the ancient and menacing crow trap.
Was there ever a better symbol for the deadly deceits that humankind wreaks upon itself? Or for a tale where murder seems to be the immutable answer?
Unless Vera can put an end to the killer’s trail of death.
A complex and tightly woven tale with Vera already emerging as a unique and multi-layered member of the crime-solving ranks.