Too Good to be True
by Ann Cleeves.
Pan Books, 2016.
“Do you think Anna Blackwell committed suicide?”
Maggie answered straightaway. “Not in a thousand years. She adored her daughter. There was no way she would have killed herself and left Lucy without a mother.”Chapter 7, ‘The School’
Shetland detective Jimmy Perez is urgently invited down to the Scottish Borders village of Stonebridge by his ex-wife Sarah, who wants to get to the bottom of the circumstances surrounding a young teacher’s death. Was the prescription drug overdose fatally administered by Anna herself, unable to cope with gossip about her supposed relationship with Sarah’s second husband, or by persons unknown? The local police think there are no suspicious circumstances but what could Jimmy discover with a bit of judicious sleuthing over a couple of days?
Taking care not to step on the toes of a colleague in the local police force, Jimmy begins a methodical but quiet investigation, witnessing the rumours, half-truths and intrigues common to small communities. A number of suspects suggest themselves to him, but it isn’t until an attempt is made on his life that he gets a real inkling of what really happened on the night Anna died.
This novella packs a lot into its less than a hundred pages of easy-to-read type. Jimmy is the main protagonist of Ann Cleeves’ crime fiction series set in the Shetland Islands and so is an established character (as is also Sarah I assume, though this is my first foray into the cases Perez has to deal with). The author approaches this mystery clinically: Perez has to determine not only if it was murder rather than a tragic suicide but also who might have the motivation, opportunity and means.
In the little time he has allotted himself he considers a list of suspects: a neighbour, the schoolteacher whom Anna replaced, Sarah’s doctor husband, a widowed farmer and her brother, even Jimmy’s ex-wife:
He stood for a moment on the path, looking in at the kitchen and the well-behaved children at the table. Sarah was stirring something in a pan on the stove. It all looked too good to be true.Chapter 1, ‘The Call for Help’.
Or is it the stranger who watches from a distance? Bit by bit, conversing with school staff, an estate agent, the landlady of the hotel where Perez stays, his police colleague and other locals he builds up a picture, helped by spotting a couple of vital clues missed at the scene. And it is indeed a crime scene, as he soon establishes — and for Jimmy it all becomes personal.
This is a title written for The Reading Agency’s Quick Read series, designed for regular readers but also “ideal for adults who are discovering reading for pleasure for the first time.” Though I fall into the first category I think the author has catered extremely well for the second. There is sufficient characterisation to build individual picture of the main actors, but not so much as to detract from the kind of pace common to the genre, necessary to hold the reader’s interest, and the satisfaction which comes from a story well told.
Why did the author agree to write this novella — or rather novelette? The answer comes in the dedication: To the library staff who made me an enthusiastic reader and continue to share their passion for books. Clearly it’s all about giving back and passing on that enjoyment which comes from engagement with the written word.
No 4 of 15 Books of Summer, after titles by G Willow Wilson, Sam Youd and Katherine Langrish.
Apologies for neglecting the blogs I usually follow for nearly a week — I hope to get round to some catch-up in the next couple of days.