When it becomes personal

© C A Lovegrove

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.

© C A Lovegrove

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.


746books.com

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.

24 thoughts on “When it becomes personal

  1. If you enjoyed this novella, then do take a look at the series of full-length books, too. There are only eight of them, alas, and I‘m trying to space them out as best I can so as to make the enjoyment last a bit longer, but I like them a lot — they‘re tremendously atmospheric (probably a better incitement to visit the Shetlands than anything the local tourist office has come up with) and great at characterization, too. Cleeves knows how to handle silences and little everyday gestures and occurrences to optimum effect.

    Meanwhile, thank you for reviewing this „extra“ to the series; this way I at least know I‘ll still have a palate cleanser to look forward to after the final novel! 🙂

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    1. I never watched the TV adaptations of her Shetlands series, with Douglas Henshall as Perez, and only managed one episode of Vera, based on her Vera Stanhope novels, but on the basis of this novelette and your recommendation I’m tempted to try the first of the Perez series.

      This Quick Reads offering as the name implies is short, apparently fitting in between the sixth and seventh in the series—it was another charity shop acquisition, a great way to trial authors new to one before committing to their larger body of work!

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      1. Thanks for mentioning the sequencing of the novella; I may end up taking that into account and treating the novella not as a palate cleanser but as a sort of elevenses (or afternoon tea) instead.

        The TV series captures the atmosphere of the novels quite accurately. Henshall doesn‘t look like the Jimmy Perez of the books (who is of half-Spanish descent, hence his last name, and it shows in his physical features), but he very much embodies the essence of his character. The plotlines of the series are altered vis-à-vis the books, too; still, it probably makes sense to have read at least the first book or two to get a taste of the original source material before moving on to the TV series (should you want to). Either way, I do recommend both the books and the TV series; each on its own merits and also in combination.

        What was it that stopped you from watching more than one „Vera“ TV episode?

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        1. The trope of the bumbling unorthodox detective, the outsider among her colleagues, I think wasn’t what we were in the mood for at the time, Ulrike, plus there seemed to be a lot of detective/cop shows on British TV just then. Or it could just be that we were a fan of Montalbano, a Sicilian police detective who’s, er, unorthodox and an outsider (because he’s a leftwing intellectual not corruptible in a society dominated by the Mafia). Also, we loved the Mediterranean setting and the ensemble cast, and got to catch a few new Italian phrases, and were probably loathe to transfer our allegiance to another cop show…

          I got this title’s place in the sequence probably from Goodreads, but I’d doublecheck if I were you—there’s a sense that his second wife is not long departed and he feels responsible for his stepdaughter.

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  2. I have not read Anne Cleeves but judging from the number of her books (tomes as they are) that I pick and pack at Macmillan’s warehouse where I am currently having to work, they are well read – obviously popular. I must try one sometime.

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    1. Though where you were on holiday (Dumfries and Galloway I’m guessing) is a world away from the Shetlands, I suppose the Perez novels might appeal to you, Alastair. Cleeves doesn’t try to capture Scottish pronunciations or dialect in her dialogues but I was well able to hear the Scots characters speaking, helped by the occasional turn of phrase and the odd “Aye”.

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    1. That was exactly my hope, Mallika, a taster of her style and protagonist. I’m not a huge consumer of crime fiction myself but enjoy the occasional visit as a change from other genres, and this seemed a good entré to one of her series.

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    1. Isn’t it! I totally agree—I think most readers and writers remember (and will want to do it publicly) who and what inpired them to embark on their literary journey of discovery.

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  3. I borrowed book 4 (Blue Lightning) from the library 5 years ago. My local branch didn’t have books 1-3 on the shelves. I have watched the tv show, which I love, and found it a weird experience to meet a different Jimmy Perez in the book to the one played by Douglas Henshall on tv. I liked the writing, though, and mean to go back to the start of the books. This novelette sounds interesting.

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    1. It apparently slots in a particular point of the Shetlands sequence, but it also functions as a standalone because you’re given the minimum background you need to make sense of how Perez is here in the Borders and not the Isles. Luckily there’s no disconnect with apoearances—I don’t recall Jimmy’s physical appearance being described—though knowing Henshall played him I wondered how his Spanish name squared with the actor being red-haired!

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      1. It felt like a lot was made of his Spanish heritage and how dark haired he is in the novel I read. Or perhaps, used as I was by then to a sandy Scotsman in the role, whatever description there was of Cleeves’ Perez felt strange to me. I will read more – one day!

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        1. I do wish screen adaptations wouldn’t take such basic liberties with the original text: tweaks to make dramatic sense I can understand, a major redesign of the protagonist as envisioned by the author and loyal readers not. Tom Cruise’s Jack Reacher has a different physique to the Reacher of the novels, I’m told; and colour blind casting works really well in some dramatisations, in others it just confuses — though it really depends on a whole load of factors, such as whether you’re aiming for historical verisimilitude or for challenging stereotypes (Hamlet, Lear or Prospero as a woman can be refreshing for such time-worn roles). In the case of Shetlands, Henshall may have come over as stronger for a long-running show than another actor.

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  4. I saw Maxine Peake as Hamlet at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, and I’m with you on the smart use of actors against type as a challenge to both stereotypes and the audience. Her performance was visceral, with echoes of Glenda Jackson’s Elizabeth I, embracing the sense of a woman as a prince.

    Henshall is really good as Perez in the tv role and makes the show for me, with his blend of tough police officer and lonely widower with a vulnerable side. His portrayal reminds me of Krister Henriksson, the actor who plays Wallander in the Swedish tv series of Mankell’s books. That actor is a perfect match for the character in the books, which I loved. Perhaps if I’d read the Shetland books first, I might feel differently about Henshall in the role – but I’ll never know! I don’t recall much, if any, reference being made to his surname – perhaps in passing in an episode, I vaguely remember.

    I wonder whether Ann Cleeves was involved in the casting for the tv show. I think Ulrike mentioned above that she feels Henshall captures the essence of the character of Perez – perhaps Cleeves, if involved, saw that in him, too. Her website describes the tv adaptation as “inspired by – but very different to – Ann Cleeves’s Shetland mysteries”, so maybe there’s a complete disconnect.

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    1. Ah, “inspired by” — the Get Out Of Jail Free card! Still, film and tv adaptations have to stand on their own merits, however loose their interpretations, and if Henshall’s Perez works as a credible character that’s all to the good. I think, anyway! 🙂

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  5. I watched one episode of Vera and wasn’t that engaged by it – the characterisation of the main detective just didn’t ring true to me.

    Judging by the comments here though, the books are much better

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    1. May have been the same episode we watched too: nothing against Brenda Blethyn but we weren’t impressed by the characterisation either. I might try one of the books sometime though.

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