My mother – a crime fan – treated me to this ebook as an introduction to Ann Cleeves. I do dimly recall that she mentioned it was the last in the series and I should get the best out of Cleeves’ work if I started at the beginning of Jimmy Perez’s adventures. But by the time I read it, I’d forgotten her advice. So, given that I’ve never read any Ann Cleeves’ mysteries before, did it matter?
Shetland Detective Jimmy Perez knows it will be a difficult homecoming when he returns to the Fair Isles to introduce his fiancée, Fran, to his parents. It’s a community where everyone knows each other, and strangers, while welcomed, are still viewed with a degree of mistrust. Challenging to live on at the best of times, with the autumn storms raging, the island feels cut off from the rest of the world. Trapped, tension is high and tempers become frayed. Enough to drive someone to murder… When a woman’s body is discovered at the renowned Fair Isles bird observatory, with feathers threaded through her hair, the islanders react with fear and anger. With no support from the mainland and only Fran to help him – Jimmy has to investigate the old-fashioned way. He soon realizes that this is no crime of passion – but a murder of cold and calculated intention. With no way off the island until the storms abate – Jimmy knows he has to work quickly. There’s a killer on the island just waiting for the opportunity to strike again…
Congratulations to Pan – I think the back cover blurb is the best I’ve read for a while. It gives a sense of the flavour and richness of the story without presenting us with any major spoilers. And it is spot on with the allusion to the old fashioned feel of this tale. Set within an isolated community and a limited number of suspects, all of whom could have had strong reasons for murdering the rather unpleasant victim, the story reminds me of the Agatha Christie thrillers I grew up reading. However, Cleeves ensures that nod to the past is just that – as her protagonist is far more vulnerable and riddled with doubts than the imperturbably self-assured Miss Marple. And as subsequent events unfolded, I was jolted from treating this as an intellectual puzzle, and became fully engrossed in the story while Cleeves ramps up the action and the emotional tempo with wonderful descriptions and shrewd observations sharper than the knives her murderer wields.
Murder mysteries are often defined by their surroundings – think of Stephen Booth’s Derbyshire landscape; Colin Dexter’s Oxford cityscape and more recently, Dana Stabenow’s Alaskan scenery. Ann Cleeves sets these stories in the Shetlands in a landscape she clearly knows well and loves. Her description of the sudden storms, dramatic harsh scenery and the isolation of the natives is pin sharp. And this is a landscape with teeth. The characters are defined by their reaction to this bleak, magnificent backdrop, which also controls their behaviour. When a storm hits this part of the world, everyone is confined indoors for days at a time and the island is cut off.
Even though I had not read the other books, I was intrigued with Perez’s personal life and willing his lover, Fran, to bond with his family and the landscape, enabling Perez to return to his family home should he wish to do so. That Cleeves is a writer at the height of her powers rapidly became apparent and I just relaxed into the action and got swept along, confident in the knowledge that I was in the hands of an experienced and talented storyteller. She took me along a twisting story full of incident and details that gave insights into possible suspects and the murder victim. As with the best whodunit, Blue Lightning is an exploration into human behaviour and what exactly makes some of us tick – and a very few, break the ultimate taboo of taking another life.
So, after this eventful, excellently written journey – does Cleeves provide us with a suitably exciting denouement? Oh, absolutely. I read this late into the night and found myself genuinely moved by the climax. I read far too many books to weep easily, but this one had me crying at the end. However, before rushing out to grab a copy of this book – perhaps you would be advised to listen to my mother – and start at the beginning of this wonderful series with the first book Raven Black. I know that I shall be off to track this down, so I can read the rest of this excellent series in the correct order.