Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Raven Black by Ann Cleeves (A Shetland Island Thriller)

Raven Black takes place on the Shetland Islands, which are located northeast of Great Britain. They consist of a barren, harsh landscape and small villages and are best known for the annual Up Helly Aa fire festival. The temperature, according to Wikipedia, rarely gets above 70 degrees and it's nearly always windy and cloudy.
Shetland UK location map.svg

So why on Earth would anyone write a mystery quartet that takes place in this low-population, cold, inhospitable setting? While the answer to that question may be elusive, after reading Raven Black one finds themselves asking, "Why hasn't anyone done this before?"

Aside from the truly unique setting, several things that make this novel a true page-turner in every sense of the word.

The setting demands a story that is largely character driven, but Cleeves takes this one step further by writing each of the short, crisp chapters from a different character's point of view while continuing to use third person omniscient narrative. The result is that the reader "gets to know" each of the characters in snippets and fragments that are revealed through several of the other characters' viewpoints at various times, forming a kind of kaleidoscopic image of each of the residents in the reader's mind.

An example of this would be how the school teacher, Margaret, is portrayed at times through both how her daughter, Sally, see her and how she is perceived by another resident, Fran, whose daughter is taught by Margaret. On occasion, other characters refer to Margaret in passing, which adds more pieces to the woman. And this is true for almost all of the characters.

Likewise, the mystery unfolds in much the same way. Instead of the lead Inspector, Jimmy Perez, going about and investigating, the reader is treated to delicious snippets and tidbits of information that make the case more clear through conversations or setting descriptions that are revealed as the narrative progresses. But of course, Perez does his share of work as well, assisted by Taylor, who is sent to the help.

Finally, Cleeves employs an interesting writing style that consists of short, clipped sentences and blunt, no-frills statements. This gives the story a kind of clicking, forward-moving rhythm that contrasts seamlessly with the complexity of the people and the mystery being solved.

Often, stories are said to be "woven," and Ann Cleeves has shown us exactly what that means in this story. The plot seems only mildly interesting from the back-cover synopsis:

A teenager is found strangled in the snow and everyone thinks it's the town recluse, a man who is probably mentally deficient in some way but may or may not be harmless. Inspector Jimmy Perez returns to the island after his divorce and isn't looking forward to dealing with a murderer. But all the same, the sensitive detective is home, and a quiet and restless determination keeps him poking around long after everyone decides the recluse did it.

But the setting, writing style, narrative structure and character complexity make this thriller so much more than just another mystery in a quirky place. Oh, and make no mistake: the ending will  shock you, even if you're a practised armchair sleuth like me.

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