Murder in Northumberland and Shetland

Previous article
Next article

by Ann Cleeves

A murder mystery classic is the dead body inside the room locked from the inside.

Ann Cleeves puts a spin on this conundrum: the dead body in the isolated, close-knit community. Whether it is the abrasive Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope working witnesses in Northumberland or the quiet Shetland detective Jimmy Perez, both carefully collect the threads that unravel the secret of who killed, how and why.

Stanhope and Perez cloak their own vulnerabilities. Vera’s carelessness about others’ feelings hides being left motherless at age seven and raised by a father more obsessed with taking things apart than in caring for his daughter. Perez is caught between going back home to farming on Fair Isle in his father’s shadow, living a life as predictable as a treadmill, or going south to test himself against the challenges of big city law enforcement.

Both work in worlds where tides can wash away evidence, birds can peck away clues and victims, murderers and witnesses are bound by history and relationships.

The Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope series currently includes six books, featuring the dowdy and socially graceless police detective Vera Stanhope.

  • The Crow Trap (1999): A betrayed woman, a botanist and a secretive young woman are brought together to complete an environmental survey. Vera is called in when team leader Rachael Lambert (the betrayed woman) finds the dead body of her friend Bella Furness, an apparent suicide in isolated Baikie’s Cottage where the three women have been working.
  • Telling Tales (2005): When 15-year-old Abigail Mantel is murdered, Jeanie Long is arrested, convicted and imprisoned. When new evidence surfaces and proves her innocence, Jeanie can’t face returning to a community that thought her capable of murdering a child and commits suicide. Abigail’s friend Emma is haunted by the thought that the murderer is still at large. Then, when Vera begins asking questions around the Elvet, the East Yorkshire Village where Abigail and Emma grew up, a second body is found.
  • Hidden Depths (2007): Two boys and a camera, an adulterous affair, a jealous and protective mate, an accidental drowning and two murders make for a tangled mystery with no apparent connections between victims. Although this was the third book Cleeves wrote in the Vera series, it formed the opening episode of the television series.
  • The Glassroom (2012): Curmudgeonly Vera cracks open the door to friendship with her hippy neighbors. When one goes missing, she feels duty bound to follow up professionally. Finding the neighbor at a local writers’ retreat isn’t hard. But finding a dead body and the missing neighbor with a knife in her hand complicates things enormously. She calls in her team, including Sgt. Joe Ashworth.
  • Silent Voices (2013): Frumpy Vera signs up at a posh health club on her doctor’s orders to mind her health. The posh club, she reasons, is less likely to include any of her colleagues among its members. When she finds the dead body of a woman in the gym’s sauna, she believes it may be a simple cause of natural causes . . . until she finds the ligature marks around the victim’s neck. This book was the first book of the series to be sold in the Untied States.
  • Harbour Street (2014): Vera is brought into investigate the death of an old woman, Margaret Krukowski on a busy Newcastle Metro train in the middle of rush hour.  Her work leads her toa run-down seaside town and tight-knit community guarding an explosive secret.
  • The Moth Catcher (2015)
  • The Seagull (2017)
  • The Darkest Evening

Shetland Island Series. These mysteries take place in Shetland, a nearly 570 square mile area northeast of Orkney, Scotland, that divides the Atlantic Ocean to the west from the North Sea to the east. With a population of less than 25,000 people, a coastline more than 2,700 miles long and Scotland’s crime scene investigation services and medical examiners an hour’s flight away (if the weather’s good), native son Jimmy Perez has his hands full.

His Spanish name and black hair hark back to an ancestor washed away from the Spanish Armada. Perez stands on the divide between insider and outsider, community member and law enforcer.

  • Raven Black (2006): This Gold Dagger Award-winning mystery seems to an open-and-shut case, until Inspector Jimmy Perez starts asking questions. Magnus Tait, long under suspicion for the death of a child, seems like the perfect suspect when a teenage girl is found dead in the snow on nearby land.
  • White Nights (2008): An opening for an exhibit of work by Jimmy Perez’s girl friend Fran Hunter at Herring House falters when a stranger passes out fliers saying the event has been cancelled due to a “death in the family.” When the stranger is found hanging dead in a fishing shed, Perez has to set aside romance to dig into a mystery whose roots go back decades on the island.
  • Red Bones (2009): The excavation of the site of a medieval manor brings not-so-ancient bones to light. An old woman and a young archeologist are killed before Perez and his assistant Sandy identify the killer.
  • Blue Lightning (2010): Perez and his fiance Fran Hunter have flown to Fair Isle for a traditional engagement party to introduce the community to Fran. But the bird observation and research center in a converted lighthouse prove to be a hot bed of rivalries, old wrongs and murder.
  • Dead Water (2013): Greed over oil, gas, wind and tidal power in Shetland clash with ambition and hidden secrets involving people at the highest levels of Shetland’s law enforcement system. Perez, recovering from a personal tragedy, is lured slowly by DCI Willow Reeves from Scotland into helping her tease out the facts of the case.
  • Thin Air (2014): Perez and Willow Reeves are brought in to investigate the death of a young woman attending a wedding of an old university friend to a local Shetlander.

The Inspector Ramsay series.  Like the Vera books, this one takes places in Northumberland. They feature Inspector Stephen Ramsey. They were written in the 1990s and have been revived by Pan MacMillan as e-books or print-on-demand books.

  • A Lesson in Dying (1990): In Heppleburn, a former Northumberland pit village, headmaster Harold Medburn is found murdered. Overshadowed by the nearing All Hallow’s Eve, Medburn’s daughter and the school caretaker pursue one line of investigation while Ramsey follows another.
  • Murder in My Backyard (1991): After Ramsay impulsively buys a cottage in Heppelburn, a local uproar over a proposed housing development ends in murder. A second murder throws Ramsey into a night-and-day investigation.
  • A Day in the Death of Dorothea Cassidy (1992): When the too-good-to-be-true vicar’s wife Dorothea Cassidy is found dead in a park flower bed, Ramsay finds the list of prospective suspect to be long.
  • Killjoy (1993): Gabriella Preston’s time on stage with the Hallowgate Youth Theatre is brutally cut short by murder.  The local police, trying to break up a spree of joy-riding, call in Ramsay and his assistant Sgt. Hunter. A second murder and a escalation of violence among the joy-riders threatens to turn the community into chaos.
  • The Healers (1995): Could one of the healers at the local Alternative Therapy Clinic have a homicidal bent? Ramsay seeks answers in the face of two strangulations and a third suspicious death.
  • The Baby Snatcher (1997): When 15-year-old Marilyn Howe shows up on Ramsay’s doorstep insisting that her mother has disappeared, the inspector finds Mrs. Howe safe and well at home. He dismisses the incident as a misunderstanding. But six-months later, as he is on the heels of a local child abductor, he hears again that Mrs. Howe has disappeared.  This time a body is washed up on shore.

George and Molly series.  Written in the late 1980s and early 1990s, this series features an elderly birdwatcher George Palmer-Jones and his wife Molly.These six books have gone out of print and are only available as e-books or print-on-demand paperbacks.

Stand-alone books:

  • The Sleeping and The Dead (2001): The discovery of a long-dead body in a lake forces Hannah Morton, a prison officer, to confront her past self.
  • Burial of Ghosts (2003): A holiday romance in Morocco followed by a letter that her lover has died and left Lizzie Bartholomew a bequest with conditions that will change her life forever.

The Author: Ann Cleeves

Cleeve’s books have led to the creation of two TV series, “Vera” starring Brenda Blethyn, and “Shetland,” starring actor Douglas Henshall as detective Jimmy Perez.

A master of exotic, isolated locations with small, close-knit communities, Cleeves knows whereof she writes, having been a probation officer and a cook for a bird observatory.

She has lived in Northumberland, on Fair Isle in the Shetlands and on Hilbre, a tidal island nature reserve in the estuary of the River Dee between Wales and England.

On Hilbre, where she and her husband Tim had neither electricity nor running water, she started writing her first mystery series featuring elderly birdwater George Palmer-Jones and his wife. She has set up several reading groups in prisons as part of the Inside Books project.

She received the Duncan Lawrie Dagger Award of the Crimer Writers Association for Raven Black, and has been inducted to the Crime Thriller Hall of Fame, which also includes mystery writers Colin Dexter, Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here