Raven Black is the first book I’ve read by Ann Cleeves. It’s set in Shetland and begins on New Year’s Eve with Magnus Tait seeing the new year in on his own. Magnus, a simple elderly man lives by himself, shunned by most of the other islanders. To his delight two teenage girls knock on his door to wish him a Happy New Year. One of the girls is Sally, the daughter of the primary schoolteacher and the other is Catherine, an English girl whose father is the Head Teacher at Anderson High School. A few days later Catherine is found dead in the snow not far from Magnus’s house, strangled with her own scarf.
Eight years earlier a young girl, Catriona, had gone missing and had never been found. At the time, although he had never been charged with anything, everyone was convinced that Magnus had killed her. When Catherine’s body is discovered the police and the locals immediately suspect that Magnus must have killed her.
Inspector Jimmy Perez, originally from Fair Isle, is in charge of the investigation until the arrival of a team from Inverness headed up by DI Roy Taylor. Whilst everyone else is convinced of Magnus’s guilt Perez doesn’t want to jump to conclusions and and feels pity for him. Perez is a fascinating character, descended from a seaman from the Spanish Armada, shipwrecked on Fair Isle. Coming from Fair Isle to Shetland he understands how it must have been for Catherine as an outsider. Catherine, though had not worried what others thought of her and had been making a film of the island, interviewing people getting them to reveal themselves to her camera. As everyone who knew Catherine is questioned it becomes clear that several people could easily be her killer and I completely failed to identify the culprit. Thinking back over the book I could see that all the clues were there, but so skillfully planted that I failed to see them.
The tension between the islanders and the incomers is evident and also the loneliness of outsiders. Family ties, heredity and personal relationships are important themes running through the narrative. There is also a strong sense of location and terrific atmosphere – the landscape, the sea, the weather, the circling ravens and the spectacle of Up Helly Aa (the Fire Festival), all anchor the story and bring the book to life.
Often the colours on the islands were subtle, olive green, mud brown, sea grey and all softened by mist. In the full sunlight of early morning, this picture was stark and vibrant. The harsh white of the snow. Three shapes silhouetted. Ravens. (page 28)
There are three more books set in Shetland, featuring Perez – White Nights, Red Bones and Blue Lightning. I’m looking forward to reading them all. I’m also going to look out for her other novels set in Northumberland.