The Glass Room is the fifth book in Ann Cleeves’s Vera Stanhope series.
It’s going to be a contender for my best book of the year, because I loved it. It has everything I like in a crime fiction novel – setting, characters and a cleverly constructed plot. I didn’t guess who the murderer was but realised afterwards that all the clues had been there, skilfully woven into the narrative, hidden among the dead-ends and red herrings, so that I’d read on without realising their significance.
Set in the Northumberland countryside in an isolated country house, a number of aspiring authors are gathered at the Writers’ House, run by Miranda Barton, to work on their novels. It’s an old fortified farmhouse close to the sea, sheltered on the landward side by trees. DI Vera Stanhope’s neighbour, Joanna has gone missing and her husband, Jack is frantic to find her, so Vera, having tracked her down to the Writers’ House goes to see her, only to find that one of the visiting tutors, Professor Tony Ferdinand has been murdered in the conservatory, stabbed with a kitchen knife. And Joanna is the chief suspect.
If you’ve seen the TV series Vera, maybe you’ll have a vision of Brenda Blethyn as Vera, but that image gradually faded as I read this book. Vera is bigger, fatter, and ruder than the TV version, but above all she is a truly convincing character, exasperating and opinionated, and she can be a nightmare boss. She has no compunctions about breaking the rules, or doing things in her own way and she acknowledges that if any of the other detectives went freelance, playing the private eye, as she is doing in looking for Joanna, she’d give them ‘such a bollocking’. She cares deeply about her job and she does have a soft side, even if it is touched with cynicism:
And why had she agreed to do as Jack asked and chase around the countryside looking for Joanna? Because I’m soft as clarts. Because I like happy endings and want to bring the couple together again, like I’m some great fat Cupid in wellies. Because it would be bloody inconvenient living here without them next door. (page 10)
The interplay between the Vera and Sergeant Joe Ashworth is excellent. Joe isn’t as easily managed as Vera would want him to be and yet she likes that in him. And her relationship with the rest of her team leaves much to be desired, but she is human – and she gets results.
Alongside the mystery Ann Cleeves includes a commentary on writing and writers and on creative writing weekend retreats. This particular course shows the writing world in rather a bad light, as a place of people with huge egos, selfish and self- absorbed and with aspiring, insecure would-be-writers:
Writers were like parasites, preying on other people’s stress and misery. Objective observers like spies or detectives (page 98)
All in all, this is a book I thoroughly enjoyed and one that kept me guessing to the end.