The Seagull by Ann Cleeves

Seagull

Macmillan| September 2017|print length 416 pages|e-book| 5*

The Seagull is Ann Cleeves’ eighth novel in her Vera Stanhope series, set in Northumberland. It begins as Vera visits the prison where ex-Superintendent John Brace is serving time for corruption and his involvement in the death of a gamekeeper. He had been one of the so-called ‘Gang of Four’ – Brace, Robbie Marshall, a man known simply as ‘The Prof’, and Vera’s father, Hector Stanhope. Brace tells Vera that Robbie, who had disappeared years ago, is dead and that he will tell her where his body is buried if she will visit his daughter Pattie, who has mental health problems.  She does so, but when the police investigate the location Brace gave her they find not one skeleton, but two. 

Opening up this cold case brings back memories for Vera of her past when she was living at home in a remote cottage in the Northumberland countryside, with Hector, after her mother had died.  The Gang of Four had met at Hector’s cottage when Vera was a teenager. They had traded in rare birds’ eggs and sold raptors from the wild for considerable sums. They were regulars at the (fictional) classy Seagull night club, a sleek Art Deco building built in the thirties in Whitley Bay,  during the town’s glory days. Brace and Marshall had also run a recruitment service providing muscle for hire. And Vera wonders just how much Hector had been involved in the Gang of Four’s illegal activities. 

And just as Vera and her team, Joe, Charlie and Holly – Vera’s own ‘gang of four’ – investigate Robbie’s murder they are faced with a present day murder that looks very much as though it links in with their cold case.

I enjoy watching Vera on TV, but I enjoy the books even more. Brenda Blethyn is very good in the role of Vera, but the Vera in the books is not the same as the TV Verashe is more down to earth, a large woman who wears tent-shaped dresses, has bare legs, wears size seven sandals with rubber soles and Velcro straps and she is none too fussy if her feet are dirty. She is a big woman with a big personality and she knows she is a brilliant detective:

‘Oh, I’m interested in everything, Joe. That’s why I’m a bloody brilliant detective’. She gave him her widest smile, ‘That’s why I’m in charge and you’re sitting there, doing as you’re told.’ (page 45)

She still lives in the cottage in the hills (not on Lindisfarne as in the TV series), which she had inherited from Hector along with a freezer full of animal corpses (Hector had done a bit of taxidermy), but most of the action takes place in Whitley Bay and at St Mary’s Island, a small rocky tidal island, linked to the mainland by a short, narrow causeway which is submerged at high tide.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Seagull and loved the way it reveals Vera’s past and her relationship with her father. At the same time the plot kept me guessing almost to the end and the location, well known to Ann Cleeves as it used to be her home town, is superbly described.

I see on Ann Cleeves’ website that ITV have confirmed that there will be a tenth series of VERA, based on Ann’s characters and settings and starring multi-award-winning Brenda Blethyn. The cast have been filming in the North East through the summer. Four new episodes will be broadcast in 2020.

And she has recently published a new  book, The Long Call, the first in a new series, Two Rivers. It is set in North Devon, where Ann grew up, and introduces the reserved and complex Detective Inspector Matthew Venn, estranged from the strict evangelical community in which he grew up, and from his own family, but drawn back by murder into the community he thought he had left behind.

The Long Call was published in Australia on 27th August, in the US on Tuesday 3rd September and in the UK on Thursday 5th September 2019.

Reading challenges: Mount TBR, Calendar of Crime

My Friday Post: The Seagull by Ann Cleeves

Book Beginnings Button

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

The Seagull by Ann Cleeves is one of my TBRs, that I should have read as soon as I got it – but didn’t. It’s the 8th book in her Vera series.

Seagull

Prologue

The woman could see the whole sweep of the bay despite the dark and the absence of street lights where she stood. Sometimes it felt as if her whole life had been spent on the half-light; in her dreams, she was moon-lit or she floated through the first gleam of dawn. Night was the time when she felt most awake.

I like the opening of this prologue and I’m wondering how it fits into the story that follows.

Chapter One

John watched the door from his wheelchair and wondered who’d be dragged in to speak to them today. An orderly carried through a mug of tea and left it on the floor beside him, though he must have realized it would be impossible for John to reach it from his chair.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

30879-friday2b56These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader. If you have to improvise, that is okay.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Page 56:

Joe thought all that made sense. He imagined an elderly Robbie Marshall sitting in the sun on the balcony of a Spanish apartment, using a different name, his long nose even redder.

So, three extracts from The Seagull, and I’m wondering how they all fit together? Maybe the blurb will help …

Blurb:

When prison inmate and former police officer John Brace says he’s willing to give up information about a long-dead wheeler dealer in return for protection for his family, Vera knows that she has to look into his claims.

But opening up this cold case strikes much closer to home than Vera anticipates as her investigation takes her back in time to The Seagull, a once decadent and now derelict nightclub where her deceased father and his friends used to congregate.

As Vera’s past collides dangerously with the present, she will have to confront her unwanted memories and face the possibility that her father was involved in what happened. The truth is about to come out but is Vera ready for what it will reveal?

What do you think? Would you keep reading?

Harbour Street by Ann Cleeves

I first ‘met’ Vera Stanhope in the TV dramatisations of Ann Cleeves’ novels, which I enjoyed. But once I began reading Ann Cleeves’ books I discovered that they are even better than the TV versions! The latest one I’ve read is Harbour Street, the sixth book in the Vera series – it’s fantastic. If you’ve watched On Harbour Street, the TV adaptation broadcast last year, you’ll find that it didn’t strictly follow the book much at all – and you won’t know who the murderer is – it’s a different person in the book!

Harbour Street (Vera Stanhope, #6)

 

This is what I wrote last year about The Glass Room, the fifth Vera book and my thoughts about Harbour Street are just the same:

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.

It’s ten days before Christmas, the Newcastle Metro is packed with shoppers, babies screaming, office workers merry after pre-Christmas parties, teenagers kissing. But when the  train has to stop because of the snow they all pile off the train – except for one old lady, Margaret Krukowski, who was fatally stabbed. No one saw the murder take place even though, or maybe because the train was packed with people, including Detective Joe Ashworth travelling home with his daughter, Jessie, from carol singing in Newcastle Cathedral.

Margaret had lived in a guest house on Harbour Street in Mardle, a coastal town in South Northumberland and it is here that Vera concentrates their investigation with the occupants of the guest house, the Coble, the pub opposite and the Haven, a hostel for homeless women, where Margaret had been a volunteer. It soon becomes obvious that Margaret was a woman with many secrets in her past – stemming from 1970 when her Polish husband Pawel Krukowski had left her.  Then a second murder occurs and an earlier crime comes to light – but who is the killer?

Ann Cleeves is a superb storyteller. Her descriptions get right inside my brain; she has the skill to make the scenes materialise,  in front of my eyes, and not because I’ve seen the TV adaptation which was filmed at a different time of year and in a different place from the location of Mardle in the book. Her characters are fully formed with emotions and feelings, backgrounds and complicated relationships, just as in real life, with all the sights, sounds, sensations and smells. Her dialogue is authentic, never awkward and you are never left wondering who is talking. Her books are deceptively easy to read,  moving swiftly along as the tension rises. They are layered, cleverly plotted and above all convincing. As in her other books I had several suspects in mind but hadn’t realised just how much wool had been pulled over my eyes until Margaret’s killer was revealed.

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Pan; Reprints edition (31 July 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1447202090
  • ISBN-13: 978-1447202097
  • Source: my local library

The Crow Trap by Ann Cleeves

The Crow Trap by Ann Cleeves is the first book in her Vera Stanhope series. I’ve been thinking (and writing) about my difficulties in reading books where I think the detail and description swamp the characters and plot, but I had absolutely no problems with that in The Crow Trap – I think Ann Cleeves has got the balance just right.

It begins with chapters about three of the female characters, Rachael, Anne and Grace all staying at Baikie’s an isolated cottage on the North Pennines whilst they carry out an environmental survey. When Rachael arrives at the cottage she is confronted by the body of her friend Bella Furness, who it appears has committed suicide. I was so drawn in by the character portraits and the vivid descriptions of the setting, that I almost forgot that this is a murder mystery. Then Grace is found dead and the mystery really begins.

There is a full cast of characters, all clearly distinct, and a very intricate and clever plot, with plenty of red herrings subtly masking the important clues. Vera is a great character and even though I do like Brenda Blethyn’s portrayal of her in the TV series, I prefer her as she is in the books –  a woman in her fifties, who looks like a bag lady. Here’s a description of her when she first interviews Rachael and Anne:

She was a large woman – big bones, amply covered, a bulbous nose, man-sized feet. Her legs were bare and she wore leather sandals. Her square toes were covered in mud. Her face was blotched and pitted so Rachael thought she must suffer from some skin complaint or allergy. Over her clothes she wore a transparent plastic mac and she stood there, the rain dripping from it onto the floor, grey hair sleeked dark to her forehead, like a middle-aged tripper caught in a sudden storm on Blackpool prom. (page 230)

And this description too:

Vera was wearing a dress of the sort of material turned into stretch settee covers and advertised in the Sunday papers. (page 406)

The identity of the killer foxed me. I kept changing my mind about who I thought it was and when it was revealed I was surprised, because although I’d worked out the motive, I’d got the circumstances completely wrong!

The My Kind of Mystery theme began on 1 February and this book really is ‘my kind of mystery’. A most satisfying book.

The Glass Room by Ann Cleeves

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.

Silent Voices by Ann Cleeves

Ann Cleeves has become one of my favourite writers this year and Silent Voices is one of the best crime fiction books I’ve read recently. Although it’s the fourth in her Vera Stanhope series it’s the first that I’ve read. I did watch some of the TV versions of Vera earlier this year but I missed this one, so the plot was completely new to me.

Synopsis (taken from the back cover):

When DI Vera Stanhope finds the body of a woman in the sauna room of her local gym, she wonders briefly if, for once in her life, it’s a death from natural causes. But closer inspection reveals ligature marks around the victim’s throat…

Doing what she does best, Vera pulls her team together and sets them interviewing staff and those connected to the victim, while she and colleague Sergeant Joe Ashworth work to find a motive. While Joe struggles to reconcile his home life with the demands of the job, Vera revels being back in charge of an investigation. Death has never made her feel so alive.

And when they discover that the victim had worked in social services – and was involved in a shocking case involving a young child – it seems the two are somehow connected.

But things are rarely as they seem . . .

My view:

When I began reading I could visualise and hear Brenda Blethyn as Vera, but gradually that impression faded away and the character of Vera began to take shape in my mind from the words in this book alone. Vera is a truly eccentric individual, intelligent, single minded and dedicated to her job, single and with no family responsibilities. She finds it difficult to delegate and is exhilarated by her job. In the following extract she has phoned Joe late at night:

Her voice was loud. She’d never really got the hang of mobiles, yelled into them. She sounded as if she’d just woken up after a good night’s sleep. Murders took her that way, invigorated her as much as they excited the pensioners he’d spent all afternoon interviewing. Once, after too many glasses of Famous Grouse, she’d said that was what she’d been put on the Earth for. (page 67)

The other characters are equally as well- defined. As well as creating memorable and individual characters Ann Cleeves conveys a strong sense of place bringing the Northumbrian countryside, towns and villages to life as I read. The plot is nicely complicated and although I had an inkling about the killer I was wrong, but looking back I could see where I’d been misled. Silent Voices is an excellent book, one that kept me turning the pages and exercising my brain.

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Pan (16 Sep 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0330512692
  • ISBN-13: 978-0330512695
  • Source: Library book
  • My Rating: 5/5