(Image from competitions.womensweekly.com)
The weather, after a warm and lovely Fall, has turned, and so on early dark nights, we light the fire in the fireplace. After dinner, I sit in the chair, feet up on the ottoman, soles toasting in the glow, and I pull a blanket over my legs, and I read. I am finishing up Anne Cleeve’s first Shetland quartet. I read about nasty murders, and I feel safe and snug in front of the fire.
I was browsing Netflix for something compelling to watch–good, hearty, televised background to my knitting habit in the darkening evenings–when I discovered a show called Shetland. The Shetland Islands are just north of the part of Scotland that my mother’s family hailed from. I remember a Scots art professor telling me, in my undergrad days, “Ah, that’s a Godforsaken land.”
I had seen pictures, of course, heard reports about the bitter north winds of that place, but I thought it might be fun to watch a series that was set in those climes. Shetland was filmed on location and in Norway–the beaches and the buildings and the skies would be authentic. Let’s give it a shot, I thought.
I was hooked from the get-go. Shetland is a murder mystery series. The acting, the story lines, the the lilt of the accents…they all drew me in.
There were three seasons available: we power-watched them within two weeks, and then we felt bereft.
I noticed, in the credits, that Shetland was based on a series of murder mysteries by a writer named Anne Cleeves. I had a gift card to a bookstore, so I ordered the first two books on line. They arrived within days, and I set aside my other reading to plunge.
I almost never read the book after watching the show; I do not want the faces of the actors intruding on my understanding of the characters, or my knowledge of the events to come to take my attention away from what is happening now, at this point, in the book. But I was surprised that Shetland the television show and Anne Cleeves’ Shetland murder mysteries were so very, very different. There was a firm connection, of course, but so much was changed that I could relax and fall into the books.
In Cleeves’ books, the detective, Jimmy Perez, is a dark, rumpled, decent man, a boy from the isles himself, who decided against a crofter’s life. This bothers his parents, especially his mother, who calls him often, who encourages him to return to Fair Isle. There’s a troubled intensity in Jimmy’s dealings with his father, who is a very big man on a very small island.
The dark looks Jimmy and his faster share and the Perez name, come, it’s said, from a Spaniard shipwrecked in the Shetland Islands long, long ago. It’s a connection, in the books, that Jimmy often has to explain.
In Raven Black, the first book in the Shetland series, we learn that Perez is still mourning his marriage to Sarah, and their babe, lost in a miscarriage. That grief, he thinks, was the marriage’s undoing…that, and the total concentration he throws into his work. Perez is a good detective and a student of people. He has to know what drives the people he meets in the course of police-work. He knows he should have given his wife that same kind of intense attention.
He is decent, conflicted, and driven, Jimmy Perez; he is feeling his way with his new staff, particularly Sandy, a young cop from the Shetland island of Whalsay. Sandy is more laconic, far less driven and meticulous than his boss. But under Jimmy’s tutelage, he grows.
The setting for each book is the same as for the episodes, but the story-lines diverge, making reading an adventure. And there are other important differences. On the show, Perez is sandy-haired and slight; he looks like a Scot, or what we commonly associate with the appearance of Scotland’s people.
In the books, Perez meets Fran, who, with her little daughter Cassie, will become very important in his life. On the show, Fran is long dead of cancer, making Perez a widower. He is raising a teen-aged Cassie on his own.
And the stories diverge. The murderers in the books are different from the murderers in the episodes on Netflix. It makes for much better reading, never knowing what might happen.
But the books are so good, I wonder why the producers of the show decided on such big changes.
I look up Anne Cleeves on line–she has her own official website, annecleeves.com,—and I find that she is not from Scotland; she grew up in rural England. But she did work in the very setting she creates for Blue Lightning, the book I’ve just finished. It’s a bird observatory on Fair Isle, the island she makes Jimmy’s home. There she met her husband Tim.
The website notes that she was not so compelled by Tim’s birding interests, but she was mightily drawn to the bottle of whiskey stowed in his backpack. A lifetime together grew from that interest. Anne and Tim have two daughters, now grown.
After working a few interesting and various jobs, Anne returned to college, training as a probation officer. Her knowledge of the criminal justice field, and of the place she sets her tales, is earned.
Anne’s work has won prestigious awards. She received the Duncan Laurie Dagger Award from the British Crime Writers’ Association for Raven Black. She’s been granted an honorary doctorate. And on October 26, 2017, she received the highest honor a British crime writer can earn: the Diamond Dagger.
There are four books in the first Shetland quartet–one for each season. A new quartet, set in the same place, with the same crew, will have a book for each element. She’s working on the fourth and final book now, and anything could happen. She might even, Cleeves challenges on her website, kill Jimmy off.
Her books are full of surprises, of unexpected twists, and of the kind of random events that happen in real life. So I wouldn’t put it past her to do just that.
I enjoy the books, and the television series, and I wonder why. Why is a story about a horrible, violent murder so comforting and compelling on nights that bring us roaring winds and spattering rain, uneasy weather when gruesome tales should, by rights, build our unease?
Crime writer Walter Mosley, in an interview on npr.org, concludes that we all need forgiveness, and we all need someone to blame; murder mysteries fill these needs. Crime stories, Mosley contends in a Newsweek article, “cleanse the modern world from our souls.”
I think, too, the the resolution offered in murder mysteries is a comfort: our good detective will not rest until he or she is sure the exact right person has been apprehended. And maybe the danger in the books gives us a heightened sense of safety in our own lives. (There must be very good reasons, mustn’t there, for someone as devoted to nonviolence as I am to plunge so heartily, so deeply, into these deadly tales that draw me in?)
The best mystery series, too, have characters that grow and circumstances that change, and Cleeves’ books do not disappoint. Jimmy works to understand himself; he opens himself up to a whole new life with Fran and Cassie. Fran develops as an artist and a mother. Sandy, under Jimmy’s tutelage, builds self-confidence–he travels by himself on a plane to London, for instance, something he never thought he’d do. He handles tough challenges with intelligence and integrity. Jimmy’s respect for him grows.
Each book brings growth and change and development. Separate from the murder to be solved, the characters who are regulars allow us to watch and celebrate their lives.
I am sitting right now, warm and snug in the early dawning, as a thunderstorm crashes outside, and my aging, nervous dog pants, resting her fore-paws on my leg. She is terrified and twitchy; the rumbles and the flashes wear her down. But I am sipping coffee, feeling protected as the storm unfolds, looking forward to starting, as soon as I clear some reading decks, on Anne Cleeves’ Elements quartet. Murder will happen in those books; change will happen, too.
And under Cleeves’ deft narration, in the fictional world, we’ll learn the reasons why.