Thin Air – Ann Cleeves

Three women who have been friends since university travel to Unst in Shetland when one of them, Caroline, marries Lowrie Malcolmson, a Shetlander. The wedding has already taken place but the traditional Shetland welcome for the married couple, the hamefarin’, is a chance for the locals to have a party. Polly Gilmour has invited her new partner, Marcus Wentworth, & Eleanor Longstaff & her husband Ian, make up the group. Eleanor has been depressed after suffering two miscarriages & is resentful that Ian seems to be lacking in sympathy. She’s a television producer with a small company & is currently researching ghost stories for a program about the phenomenon of practical people believing they’ve seen something supernatural. Polly is the quiet one of the three friends, always following where the others lead. She’s a librarian, working at a special library dedicated to folklore. Caroline is a decisive woman who set her sights on Lowrie from their university days & now has what she’s always wanted. She’s even considering moving to Unst permanently.

The hamefarin’ is a big success with nearly everyone on the island there. Eleanor surprises her friends late that night by saying that she’s seen the ghost of a little girl, Peerie Lizzie, who had drowned 80 years before. The Peerie Lizzie story is one of those she’s researching for her program & the legend is that if a woman sees the child she will become pregnant. Polly has also seen the girl but says nothing out of fear of ridicule. Next morning, Eleanor has disappeared. The police are called in & then Polly receives a text message from Eleanor saying that there’s no point looking for her as she won’t be found. Has Eleanor’s fragile mental health been shaken by the sight of a ghost? Has she committed suicide or just run away? When her body is found on the shore, laid out very carefully, it’s clear that she’s been murdered.

Detectives Jimmy Perez & Sandy Wilson arrive from Lerwick to investigate Eleanor’s disappearance which soon becomes a murder inquiry. They’re joined by Willow Reeves, another islander whose style of working, abrupt & very focused, contrasts with Perez’s calm watchfulness. The two have a cordial working relationship but Jimmy is still recovering from the murder of his partner, Fran, & believes that Willow is on the lookout for any sign that he’s not up to the job. Willow is only too aware of Jimmy but her attraction to him annoys her & makes her seem unsympathetic.

The detectives stay at an upmarket B&B run by Charles Hillier & David Gordon. Charles had been a  well-known magician but his career had dried up & his partner, David, suggested they move to Shetland. The renovation of the B&B had been expensive & there are tensions & secrets between the couple that become obvious as the investigation continues. The relationship between Eleanor, Polly & Caroline also proves to be more complex than it first seemed. Eleanor had been the leader of the group, dominating the more introverted Polly, who becomes more & more frightened as the atmosphere on the island becomes claustrophobic & her own sightings of a little girl dancing on the beach who seems to vanish into thin air.

The Shetland series is one of my favourites. I’m not reading as many police procedurals as I used to, but this is one series that I always look forward to. The atmosphere of the island is beautifully evoked. The ghost story of Peerie Lizzie adds to the feeling of otherworldliness that is intensified by the midsummer simmer dim, the time when night never really seems to fall. The arrival of the visitors recalls memories & events long past & Eleanor’s research into the story of Peerie Lizzie may have stirred up more than she expected. I love the way Ann Cleeves brings in so many possibilities & creates characters with whole lives behind them. Every twist & turn of the investigation brought some new perspective to the lives of one of the suspects. She’s also very good at involving the reader in the lives of her detectives. I thought I knew the identity of the murderer several times but was wrong almost to the end when I did get an inkling.

Jimmy Perez is one of the most interesting, sympathetic detectives in crime fiction. Still grieving over the loss of Fran, he’s also caring for Fran’s daughter, Cassie, while trying to get on with his life & his work. He’s an instinctive investigator, who sometimes goes off on a tangent of his own but his knowledge of the people & the islands is invaluable. I’ve just watched the TV series Shetland that was based on the books. I enjoyed it, loved the scenery & the music. It didn’t bother me that Douglas Henshall, who plays Jimmy, is a pale skinned redhead rather than a dark descendant of the Spanish Armada as Jimmy is described in the books. Some changes have been made to the plots of the books they used but a TV series has to be different & I thought they did a good job. I believe a third series is planned. I’m sure it’s done wonders for tourism in the islands.

10 thoughts on “Thin Air – Ann Cleeves

  1. The Shetland series is best read in order but even reading the first four books out of order as I did, wasn't a problem really. This second quartet – Dead Water & Thin Air so far – are just as good as the earlier books.

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  2. I always love dipping into a new series so I brought the first book (from the first quartet) home from the library. I had been vaguely wondering why the detective was named Perez so you'll already solved a mystery for me!

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  3. Yes, he's supposed to look Spanish because an ancestor was wrecked after the Armada & the name has obviously stayed in the family. It's a great series, I hope you enjoy it.

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  4. You should come and visit Shetland, Lyn. I promise you won't get murdered but you might hear some great stories. If you like the setting you could also try Marsalie Taylor's books. They're best bought on kindle and have a great sense if place.

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  5. I would love to visit Shetland one day. I have the first of MT's books on my Kindle but haven't got to it yet… You're right, the setting is one of the main attractions with the books & the TV series.

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  6. Funnily enough I found Douglas Henshall as Jimmy Perez perfectly satisfactory even though my own mental image from the books was more like TV historian Neil Oliver. No idea why because the casting of Stephen Tomlinson as Peter Robinson's Insp Banks irritated me so much that I have even stopped reading the subsequent books!

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  7. Oh yes! Neil Oliver with shorter hair. I haven't seen the Peter Robinson TV series but I stopped reading the books a little while ago. I got tired of the continual references to the music Banks was listening to – trivial, I know. I also lost interest when Banks & Annie broke up, she's such a great character. Obviously it was more about the characters than the crimes for me.

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