It seems images make stronger impressions on our brains than sounds or print. Not so long ago I was ironing and listening to a repeat radio broadcast: Simon Russell Beale in one of Le Carré’s George Smiley books. I knew it was Simon Russell Beale, but the only person I saw was Alec Guinness. Alec Guinness first played Smiley on television more than forty years ago! You may say that the experience proves how powerful an actor Alec Guinness was, and that impressions made in relative youth are more long-lasting. (The latter is probably true, in the cinema Gary Oldman temporarily erased Alec Guinness, but the effect didn’t last long.) I remember a lecture at Sussex: on a giant screen we saw a woman say ‘ooh’, while the sound system played ‘aah’. When the lecturer asked us what we had heard, the audience said ‘ooh’.
Which I suppose explains why, when I read The Darkest Evening, Ann Cleeves’ most recent novel to feature Detective Vera Stanhope, Brenda Blethyn stalked across the Northumbrian moors, and waded through the snow. I have only ever caught occasional episodes of the television series, and I have read an article where Ann Cleeves explained how much less attractive was her conception of Vera’s face and figure than Brenda Blethyn’s appearance. It made no difference, I saw Brenda Blethyn while I read about Vera.
This is the first of Ann Cleeves’ ‘Vera’ novels that I have read, and the start resembles the beginning of a 1930’s crime novel. A dinner party in an isolated, country house with guests trapped by a snowstorm, then a police inspector interrupts the party – it could be Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. Or (without the snowstorm) the stage could have been set for a performance of J B Priestley’s An Inspector Calls.
But what’s going on here is not The Mousetrap, because before Vera arrives at the house, she has found a baby, and in the very first pages we have been introduced to the baby and his mother. We know they are important. Ann Cleeves weaves her story of a murder investigation into a tapestry of stories about troubled relationships – and in each of these stories a child may be the problem, or its solution. More Priestley than Christie.
The story is told through the points of view of the investigating police officers and the party’s hostess. Motives, means and opportunity are revealed, as are characters and the complexities of the relationships between them; nothing seems contrived, the narrative flows smoothly – and the book is hard to put down. The bleak Northumbrian countryside is not a mere background to the narrative, it drives and informs it. And in sly acknowledgement and updating of the book’s gothic overtones, the teenage part-time waiters at the dinner party are Goths when they are free to dress as they wish.
All the main characters develop during the novel, and those who survive are left with possible happy futures, the crime is solved, and confounding circumstances explained – a satisfying end for the reader.
There is some repetition, Vera’s tea consumption would lower the level of Kielder water, and the number of biscuits she eats would make it impossible to fasten even her capacious coat against the extreme Northumbrian weather. I wonder if there is any truth in her theory that families who serve home-made biscuits (as opposed to shop-bought) are more likely to have unhappy secrets? In future I’ll be less smug when I offer what I’ve baked to visitors. If there are ever visitors again…
I enjoyed reading this book, and I am looking forward to seeing how some of the twentieth century detective novels on my bookshelves compare with it.