Silent Voices, by Ann Cleeves

Snack-loving sleuth who's all clued-up
Click to follow

Ann Cleeves has been steadily building in power as a crime writer. Her Shetland Isles series penetrated to depths of character in her detective figure, Jimmy Perez.

Now she returns to Northumbrian territory with the imposing figure of DI Vera Stanhope.This is policewoman as crumpled Valkyrie, at times almost an outcrop of the landscape, at times avenging goddess striding the Northern blasts.

Vera’s diet of bacon stotties and cake does little to dispel this large image, but she does make some efforts towards a healthier regime. When a murder occurs in the sauna of a health club, she is conveniently on the spot. Outwardly, the dead woman appears a very unlikely candidate for victimhood: a respectable middle-aged lady. There seems little in her background as a social worker that could have provoked murder. Happily, Vera has little time for respectability. Her unusual methods of making friends by scoffing tea and pastries in the households of her interviewees soon begin to pay off.

Vera’s understanding of the nastier side of human nature was painfully gained through the experience of being the teased and reviled “fat girl” at school, and she possesses a sharp intelligence, which her detractors dismiss at their peril. Cleeves is a clever plotter: the reader may think there’s an easy deduction to be made, but twists and turns take us one way and then another.

The victim has been visiting a woman prisoner with a wretched history and trying to uncover her childhood memories. Soon, Vera is unravelling a complex plot that leads back to the death of a child whom social workers were supposed to protect. Who was responsible for the death, and what are the long-term repercussions that threaten more lives? The child died by drowning, and water is the theme that runs through the book – how brief are the few short minutes that it takes for a toddler to get into danger. When floods engulf the district, the dangers intensify.

Vera’s sidekick, Inspector Joe Ashworth, understands his boss, though her abrupt summonses disturb his family life, for Vera is energised by murder. Invigorated by the hunt, she works all hours with no sense of other people’s inner clocks. Cleeves is excellent not only on the main character but on the mixture of exasperation and respect that she provokes in others. Combined with the intricate plotting, this makes for a compulsive read.