Raven Black By Ann Cleeves

Fiends in the north

Jane Jakeman
Friday 31 March 2006 00:00 BST

Following the success of authors such as Henning Mankell, "Nordic" crime fiction has such a strong attraction that writers from (slightly) warmer climes are choosing to set mysteries in lands of ice. The Yorkshire writer Ann Cleeves has gone further north, to the Shetlands, for Raven Black, set among people struggling with a hostile environment. Fran Hunter, an incomer, married into the Shetlanders but is now trying to recover from the failure of that marriage. She becomes involved in the community when she discovers a body in the snow. A teenager seems to have paid a horrific price for stepping out of line. There is a suspect: an old man who had a confession for a sex crime forced from him years ago. Fortunately, an enlightened policeman defies local pressure to disentangle a complex mystery.

Cleeves creates a convincing world of hostility against outsiders, of genuine ancient feuds but pseudo-history for the tourists, of small snobberies and major jealousies. Raven Black breaks the conventional mould of British crime-writing, while retaining the traditional virtues of strong narrative and careful plotting.

Cleeves draws added power from a claustrophobic setting, driving the novel into deeper exploration of character than is usual. Escape is difficult, for victims, murderers and investigators. The very landscape of "Nordic"crime tends to produce the detective-philosopher: if you're stuck indoors for much of the year, there's time to examine the inner life as well as the material facts.

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