Harbour Street, Vera Stanhope #6 by Anne Cleeves

Harbour Street was yet another book in this series I love and which I thought, having seen and loved this episode of the TV series, I might ‘know’. No. I was wrong. Again. While there are, of course, similarities, in plot and characterisation, the book can take you places the TV series can only dream of going.

The story here centres around an elegant old lady who is mysteriously killed on a train. The clincher is that it’s Joe Ashworth’s eldest daughter who finds the body. Enter, or rather, lumber, our beloved Vera, stage left. Larger than life, kind and sharp, a woman who doesn’t suffer fools but loves to appear one so people constantly underestimate her (which some do to their detriment), Vera knows there’s more to this dead woman, Margaret, than meets the eye, pet. Learning that she lived in a B&B on Harbour Street, sharing responsibility with a young woman, Kate, who has two teenage children, Vera starts to unearth a rather complicated past for our Margaret.

As the novel progresses, more and more people enter the scene and become not just parts of Margaret’s colourful and chequered past, but suspects as well. Cautious around the police, it takes all Vera’s charm and cunning along with the dogged determination of the rest of the team, Joe, Holly and Charlie, to discover not only what people are hiding, but what they fear.

When another body turns up, and Vera guesses the killings aren’t over yet, tracking down the murderer becomes not only a matter of professional pride, but time – and it’s running out.

Cleeves has done it again with a wonderfully evocative, richly character-driven novel from which the people leap fully-formed. Vera is fleshed out even more and it’s so rewarding for those who read the series in order to not only understand and predict how Vera will act in a given situation, but be proven wrong as well. Likewise, Joe, Holly and Charlie are given more complex roles, and their back stories are slowly filled in too.

But it’s place that also takes a lead role here – Harbour Street, full of colour intensity, and locals with their parochial attitudes, reluctance to embrace newcomers, suspicion of the police, and ambivalent relationship with the past they both hide and can’t shed.

And, as I hoped, the plot does steer away from the TV one, so it’s like enjoying two amazing, beautifully structured stories filled with people you invest in and adore in the same setting. Cleeves has done it again – written a cracker of a book.

 

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Silent Voices, Vera Stanhope #4

Silent Voices is the novel fans of the TV series will appreciate if for no other reason than it’s in this book that Joe Ashworth comes into his own.

While investigating the murder of a social worker, Jenny Lister, who everyone describes as a “good woman”, Vera (who found the body) uncovers links to past cases and a young, troubled mother in jail as well as a former colleague of Jenny’s who has been hounded out of her job and town and now lives in the same village.

As Vera, Joe and the team investigate, a series of possible suspects with historical links to each other and a health clinic called Willow emerge. But when another person is found murdered, the case becomes even more complex than Vera imagined. Knowing she has to solve it before more people lose their lives, the hunt for the killer and, more importantly, his or her motivation, becomes fraught.

Wonderfully plotted and written, what is really rewarding for fans is that we get to not only see the case through Joe’s eyes and learn more about the way he thinks, but we get to see Vera as he does. Understanding her perhaps better than anyone, Joe is not immune to finding her frustrating, belligerent and demanding, but it’s the way in which he reconciles her less attractive attributes that endears us to him and to his difficult boss.

Another fabulous instalment in a terrific series.

 

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The Secrets We Keep by Shirley Patton

I had the great fortune to be at one of the launches for this debut novel by Australian writer, Shirley Patton. Listening to her discuss the book, while sipping tea, learning that Shirley drew upon her own life and work experiences to write this tale, made me eager to read it and I was not disappointed.

Set in Kalgoorlie during the 1980s, the book centres, initially, on Aimee, a young social worker who relocates from Perth to take up a new role. There she meets not only an assortment of interesting characters: the irrepressible Lori, the kind ex-priest, Paddy, the psychic Agnes and Jack, as well as those who become her clients such as Kerry, Amber, and the dying Paul. But as Aimee becomes part of the close community and learns the secrets they both keep and entrust to her, she finds the ones she harbours harder to bear.

Whether it’s the politics of the day, the deleterious effects of mining, ageing, illness, loss, Indigenous issues and the lengths to which bureaucracy and the PTB go to cover up their intentions and regressions, spiritualism, romance and families, Patton’s tale covers it with aplomb. What I loved best about this book were the bonds forged between the women. So often novels cast women against each other, portraying them as competing – for a man, for recognition, pitting them as competitors, forming toxic relationships. The Secrets We Keep was so refreshing because, while it didn’t shy away from exploring differences and tensions, it examined the complexity and depth of a range of female friendships and relationships and the support, kindness, compromises and sacrifices people can make to ensure they work.

This was a lovely read that also evoked a sense of place as much as character and would appeal to anyone who enjoys a damn good read.

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