The first book in what’s known as the Vera Stanhope series was nothing like I expected and I mean that in a good way – and I had high expectations – expectations which were more than met. You see, having watched and loved the BBC series, Vera, I thought I had a fair idea of how, at the least, the principal characters in the TV show, Vera and her DS, Joe Ashworth would be represented. How wrong was I? In fact, Vera herself doesn’t appear until almost halfway through the book and Joe is barely there and, for a fan of the show, this is what makes this story very different. But what makes it stand out from the crime genre as well is the way in which the story unfolds.
Set in a small village in the north of England, the tale opens with three women – Racheal, Anne and Grace – arriving to stay at a farmhouse while they conduct an environmental survey on an area in which a proposed quarry is set to be developed. Rachael has been coming to the area for years and has become friends with the landowners. When Rachael arrives, she is horrified to discover the dead body of one of the owners, her friend Bella. Convinced it’s suicide, it’s not until other bodies start to appear that the initial assumption appears wrong or at the very least, suspicious. But why would Bella kill herself? And what could possibly connect her to the others? And why would anyone be killing these people anyhow?
Enter, Vera, stage left. A large, ungainly woman with a propensity for being a “gabby cow” (her words), Vera understands not only small village life and what people will be prepared to do to hide their secrets, but this particular area as she grew up nearby. But as the secrets start to be exposed and the various threads that connect people unravel, and the politics of environmentalism versus those with money and power start to come to the fore, more lives are put in danger.
Cleeves does an amazing job of bringing a series of characters (and the setting) to life with all their warts and foibles, strengths and anxieties. A great deal of the book focusses on Rachael, Anne and Grace – a part being dedicated to each point of view. The final part is Vera’s to own, so the reader is able to immerse themselves in the world these characters occupy, understand the network of relationships they’ve formed and often long before a murder is committed before seeing it from Vera’s point of view. It is so clever. Rather than making it easier to discover the perpetrator, it is much harder, which makes you appreciate Vera’s task (and respect her results) all the more.
This was a very fulfilling read that surprised me by being so character-focussed and yet not on the character I’d wrongly assumed would receive all the attention.