Hidden Depths Vera Stanhope #4 by Ann Cleeves.

Unable to tear myself away from Ann Cleeves’ Vera Stanhope series and the world within, I found myself finishing book 2 and moving straight to book 3, Hidden Depths. Unlike the first two books in this series, I recalled the TV show based on this particular story quite well, but not so well I could remember the killer or motivation for the murders. Thus, when the book opens with the death of a young, beautiful man, Luke, in his own home, strangled and then placed in a bathtub full of water and strewn with flowers ala Sir John Everett Millais’ Ophelia, I vividly remembered the scene but again, not quite what happened next.

Vera and her team are called to find the culprit but, when a second body, that of the beautiful student teacher, Lily Marsh is also found dead, in water and with flowers strewn around, Vera understands that not only are the two crimes linked, but a dangerous and possibly unhinged killer is on the loose and, the longer she or he remains free, the likelihood of another body being found is high.

Unable at first to find connections between Luke and his family and Lily Marsh, it’s only when Vera, Joe and the other investigators look at the area in which Lily was found and the group of close friends who discovered her body that clues and links start to surface. Knowing the answer lies within this tight friendship group and the secrets they hold as well as the passion they share for not only bird-watching (what is it about bird-watchers that makes them so likely to commit murder? I only recently watched an episode of Midsomer Murders  – for the tenth time – featuring murderous bird-watchers! It’s enough to make you twitch – sorry) but one of the wives, Vera is tested to her limits. As she begins to doubt her instincts, they kick in harder. But will she listen to them, or allow self-doubt to govern?

Another atmospheric, character-driven story by the fabulous Cleeves. With each book, the personality of Vera and elements of her past come to the fore, enabling the reader to get to know this force of nature even better. Vulnerable yet strong, riven with regrets and insecurities, smart and aware she’s oft under-estimated, Vera is a terrific, rich character whose full depths are yet to be plumed. The other people populating this novel are also beautifully drawn and it’s testimony to Cleeves’ skill that she’s able to paint such fabulous and intricate word-portraits in such short spaces. Joe Ashworth is the character yet to be revealed to those who love the TV series and I already know from commencing Book #4, that it’s in these pages that he begins to shine.

Another great read.

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The Lady’s Slipper by Deborah Swift

30832002The Lady’s Slipper by Deborah Swift is one of two books (the other is The Gilded Lily, but read this one first) that basically deal with a similar set of characters during the same period in British history, 1660 and the Restoration. Instead of being set in London or focussing on the royal family, aristocrats, and their various scandals (as so many wonderful novels set in this period are wont to do), this novel tells the story of Alice Ibbetson, a talented painter and the grieving wife of Thomas Ibbetson. Mourning the death of her younger sister a year earlier, Alice is finding it difficult to embrace life and even tolerate the demands of her rather dullard husband. Finding solace in her painting, she has become obsessed with not simply flowers, but capturing the beauty of various plants for posterity. When a neighbour, the rather strange but also fascinating Quaker, Richard Wheeler, shows Alice the location of a rare and very beautiful orchid called The Lady’s Slipper, which also happened to be her sister’s favourite flower, Alice knows she can’t merely paint it, but must preserve it for the future.

When the flower disappears and a pair of lady’s slippers go missing as well and then a local healer, Margaret Poulter is found murdered, suspicion is rife and there are those with their own motives keen to lay blame for both the flower’s disappearance and the death at Alice’s door. When Alice’s maid, the selfish and rather lazy, Ella, who’s been having an affair with Thomas, presents evidence linking Alice to the crimes, not even the truth and justice of Quakers can save her.

Using the beauty of nature as a theme to explore the ugliness of which human nature is capable, the title is a clever nod to two very different variations of “lady’s slippers” both of which set off a chian of catastrophic events. As the plot twists and turns and characters are tested and mostly found wanting, this book explores loyalty, faith, greed and loss as well as what lengths people will go to protect their power – even before each other.

Dark at times, what I particularly liked about it is that no character is clearly “evil” or “good”. It’s a strength of Swift’s writing that all the characters, even the heroine, Alice, are not above questionable behaviour that has the reader recoiling at times, even if we understand their motives.

Swift also recreates the period beautifully – from clothes, to social ranks, food, faith and politics.

A terrific read for lovers of historical fiction and a fine book.

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