Cleeves, Ann - 'Silent Voices'
Inspector Vera Stanhope forces herself through her late morning swim at the Willows Health Club, not her idea of fun but "doctors orders". What she really wants right now is a quick blast in the steam room, a jolt of coffee, then back to work. Preoccupied, it takes her a while to notice that she is sharing the steam room with another woman who is asleep, calmly propped against the wall. When the steam thins however, Vera realises that her companion is dead. Soon the room is cordoned off, the pool emptied of swimmers, her police colleagues called and the rest of the club members corralled in the hotel lounge waiting for the police team to take witness statements.
In a neighbouring village a young mother, Connie Masters, is collecting her daughter from the local playgroup. This is something that she dreads, running the gauntlet of those unfriendly stares and whispered asides. After the little boy's death and the trial, the press pursuit and furore, her own life and that of her daughter's has been a misery. Even here, having moved from the town to a rented cottage in a small village, her identity has been realised and she finds herself at the mercy of the local pillar of the community, Veronica Eliot, with her coordinated campaign of disapproval.
The identity of the murdered woman, Jenny Lister, a social worker living in the same village as Connie Masters, throws a new perspective on the crime. Perhaps it's not just the case of an unfortunate woman stumbling across the petty thief operating at the Health Club. Perhaps there is another reason that someone strangled Jenny Lister.
SILENT VOICES is Ann Cleeves' fourth novel in her series featuring police detective Vera Stanhope, portrayed by actress Brenda Blethyn in the recent major ITV crime drama series Vera. It is set in Cleeves' own Northumbria and the police hunt spreads across rural villages, the slightly down at heel Willows Hotel and the seaside town of Tynemouth as their communities are examined for clues to the identity and whereabouts of Jenny Lister's killer.
I hadn't read any of the Vera Stanhope books before and so had not realised that SILENT VOICES would be quite such a "traditional" English detective story in its construction: a small community, a crime to be solved through evidence gathering by the police, the comparison of witness statements, and so on. I have to admit that this is not always my favourite kind of crime story. But, and it is a big "but" - I enjoyed this book far more than I expected.
The main reason is that Cleeves has written the central character, DI Vera Stanhope, superbly. A "moon-faced", overweight woman, impassioned by her job and sharp of mind and tongue, despite the "Shall we have a cup of tea, pet?" that she frequently uses as a prelude to interrogation. Vera possesses the established detective personality of the dysfunctional outsider who uses their obsessive traits and their intuition to arrive at the solution to the crime. But Cleeves has created Vera's character deftly. We follow her working days and her solitary evenings in her rural hillside home, feet-up with a bottle of beer or two, mulling over the progress of the case. We catch her occasional pangs of envy when observing those "on the inside", those with friends, families, relationships. We begin to understand where the sharpness, the mix of cruelty and sudden warmth comes from. And equally we understand the survival instinct that will drive her to remain wary and on the "outside".
SILENT VOICES as a whole maintains its suspense, and the secret of the killer's identity remains well hidden until the closing part of the novel. My only quibble would be that the very strength of Vera's character makes some of the others in the story pale into insignificance. For me, the killer's motives were explicable but I remained uninvolved in how they arose and with the killer's character. On the plus side I was not aware of a serious back story that meant I should read the "Vera" titles in sequence. I would be happy to read an earlier title and become just as absorbed in Vera's world as I was in SILENT VOICES.
Ann Cleeves said in an interview with The Scotsman: "If I'm feeling miserable or ill, I'll go to a Dorothy Sayers or a PD James because there's something reassuring about that resolution at the end". I certainly agree about the comfort of a crime resolved for the troubled soul. For fans of the English detective story I have no hesitation in recommending that you put your feet up, take some time out, join Vera in a glass of beer and enjoy SILENT VOICES.
Read another review of SILENT VOICES.
Lynn Harvey, England