Monday, September 30, 2013

Book Review - Raven Black

Raven Black – Ann Cleeves

I consider myself an avid reader and very aware of a lot of authors. I was surprised then, that when “Raven Black” caught my eye that not only had I not heard of Ann Cleeves, but I was also unaware she had an extensive back catalogue too.

The reviews for the novel were all positive so could this just be a massive oversight by me? I was looking forward to finding out.

The Blurb:

It is a cold January morning and Shetland lies buried beneath a deep layer of snow. Trudging home, Fran Hunters eye is drawn to a vivid splash of colour on the white ground, ravens circling above. It is the strangled body of her teenage neighbour Catherine Ross. As Fran opens her mouth to scream, the ravens continue their deadly dance. The locals on the quiet island stubbornly focus their gaze on one manloner and simpleton Magnus Tait. But when police insist on opening the investigation a veil of suspicion and fear is thrown over the entire community. For the first time in years, Catherines neighbours nervously lock their doors, whilst a killer lives on in their midst. Raven Black is a haunting, beautifully crafted crime story, and establishes Ann Cleeves as a rising talent in psychological crime writing.

As the blurb indicates, “Raven Black” is based in the Shetlands. It is the members of this community that are the protagonists rather than a particular individual. You get the sense that as with Karin Slaughter’s Grant County series, although there are the main protagonists, the books can focus on a number of individuals easily.

In “Raven Black” there are multiple points of view characters. Each one is interesting and each one has a great background. The primary one would have to Jimmy Perez. Jimmy is a member of the local police force tasked with solving the murder. He is used to dealing with traffic violations and petty theft and although an intelligent man, is still whirling from being dumped by his girlfriend many years previously.

It is a nice change to have a policeman that is a) not an alcoholic and b) not better at their job then everyone else even though senior management do not appreciate it. Perez is good but Cleeves also exposes his flaws; he is far too compassionate and inexperienced. So that when a detective from the main land arrives to take over the investigation (Roy Taylor), Perez is positively in awe of him.  Again this makes him a very enjoyable character to read.

The other main character is Fran. Fran is a single mother, although her former husband is very much on the scene and something of a big name on the island. In an effort to have a daughter form some sort of relationship with her father (something Fran never had), Fran suffers her insecurities at being in the same proximity to the older woman her husband ran off with. Again, by having such a vulnerable character, the reader instantly empathizes with her plight and shares her suffering.

The other main characters are Sally Henry and Magnus Tait. Sally is a little annoying as although written well as a naive school girl with almost dysfunctional parents, she is hard to sympathise with as she is so stupid. She hankers after a man that although appears interested in her, is clearly using her.

Finally there is Magus. Magnus is a great character. Widely despised by the other residents in the Shetlands, Magnus was accused of abducting another missing girl eight years earlier. Although never convicted there is little doubt in most people’s minds that Magnus was responsible for her death.  An old man now, and clearly on the slow side, Ann Cleeves does a terrific job of capturing his loneliness, whilst also never indicating to the reader whether he is a bad man or just tragically misunderstood.

With such a solid cast of main characters it would be forgivable for the secondary characters to be a little weak. However, this is far from the case. Each is developed nicely and evolves as the novel progresses. Special mentions to Euan the grieving father of the victim, Roy Taylor the enthusiastic SIO (who clearly has a past of sorts) and Catherine the victim.

The plot is full of the twists and turns you would expect from a novel in this genre. What sets this apart and a level above other crime novels is the pace is perfect. It is not frantic but I still devoured the book in two days. Cleeve’s writing is simple and effective. She captures the setting well and does a good job of portraying the mood of the community.

The other unique thing about “Raven Black” is that I genuinely did not have a clue who the killer was. Yes, you suspect it has to be one of the characters but there are no obvious candidates. Every character is hinted as having enough of a sinister side that it could be anyone of them. There are also more than a few red herrings planted.

If I am honest, the ending felt a little rushed and anti-climatic. The final scenes started well, but the whole thing was wrapped up so quickly, I did not really have time to process the revelations before the book had finished. That is not to say it was not satisfactory, but I would have preferred a little more time taken to concentrate on some of the characters.
Overall then, this book was a major surprise for me. Fast, intriguing with a great little mystery, “Raven Black” has good characters that are a joy to read. My first Ann Cleeves book will certainly not be my last.

My rating: 8.8