Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Ann Cleeves - Hidden Depths

At one point in Ann Cleeves's 'Hidden Depths', inspector Vera Stanhope muses
"Real murders weren't like this. They were brutal and mucky. Unplanned usually, always ugly". She has reason to,  as she is investigating 2 murders, where both the victims, who do not seem to have been related in anyway have been decked out in a similar, almost ritualistic fashion. Vera has to find out a killer who seems to have come from the pages of a novel.

This novel is not a police procedural on the lines of say Rankin or Mankell where the day to day legwork of investigation has an important role. It is more in the vein of Ruth Rendell's 'Wexford' series of novels, where though, the main protagonist is a policeman, not much time is given to the inner workings of the department. 
There are few initial moments, where Vera and her team have discussions and the boredom of the team members is mentioned, one of the few times when we get the feeling that yes, this is a procedural. 

There are a lot of  red herrings, which you typically, do not get a lot of in Rankin or Mankell, just an accumulation of data and a point where all those data fall into place). There is a sidekick to Vera, but that's it, most of the work is done by her and in this too we see a difference as even the maverick Rebus has Siobhan who herself is a well formed character, by his side. The character of.Vera's assistant harks back to 'Burden' in the Wexford series.You never get the feeling that he could be important like Siobhan, you know that the entire show is run by Vera. This then is a quintessential traditional British crime novel with no influence of Tartan Noir or the Scandinavian wave.  (This is only book I have read in this series, so could be wrong about how it plays out in the other books). 

The initial parts of the novel are quaint in the sense that the landscape, the initial introduction of the characters could all fit into an 'Agatha Christie' novel. Indeed, Vera could be a 'Jane Marple' rebooted for our times, what with her unabashed poking/probing into the lives of others, but also sensitive at the same time, the only difference being that in Vera's case she has the license to poke into other people direct. During the initial parts, one felt as if he were in some 'neverland', a place that didn't seem real, too good to be true. Oh yes, the beach, woods were all there, but one doesn't see the waves, feel the biting code or hear the chirping of the birds. The characters all seemed so distant. The whole setting seemed a bit in-congruent to a police procedural. The violence too is understated, almost respectful of the victims. (Last year, Ann had spoken about violence in Nordic Noir which can be read at (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/sep/29/nordic-noir-violence-against-women)

Thankfully, these apprehensions vanish once Ann gets down to letting us know about the various characters. Any time, we get too close to someone's personal (personal in the purest sense of the word) life, not just during an investigation as in this novel, a can of worms is going to open. It would be a cliche and stating the obvious when I say that 'Hidden Depths' refer to the innermost feelings of the characters, that's what Ann does she mines the hidden depths of her characters.  There is the mother of the first victim who feels guilty as she had gone on a date (after a very long time) on the day her son was murdered, there is the couple who have an affair without the other knowing it, but are these in anyway connected to the murders.  Ann suddenly zooms in on the small moments and makes us ponder about whether it is related to the novel or just a snapshot of mind at a particular moment. When the mother of the victim has erotic thoughts and then immediately feels ashamed, we know that it probably has nothing to do with the murder, but lets us know about the loneliness that she has suffered and the guilt she has to carry on top of that.

The murders occur  in act 1, the characters, red herrings are set up in act 2 and finally Vera ties up everything in a finale that is in tune with the rest of the novel. Nothing that will take our breath away, but at the same time fitting in well within the realm of what had been exposed to Vera (and to the reader) earlier on. 

One doesn't initially warm up to Vera. She seems unnecessarily churlish, dismissive of her team members (there are mentions about how her team members desist from giving any suggestions fearing her sharp tongue) and generally seems to get under everyone's skin. But she is not a lone wolf like Rebus who desists authority and works alone. She is okay with a team, but not confident about their abilities, the worst kind of leader? But we slowly thaw towards her, with her wicked sense of humor (sometimes self-deprecatory),  her loneliness, her past with her father and though we do not completely warm up to her by the end, we surely do not desist her.

More than the core mystery or Vera, the parts of the main players of the novel is what intrigued me. I may not read the other novels in this series, but as Ann has written several series (with different protagonists), there are quite a lot of choices which I would be looking out for. The 'Shetland Island' series maybe? 

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