Friday, November 12, 2010

Island Mysteries: Mystery Readers Journal: Ann Cleeves

The latest issue of Mystery Readers Journal: Island Mysteries  (Volume 26:3) was just published. Check out the Table of Contents. To order this issue, go HERE. Scroll down to Volume 26:3).

If you're not a subscriber, you can still enjoy some of the essays. The Journal is packed with reviews and articles, including the very special Author! Author! essays. Here's a sampling from those essays by Mystery Author Ann Cleeves. Ann Cleeves lives on the northeast coast of England with her ornithologist husband Tim. Her latest Shetland novel Blue Lightning is being published by Minotaur in the fall of 2010.

The Bleak and Beautiful Islands by Ann Cleeves

I first went to Shetland more than thirty years ago. I'd dropped out of university and was offered a temporary job as assistant cook in Fair Isle bird observatory. At that point I wasn't even sure where Fair Isle was, though I'd heard of the famous knitting; I thought vaguely it was one of the western isles. But Fair Isle, Britain's most remote inhabited island, is part of the Shetland group and that's as far north as you can get in the UK, closer to Bergen in Norway than London. Fair Isle is a long way from anywhere—13 hours overnight by boat from Aberdeen to Shetland mainland and then three hours by mail boat into the Isle.

So I arrived on a stormy spring afternoon to be assistant cook in the bird observatory on Fair Isle, knowing nothing about birds and not being able to cook! I was twenty years old and looking for adventure. That summer changed my life. I met my husband there. I had the space and the time to read more widely than ever before. And I learned to cook. The next year I went back—only this time I was in charge of the kitchen.

Fair Isle is about three and a half miles long and a mile and a half wide. It has a permanent population of about 50 people, an airstrip, a natural harbour and a hill covered with heather, where the aggressive skuas breed. The cliffs provide homes for puffins, kittiwakes and gannets. Because of its position it attracts rare birds from east and west. The people live in a scattering of croft houses in the south of the island and are warm and welcoming to incomers. I spent my time off in gossip and listening to stories. I learned to hand milk a cow, clip a sheep and even to knit—never did quite get the hang of the intricate steps of the dances though!

Shetland itself comprises half a dozen or so inhabited islands. Shetland mainland is 60 miles from top to toe and the archipelago has a population of more than 20,000. Check out the map on my website for more details and to see where the books are set. There's a town, Lerwick. Oil came to the community in the 1970s bringing affluence, work and foreigners. All this makes it an interesting place to explore, imaginatively and in reality.

Since that first trip, my husband and I have been regular visitors to the islands. We have very good friends there. But I didn't consider setting a book in the place until 2005 when we made a brief mid-winter visit. A very rare bird had turned up between Christmas and New Year and Tim was desperate to see it. We arrived to snow and ice. There are few trees in Shetland so the landscape was bleak and bare. Looking across the frozen fields we saw three ravens against the snow. I'm a crime writer and I thought if there were blood as well it would be like a scene from a fairy story: powerful, almost mythical. That was how Raven Black was born.

I'm very grateful to Shetland. I'd been published for twenty years before Raven Black, to reasonable reviews but very little commercial success. The book went on to win the CWA Gold Dagger, be short-listed for the Martin Beck Award in Sweden and to be translated into nearly twenty languages. It's been optioned for television and adapted for radio in the UK and Germany. Shetland obviously caught the readers' imagination, just as it had caught mine.

Quite soon I decided that I'd write a quartet set in Shetland. The islands lie so far to the north that the seasons vary dramatically. Winter and summer are very different. In winter it's dark for most of the day. In summer it's light almost all night. In June you can read a newspaper outside at midnight. The sun slides towards the horizon in a strange kind of dusk and then rises again. Shetlanders call this the simmer dim. The autumn equinox brings storms and early spring can be wet and gloomy.

Raven Black, the winter book, is bleak and dark; the summer book, White Nights, is more playful. It's about performance and pretence and things being not quite what they seem. A stranger appears at the party to open an exhibition by a local artist, but seems not to know who he is or why he's there. The story also features a brilliant young fiddle player: Shetland is famous for its wonderful folk music. The character is loosely based on Fair Islander Chris Stout of the band Fiddlers' Bid. I went to his parents' wedding when I was first on the Isle and now he and I perform at festivals and gigs together and he's called his most recent album White Nights...

Red Bones is set in the spring, a time of mist. The story is about digging into the past—literally in an archaeological dig of a mediaeval merchant's house, but psychologically too. It's about greed and envy, set on Whalsay, which is the wealthiest island because most of Shetland's deep sea fishing boats moor there.

There's a series detective who appears in each book. Jimmy Perez is a Fair Islander—his exotic name comes from his Spanish ancestry. There is a real Spanish armada shipwreck off the island and there were survivors. I wanted my character to be an outsider, but also to utterly belong. His family has been in the islands for five centuries but still he's viewed with suspicion.

Now I'm preparing for publication of the fourth book. In Blue Lightning I go back to Fair Isle, where my passion for Shetland all started. I found it a remarkably easy book to write, because the landscape of the island is fixed in my imagination. I've created a fictional field centre in the lighthouse at the north of the Isle and one of my characters is the cook there. The autumn gales mean that no planes or boats can reach the place, and when a body is found, Jimmy Perez, on holiday with his parents, has to work the case without any technical support.

Now that the quartet is complete, will I return to Shetland in my writing? Of course! There'll be a gap, because one of my Vera Stanhope novels has been adapted for television and it makes sense to concentrate on her for a while, but Shetland is a very special place. It's impossible to stay away.


Glynn Alam said...

Janet, I love the article Ann Cleeves did. I also love her books and am glad she'll return to the Shetlands later. In the meantime, I hope her Vera Stanhope tv series comes to the States. Those books are great, too."

Maddy said...

I love the series. I shall add that to my Christmas wishlist and hope someone indulges me - if not, I shall just have to treat myself anyway.

Janet Rudolph said...

I love this series, too. Can't wait for the latest!