Interview: Ann Cleeves, crime writer

THE world of television used to be a mystery to unassuming crime writer Ann Cleeves. Then last year the 56-year-old award-winning Northumberland author was hurled headlong into the frantic world of television.

Her character, DI Vera Stanhope, a dowdy spinster with a sharp brain and cruel wit, is being brought to life on screen by acclaimed actress Brenda Blethyn in a major ITV1 series, Vera, in the spring.

Cleeves, a grandmother-of-five, remains relatively unfazed by the whole experience but still cannot quite believe how Vera drew the attention of TV executives.

"It was like a fairytale," she recalls. "A scriptwriter for ITV went into her local Oxfam shop and bought a second-hand copy of The Crow Trap, the second of the Vera books, and liked it.

"They were looking for a strong female lead for a detective show, so it wasn't just chance. Then they optioned it and it all happened very quickly. I remember pinching myself."

The former probation officer found herself showing the show's scriptwriter around the North East, where the novels are set, to give him a flavour of the environment. She also went to the set to watch filming, meeting Blethyn at a read-through.

"Brenda is such an amazing actress. She had read the book before she came on and had my vision of Vera.

"I had a very strong image of who Vera was in my head. She was created almost as an antidote to central women characters in crime novels who are fit and manage to get a bloke. Vera is dowdy and overweight but still has her own character and is very smart.

"Some of the cop show formulas have become a bit tired, which is maybe where Vera is different, because she's a real woman who's middle-aged."

In May, there will be four two-hour stand-alone episodes, adapted from the books Hidden Depths, The Crow Trap and Telling Tales, plus an original story.

Indeed, Cleeves, whose latest thriller Silent Voices sees Vera investigating the murder of a woman found in a sauna, admits that Blethyn's portrayal has influenced subsequent books.

"Now, I hear her voice when I'm writing dialogue for the books. She has that wit, humour and a touch of cruelty. I don't see Brenda so much because my vision of Vera is uglier than Brenda, even dressed-down Brenda, but I do hear Brenda's voice in my head."

As with so many good detective yarns, Vera has a sidekick, Sgt Joe Ashworth (played by David Leon), a young, loyal copper who's like a surrogate son.

Could we be seeing a female version of Morse?

Cleeves replies, "Morse is probably the closest to it, maybe more so than Frost, because of the relationship between Vera and Joe. The central relationship between them is at the heart of the piece. I loved watching Morse, but they seem quite slow now. Vera is much pacier. But to have created a character as iconic as Morse would be fantastic."

Cleeves knows that her profile will be raised massively by the TV series, but is happy to remain out of the spotlight.

"I quite like the comfortable obscurity, so it's going to be a bit of a shock to walk into bookshops and see displays of my books and Brenda on the TV tie-in covers."

Right now, Cleeve's has just finished another Vera book, - The Glass Room. It's set in a big house writing hopefuls go to be tutored - then one of the teachers is killed.

And if the TV adaptation doesn't run to another series, she'll return to writing - and reading - crime.

"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."

Silent Voices by Ann Cleeves is published by Macmillan, priced 17.99, available now

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