Island secrets inspire Shetland author Ann Cleeves

ANN Cleeves, author of the Shetland and Vera novels, reveals how she’s inspired by the secrets hidden in Scotland’s remote places
Author Ann Cleeves. Picture: Greg MacveanAuthor Ann Cleeves. Picture: Greg Macvean
Author Ann Cleeves. Picture: Greg Macvean

Two middle-aged women, unremarkable, you wouldn’t give them a second look. Heads together, they’re probably discussing cardigans – one of them is wearing a particularly fine Fair Isle number worked in Shetland yarn. But linger a while, eavesdrop on their conversation and you’ll find that the subject matter is much darker than knitting patterns. They’re talking murder.

One of the women in question is best-selling crime author Ann Cleeves, whose murder mysteries have been turned into the popular TV series, Shetland, starring Dougie Henshall and Vera, with Brenda Blethyn, and she’s telling me about her latest Shetland novel, Thin Air, published this week.

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Cleeves writes the Shetland and Vera books turn about and with the latest Jimmy Perez out this month, is now working on the next Vera Stanhope mystery.

“I get all of the benefits of writing a series with a set of characters I know well, but I don’t have the boredom factor as each one is a change.”

The author of over 25 books, 59-year-old Cleeves won the CWA Golden Dagger award for crime fiction in 2006 for Raven Black, the first in her Shetland series.

“I got £20,000 prize money and that was my year’s salary so that was it. I was able to give up other work. I’m very lucky with two television series and lots of overseas contracts now. Suddenly it’s strange to walk around the supermarket and not worry too much about what it’s going to cost. We were never poor, but I can remember when the kids were young and the car broke down and we didn’t have the money to fix it. Then I got a £1,000 advance for the first book, and I thought, right, we can get the car fixed. What fantastic luck. My life has been just full of lucky chance,” she says.

Another of what Cleeves regards as her lucky breaks – although getting up around six every morning to write has doubtless had something to do with her success – was the decision to drop out of university to become a cook at the bird sanctuary in Fair Isle. This was the first of a variety of occupations that has included auxiliary coastguard, probation officer, library outreach worker and child care officer.

“I was doing English at Sussex University and it was a bit posey for me. You’re so arrogant when you’re young and I thought, I can just read anywhere. Now I think, oh God, if I’d stayed I might know what all these books I’m struggling to understand are about. But I met somebody in the pub who was going off to be assistant warden at the bird observatory on Fair Isle and they were desperate for an assistant cook too, so off I went. When you’re 19, everything seems like fun and adventure. I loved it. It was beautiful, there were puffins on the cliffs and there was lots of gossip, great storytellers who you’d sit with and drink tea and eat home bakes or maybe take a dram or two.”

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That was in 1975 and not only did Cleeves fall in love with Shetland, but she met her husband Tim there too. An ornithologist, his work in conservation has meant they have often lived in remote locations, from Shetland to an island in the Dee estuary between the Wirral and North Wales. Home is now the Tyne and Wear seaside resort of Whitley Bay, where she writes every day along with appearing at numerous book events, and spending time with their two daughters and six grandchildren.

“We’ve been married since 1977. We don’t live in each other’s pockets. Tim has his own passions and I have mine. His is birds, mine is … murder.”

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Whitley Bay may not be as remote as Shetland, but for Cleeves, it’s still on the edge and close to the wild places where communities eke out an existence. The sort of liminal places on the fringes that she’s always loved and which are the settings for her novels.

“I would have a fear of living inland. I feel safe on the edge. I’m not quite sure why but I get a bit claustrophobic. When we lived in the Midlands, I felt anxious because I wasn’t sure where the edge of my world came.”

Remote yet beautiful, the landscapes of Northumberland and Shetland are almost characters in Cleeves’ novels, but she sees them as backdrop, albeit striking, to the action. It’s the undercurrents to these places that attract her attention. For her Shetland is a place with “long, low horizons with secrets hidden underneath”.

“People say you write all about place, and they’re thinking about landscape, but that isn’t really what interests me. It’s the effect of the landscape, or the small town or street, on the people. Especially Shetland. With no trees it’s very bleak and bare and you think you ought to be able to see everything, but people are keeping secrets. In small communities there are things people know but don’t speak about, because privacy is important. The community would lose cohesion if some of those damaging things were brought to the surface.” Cleeves’ job is to bring those secrets to light.

Like her locations, her characters are also people on the fringes. There’s the fiercely intelligent detective inspector Vera Stanhope who could be mistaken for a bag lady, Jimmy Perez, the Shetland policeman isolated by grief and guilt and Willow Reeves, who grew up in a commune on a Hebridean island.

“Like Vera and Willow, I’m comfortable in my own skin. I don’t really care too much what people think of me any more and that’s quite nice. Of course you would want to be kind – kindness is such an important virtue – I think that’s what makes Jimmy Perez interesting in that he’s masculine and strong, but still manages to be kind. That’s why Dougie Henshall gets him on the telly because he can do that strength and slight edginess, but also compassion and kindness. That’s really hard to pull off,” she says.

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“And Brenda Blethyn does Vera beautifully and has a real commitment to the character. She’s made it hers. There are lots of middle-aged women who have felt devalued and I think Vera gives them a sense of validation. I think Vera is me fighting back for those strong, single women – although I’m married and have two kids!”

Like her characters, Cleeves describes herself as something of an observer rather than a participant. A watcher, a listener-in of conversations, snatches of which can become a starting point for a mystery.

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“The last Vera book, Harbour Street, started off with a conversation overheard on the Metro, a man pulling a woman apart for the way she drank, the way she looked after the kids, one thing after another all the way and by the end I would have easily murdered him,” she says.

Other triggers will be an image, say a raven, black feathers against a patch of snow on a midwinter trip to Shetland, a news headline, or like the latest Shetland book, Thin Air, a traditional hamefaring wedding party on Shetland that she was invited to by cast member Stephen Robertson, who plays dogged policeman Sandy.

“It was lovely, very traditional, and it started me thinking, how would it be if one of the guests … just disappeared?”

Next weekend Cleeves will be heading back to Orkney – which she still regards as a home from home and visits three or four times a year – for 24/24 Orkney/Shetland, a celebration of reading, writing and libraries. In a race against the clock, Orkney and Shetland libraries will be running 24 events on 24 islands in 24 hours, with Cleeves travelling on ferries and in planes, finally ending up in the UK’s most northerly library in Unst, to launch Thin Air, which is set on the island.

No doubt she’ll be packing that very lovely cardigan she’s wearing today. Is it Fair Isle by any chance?

“Yes, it’s a Fair Isle pattern, knitted from Shetland wool. Promote Shetland gave it to me, so I always wear it at events,” she says.

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It’s a cardigan to kill for. Eat your heart out Sofie Gråbøl.

• Thin Air is published on Thursday by Macmillan, £11.89 hardback. Ann Cleeves will be appearing at Nairn Book and Arts Festival at 4pm, today, Nairn Community & Arts Centre, Nairn,; on Thursday and Friday she will take part in 24/24 Orkney/Shetland, see hours.asp for more details.