Ann Cleeves discusses setting a crime novel on Shetland

Ann Cleeves set her crime novel on Shetland. Picture: Complimentary
Ann Cleeves set her crime novel on Shetland. Picture: Complimentary
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THE Shetland Islands may not be known for their murder rate, but Ann Cleeves, author of the Vera detective books, always knew a crime novel set there would work. She tells Susan Mansfield why, as one of her Shetland series comes to the TV screens

There are plenty of things which make Shetland stand out: the wildlife, the weather, the bleakly beautiful landscapes. But the murder rate isn’t one of them. In the right hands, however, that doesn’t stop the islands being a great setting for crime fiction, as readers of Ann Cleeves’ acclaimed Shetland novels have discovered. And, as a new audience will to discover this weekend when a BBC TV drama based on her novel Red Bones airs as prime-time Sunday night viewing.

If the ratings are favourable, Shetland, starring Douglas Henshall as detective Jimmy Perez, could become a series like ITV’s Vera, starring Brenda Blethyn, based on Cleeves’ other ongoing crime series, which has a fourth series in the planning and now screens in 12 countries.

Cleeves, who is one of the few so far to have seen the two-part drama, says it has the atmosphere of Scandinavian crime hits such as Wallander and The Killing, but with a twist which is uniquely Shetland. “It’s warmer and more accessible, I think. It manages to combine both traditions, the Scandinavian and the British, which is brilliant for Shetland because that’s what it does too.”

If Shetland is a success, it could put Cleeves, 58, in the enviable position of having two prime-time drama series based on her books running concurrently. It’s what she cheerfully refers to as “overnight success after 20 years”. When we meet in a luxury Glasgow hotel, I get the sense that she is enjoying the increased profile, but keeps her feet firmly on the ground. She says she is eager to get back to her kitchen table in her home in Whitley Bay, Northumberland, to get on with writing the next book.

Cleeves had been writing for 20 years, and produced almost as many books, when her first Shetland novel, Raven Black, won the Crime Writers Association Duncan Lawrie Dagger in 2006 for the best crime book of the year. For the first time in her writing career, she was able to quit the day job – at that point a development officer for libraries – and write full-time.

Her connection with the Shetland Islands also goes back decades. She was in her early twenties when, having dropped out of university, she accepted a job as an assistant cook at the bird observatory on Fair Isle where she met her husband, Tim, a visiting naturalist. They have maintained their connection with the islands, and Cleeves visits three or four times a year. However, when she proposed a crime novel set in Shetland, her publisher insisted that it had to be a one-off: multiple crimes on the islands would surely have no credibility. When they saw the sales figures for Raven Black, they quickly changed their minds.

Now there is a quartet of Shetland novels, and the fifth, Dead Water, which is newly published, marks the beginning of a second quartet. All feature detective Jimmy Perez, the soft-spoken Fair Islander who owes his Spanish name to a long-ago survivor of a Spanish Armada wreck off the coast of the islands. As she did when Brenda Blethyn took on the role of Vera Stanhope, Cleeves has had to sit back and watch an actor transform a character who had, until then, existed only in her imagination.

“In the book, Jimmy Perez looks nothing like Douglas Henshall. I think Douglas is playing quite a different part, but what he does have is that ability to be very still and very calm which I think Jimmy Perez has, and also a sort of quiet authority. I think he plays that brilliantly, I think he’s going to be very good.”

Cleeves’ Shetland books reflect a deep knowledge of the place, its issues and its people. Dead Water is bang up to date, focusing on the recent controversies about renewable energy on the islands. Europe’s largest oil terminal at Sullom Voe brought prosperity to the islands, but it has now passed its productive peak. Shetland is ideally situated to make use of renewable energy – wind and tidal power – but a proposal for a giant wind farm has been bitterly contested by locals. “Writers are parasites, and to be able to use that as a backdrop to a novel made sense, I think. It’s like a microcosm of a much bigger community, but it’s manageable and you can write about it in terms that people can understand.”

At first, she says, she worried about writing about the islands as an outsider, but Shetland seems to have taken the project to its heart. “ I don’t get a sense of resentment, that I’m an English person who goes in and writes about their community,” she says. “When the team went up to reccy, Shetlanders drove them all over the islands, something like 500 miles in three days looking at all the possible locations. Shetland’s only 60 miles from top to bottom, that’s a lot of driving.”

When the drama required the staging of Viking fire festival Up Helly Aa in the middle of summer (it’s normally in January) the community all pitched in to help. “The Jarlsquad (the leaders of the parade, who dress as Vikings) all turned out in full gear, grew their facial hair so they would be authentic again, they even had the fire. And because it was midsummer, and hardly gets dark at all, they had to film between 11pm and 2am. And still people turned out to be a part of it.”

Getting cast and crew to Shetland for ten days of filming wasn’t easy, but Cleeves believes it was worth it. “Shetland looks great. I think people will have a sense of a very different place, because you get the sense of the wildness of the countryside and then the bustle of Lerwick.” Actor Steven Robertson (Inside I’m Dancing, Neds), who plays sidekick Sandy Wilson, even gets to use his native Shetland accent for perhaps the first time on film.

It’s true that the series multiplies the murder rate on Shetland by several orders of magnitude but this is hardly new – just think of all the grisly deaths in Miss Marple’s English village. “I think it’s part of the convention, I think readers know that. If you write traditional crime, which I do, having an enclosed community where people can’t escape – it’s like Agatha Christie with the train in the snow or the boat up the Nile. I suppose that’s what makes Scandinavian crime so appealing, because you have that bleak, dramatic landscape as a backdrop, but then you do have the very quiet domestic lives going on as well, that’s what I enjoy writing, the domestic, quieter novel.”

Her television break came about quite by chance, when producer Elaine Collins from ITV picked up the first Vera novel in a charity shop. She was on the lookout for a crime series with a strong female lead with a grittier edge than Prime Suspect, and Vera, with its curmudgeonly heroine and northern setting, was ideal. Now many more dramas have been made than Cleeves has written books, with the scriptwriters creating their own stories around her characters. “That’s the deal, you understand that when you put a book up for option. I’ve been very lucky because I get on extremely well with Elaine Collins [now executive producer on both series]. It wasn’t difficult to hand the books over because I know she gets what I’m doing. Having that relationship is very unusual, I think. It’s quite nice because now the script editor will phone me and say, ‘We’re a bit stuck on this, have you got any idea how we might make this work?’ even if it’s not one of my stories.”

One colleague suggested to me that Shetland might do for the Shetland islands what crime series Bergerac did for the Channel islands in the 1980s, and bring a new set of visitors flocking in. Tourists already come to the islands because they have enjoyed Cleeves’ books, and the local tourism organisation, Promote Shetland, have produced a new visitors’ map featuring details of the locations. Cleeves hopes this will increase further when the drama is aired. “People do come to Shetland because they’ve enjoyed the books, which is great for me because I feel that the islanders have given me so much help, it’s nice that I’m generating a bit of tourism for them as well.”

• Dead Water is out now, published by Macmillan. Shetland is on BBC 1 on Sunday at 9pm, concluding on Monday at 9pm