Cleeves: A Profile
by Martin Edwards
Cleeves is one of the most accomplished, as well as one of the most prolific, of
the new generation of crime novelists. To date she has written nine novels - six about George and Molly Palmer-Jones and three featuring Inspector Stephen Ramsey.
Ann Cleeves's first published work, co-written with her husband Tim, was a chapter in a book about a small island off the coast of the Wirral Peninsular, Hilbre. The Cleeves lived on the island from 1977 to 1981: Tim, who works for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, was Warden and Ann acted as auxiliary coast guard. She put her experience of life on Hilbre (only a few miles from Liverpool but belonging in many respects to a different world) to good use in her second novel, and she has also drawn effectively upon her other jobs, as a social worker and probation officer, in several of her novels.
With A Bird In The Hand (1986), she turned to crime. This book introduced the Palmer-Jones and was set in the world of twitchers - those bird watchers who are forever travelling the country to tick off birds they have not previously seen. The couple returned in Come Death And High Water (1987), in which death occurs on the privately owned island of Gillibry, with plenty of suspects to be found amongst members of the islands Bird Observatory Trust. These early novels saw Ann Cleeves developing her skills; in Murder In Paradise (1988), her talent blossomed. The nature of life on the northerly isle of Kinness - which is in some ways reminiscent of Fair Isle - is conveyed wonderfully well. The author gave the names of her daughters to Sarah, the newlywed who comes to Kinness a the start of the book, and to the Ruth Isabella, the little boat which travels between Kinness and the main island on the group. An almost equally good book is A Prey For Murder (1989), which explores the murkier side of the world of falconry and greed of those who plunder the nests of rare birds of prey.
Ann Cleeves had a setback with Sea Fever (1991), a tale of murder on board a boat full of bird watchers sailing off the Cornish coast. The novel was written at a time when she was in transition from one UK publisher to another, and it failed to achieve acceptance. Fortunately, it saw light of day across the Atlantic. The author is herself less than enthusiastic about the book, but I believe she underestimates the worth of a perfectly adequate novel which deserves to be published over here. [*See Bibliography]
She enjoyed more luck with Another Man's Poison (1992), her most recent story, which focuses on use of the illegal poison phosdrin by unscrupulous gamekeepers and their employers. In this book, her political sympathies are more plainly apparent than in the others, and the odious Tory squire is possibly the weakest major character in the series because he seems two-dimensional. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that the series has a great deal of life left in it.
Much of the appeal of the Palmer-Jones novels derives from the ornithological background which, especially in Murder In Paradise and the later books, is skilfully blended with the detective-puzzle element. Even those readers who do not know a peewit from a petrel are likely to find the books appealing. Nor does ornithology impose strict limits on the type of story told, as the uninitiated might imagine. Ann Cleeves is increasingly covering broader conservation and environmental issues (which lie at the heart of Come Death And High Water, for instance) of pressing concern to townies as well as to those steeped in the lore of the countryside. Her belief in the importance of conservation is no passing whim, and the strength of her feelings adds strength to her writing.
George and Molly Palmer-Jones are an odd couple amongst modern series sleuths, elderly and distinctly unglamorous. A "destructive guilt and depression" is apt to haunt George; he is "compulsive, frightened of failure" and thinks that the words "private detective" sound "sleazy and squalid". Molly is no yeswoman; her sense of rivalry with her husband and her occasional resentment of him are evident in A Prey To Murder and Another Man's Poison.
For all that, the Palmer-Jones prove peculiarly well-suited to the task of detection. George is a retired Civil Servant whose textbook on interviewing techniques is read by many policemen as part of their training. This is helpful, because it explains why the official police investigators (no mere ciphers; those who appear in Sea Fever and A Prey To Murder are especially likeable) are willing to involve him in their enquiries. Molly is an ex-social worker with a sharp eye for the truths about human motivations; in A Prey To Murder she beats George to the solution because she realises that the key to the mystery lies in the character of the victim.
During the course of the series, the couple set up an enquiry agency "which had come to specialise in missing teenagers", and Georges complex personality makes his instinct for sleuthing entirely credible. For instance, in Come Death And High Water we are told: "he recognised with some distaste the old relief that something out of the ordinary had happened, at least for a few days he would not be bored. And he recognised the old arrogance: if anyone can sort the matter out, I can. They need me." When a second murder occurs, he is anxious to save the prime suspect, whom he believes innocent. The amateur detectives inevitable difficulty in finding answers to crucial questions is overcome at times by a little eavesdropping but more often by George's natural sense of authority and Molly's quiet persistence. In Another Mans Poison, we are told that "she seemed so harmless and good natured that no-one dreamt of accusing her of interference or suggested that she should mind her own business."
Inspector Stephen Ramsey made his debut in A Lesson In Dying (1990), investigating the murder of a Northumberland headmaster on the night of the school Halloween party. It is clear from the start that Ramsay is unpopular with his colleagues, and in the best detective-fiction tradition he is a loner, his wife having left him for another man. At first sight, he might seem a dull dog ("To Ramsay, there was little more to life than work"), but on closer inspection his attractive qualities become apparent. He is a good listener, and at times his heart rules his head - perhaps a fault in a policeman ("he knew that others considered him a failure") but an appealing one. He is middle-aged, though fit and wearing well, and it is easy to feel sympathy for him. At the end of the book, "when he should be elated with success he felt empty and a little sad".
Ramsay returned in Murder In My Back Yard (1991), which earns my vote for Ann Cleeves's best novel. It is an excellent story about development in a small town and the accompanying corruption, but even better than Michael Gilbert's splendid The Crack In The Teacup. The central plot idea is undoubtedly the author's best, and the writing, setting and characterisation are all of a high standard.
In A Day In The Death Of Dorothea Cassidy (1992), Ramsay enquires into the strangling of a vicar's wife as the small town of Otterbridge prepares for its summer carnival. It is an atmospheric story, which again makes the most of the setting in Northumberland, nowadays Ann Cleeves's home county. The sympathetic but totally unsentimental account of the effects of cancer on Emily Bowman distinguishes this book from products of the Golden Age when descriptions of sudden death were not to be confused with the unpleasant realities of disease and dying. The tone is sombre, yet there are occasional touches of humour which offer welcome relief, and many readers will hope that future novels will see Ann Cleeves giving freer rein in her novels to her sense of fun. A memorable sense of Northern bleakness also permeates her solitary short story, which again features Ramsay, "A Winter's Tale" (collected in the CWA Norths anthology Northern Blood).
Ann Cleeves always writes in a crisp economical style. She shifts viewpoint with great rapidity; this is an effective technique for distracting readers' attention from clues or culprits but can, when overused, become irritating. It would be good to see her dwelling on a single character's viewpoint in more of her scenes. She is rare among modern crime writers in concentrating on rural settings, although the forthcoming Ramsay, Killjoy, will have a mainly urban backcloth.
Already she has created two notable series; it is my guess that in the long run the Ramsay books will prove to have the greater staying power, not least because Northumberland fires her imagination. She has said of the North of England:
"I believe that the sense of community and family ties make it the natural setting for the traditional detective novel. If Agatha Christie were writing today she'd find no material in the commuter villages of the South, where the locals have been priced out by retired businessmen, television producers and successful novelists. There'd be no place for Miss Marple now. But in the variety of northern landscapes, urban and rural, there is plenty of material for books which reflect the whole range of crime being written in the North today."
It is a provocative opinion, and a plausible one. Certainly, Ann Cleeves's work well illustrates the quality of modern regional detective fiction.
Article originally appeared in CADS and is reproduced with kind permission of the author and Geoff Bradley
BIBLIOGRAPHY of Ann Cleeves
- A Bird in the Hand (Century, 1986) (Palmer-Jones)
- Come Death and High Water (Century, 1987) (Palmer-Jones)
- Murder in Paradise (Century, 1988) (Palmer-Jones)
- A Prey to Murder (Century, 1989) (Palmer-Jones)
- A Lesson in Dying (Century, 1990) (Ramsey)
- Murder In My Back Yard (Macmillan, 1991) (Ramsey)
- Another Man's Poison (Macmillan, 1992) (Palmer-Jones)
- A Day In The Death Of Dorothea Cassidy (Macmillan, 1992) (Ramsey)
- Sea Fever (Macmillan, 1993) (Palmer-Jones)
- Killjoy (Macmillan, 1993) (Ramsey)
- The Healers (Macmillan, 1995)
- High Island Blues (Macmillan, 1996)
- The Baby Snatcher (Macmillan, 1997)