(Shetland Island #1)
by Ann Cleeves
Raven Black begins on New Year’s Eve with a lonely outcast named Magnus Tait, who stays home waiting for visitors who never come. But the next morning the body of a murdered teenage girl is discovered nearby, and suspicion falls on Magnus. Inspector Jimmy Perez enters an investigative maze that leads deeper into the past of the Shetland Islands than anyone wants to go.
There are definitely spoilers ahead as I want to talk about the various points of view in the book and that means revealing the killer.
Ann Cleeves uses a close third person point of view in Raven Black to circle around the mystery of the murder of Catherine Ross, a teenaged newcomer to Shetland.
Magnus Tait is the first perspective and he is a worrisome one. He knows he has trouble communicating sometimes and can make people feel uncomfortable by smiling at the wrong time. He is also very aware of pretty girls, including Catherine Ross whose black hair entrances him. Magnus has lived on Shetland his entire life.
Then Sally Henry, Catherine’s best friend and an islander, moves a bit back in time to recount how she and Catherine stumbled to Magnus’ house on New Year.
Fran Hunter, a mother who moved back to Shetland to raise her daughter close to her ex-husband, finds Catherine’s body at the bottom of the hill by Magnus’ house. Enter Inspector Jimmy Perez, a transplant from nearby Fair Isle.
While the general tone of the book remains the same with each chapter, the close third person allows the reader to get in the head of each character. Magnus is concerning and confused. Fran worries and tries to do her best. Perez struggles with his urge to be a policeman and his yearning to return home to more remote Fair Isle.
And Sally is unperturbed, which I have to say, I didn’t pick up on right away. She isn’t a wreck like one might expect, more in shock. Although, I just went back to Sally’s first chapter after Catherine’s murder and everything is there. (Yes, Sally is the killer.) It seems so obvious now.
“When Sally got in from school her mother told her about Catherine Ross, but rumours had been flying around Anderson High since midday and it was all anyone had been talking about on the bus. Sally pretended it was a surprise though.”
See, it’s right there! But Cleeves buries the lede in the following sentence.
“She spent her life pretending to her mother. It had become a habit.”
And a couple of pages later, when Inspector Perez arrives to speak with Sally:
“‘Tell me about Catherine,’ he said. ‘What was she like?’”
Sally hadn’t been expecting that. She’d thought there’d be specific questions: When did you last see Catherine? Did she mention a row with anyone? How did she seem?
She hadn’t practiced the answer to this.”
It’s shocking to go back and realize what I missed. Because it seems so obvious now, I’m trying to figure out what made Sally’s reactions reasonable. By this point we know her relationship with her schoolteacher mother is fraught so ‘pretending’ with her mom isn’t strange. And expecting to be interviewed by the police about your best friend’s murder would probably cause you to think about what they’d ask you.
I find this technique, which is woven throughout the book, to be very impressive. I never expected the murderer to be one of the perspectives. Usually when a writer does that we learn who the killer is early on and the story is about the killer’s attempt to get away with it or do more bad things. I had a couple of ideas for the killer but never once considered Sally.
On the flip side, the reasons for Sally killed Catherine are a bit weak, but if I think about it as a real world event as opposed to a story, it’s just sad and scary. Sally had problems with Catherine even though she was her only friend. Sally was an outsider due to her mom teaching everyone she knew for years. In small, insular Shetland where everyone knows everyone’s business, making friends with a new arrival was the best she could do. But she didn’t like Catherine. Catherine wasn’t a nice person and when she laid into Sally about her crappy taste in men, Sally strangled her to shut her up.
From a storytelling point of view, Sally’s reasons felt small but murder does happen that way which makes this all feel very real, like it could happen.
So read Raven Black for some excellent writing – even if you now know the killer, it’s still very worth it – and read it to learn about the struggles of living in a small, insolated and insulated community.