Reviewed by Angela Marie
“He knew that they weren’t all cruel people. It was the drink and the fact that they were anonymous, part of the gang, changed by the flickering light into one monstrous, shouting whole.”
Welcome to Deltaness, a small Shetland community seemingly devoid of purpose, aside from the routines of work and school. For the youth the major draw is the community hall, a place to gather your army and drink and light beachside bonfires. A place to feel a part of something. For the adults the inclusive force is gossip. Malicious gossip. Be a part of it or bear the brunt. In Deltaness gossip spreads like wild fire. Who better to focus on than newcomers? An English family have come north, looking to provide a haven for their children and themselves. Herein lies the dichotomy of the small town. As Robert Moncrieff, the local doctor, relates, “Most of our neighbours are very tolerant people. We’re used to welcoming strangers. From the Vikings on, there’ve been invaders in the islands.”
Our English family, the Flemings, have respectfully renovated and gentrified an old crofter’s cottage, Daniel being an eco-conscious architect. The crofter, Dennis Gear, has returned to his former home and hung himself from the rafters in the byre, the cowshed. The illusion of haven has now been lifted. Add to this that the Flemings have been receiving sequenced hangman drawings, meticulously plotted on graph paper. From whom? And why? And now a second suicide, or is it murder? So begins the relentless scrutiny of two families. Gossip intersects with investigation as the detectives attempt to place the puzzle pieces in order. Secrets bubble up from the shadows creating greater tensions within and without. “This is how rumours start and suspicion spreads…One woman’s death is tragedy enough, but everyone who knew her is affected. We all become victims.”
And now a third death. Unexpected. At a memorial site. Definitely murder. Is there a connection to the other deaths and can this be solved? The questions continue to mount. The finding of evidence, shoes, a bag, threatens to cloud the investigation. As this steadily plods on with the crime scene investigators, the pathologist and the uniformed police, it seems that nothing will give the results that talking will. Probing questions addressed as casual conversation. And little by little for our detectives patience pays, aided by an unforeseen ally. Ann Cleeves makes us work hard whilst trying to solve the mysteries. She forms a sizeable cast of suspects and hides the culprit well. Very well.
It is clear that the author is a keen observer of human behaviour and her characters present as flawed and mortal, sometimes capable of and sometimes lacking in introspection and judgement. We see the players perform a different dance dependent on whom the partner is. Do they lead or do they follow? Jimmy, the detective hero of the Shetland series and known for his empathetic support, caught in the doldrums when the situation is personal. Strong, compassionate and artistic Helena numbed by the disappearance of her son. Eleven-year-old Christopher, debilitated by his autistic reactions to uncomfortable and unkind stimuli, acknowledged by teachers as exceptionally clever.
The reader sees how the years of exposure and training temper responses. Entitled Belle reverting from semi-domestic goddess to publicity hound. Robert, living in the hall of the laird and resplendent in his privileged upbringing, clawing onto control. Our detective trio, Jimmy, Sandy and Willow, exercising emotional distance and detachment in the wake of suicide and murder, distracted by their personal problems and situations.
We recognise the notion that we are moulded by the actions and traits of those closest to us. Enigmatic Emma, trapped in retro beauty, and traumatised following the turmoils of her youth. Martha, the reticent teenage Goth, almost an imposition on her parents, and her brother, Charlie, the ideal and idealised son. Magnie, all his mother, Margaret, bitter and rejected, has. Lottie, her dream taken by the greed of another. Daniel, stripped of the need to take responsibility for his actions. Willow, in a conventional job, raised in the unconventional commune. Note the subtle descriptor on the cover of Wild Fire. “Those you keep closest burn most of all.”
A menacing personification is the atmospheric fog, rolling in to assist the doing of deeds, allowing us to catch glimpses of action without revealing the entirety, and slinking away to assure us that all is well. Or is it? Ann Cleeves’ skill allows her to dab just the right amount of inclement weather to support the macabre. As it does her descriptions of the pull of the islands of Shetland, a magnetic force that draws back its own. And sufficient compliment to the natural beauty of the isles to momentarily disarm us. And fire can be friend or foe. As crime fiction Wild Fire has it all; mystery, drama, suspicion, suspense, red herrings, gossip, romance, motive. And characters who may or may not be as they seem. It is a masterclass on crime fiction writing.
It was a privilege to attend a recent author talk by Ann Cleeves as she related her first-hand knowledge of the Shetland isles, her varied jobs there and her journey to becoming a writer. She is dedicated to promoting libraries and was the UK’s National Libraries Day Ambassador in 2016. I applaud her words. “We need libraries for democracy – there should be equal access to books, information and facts for everybody.” She is a passionate and generous spokesperson, and a member of Northern England’s Murder Squad ‘ – crime fiction to die for’.
Wild Fire is regrettably the last novel in Ann Cleeves’ Shetland series and the first Ann Cleeves novel that this reviewer has read. As a dedicated fan of both the Shetland TV series, and Vera, based on the author’s Vera Stanhope series, that will change. Wild Fire is a great read and just about as clever and camouflaged as crime/detective fiction can get. Little wonder that in 2017 Ann Cleeves was awarded the UK’s highest acknowledgement for sustained excellence in crime writing, the CWA Diamond Dagger, as nominated by her peers. She joins the likes of Val McDermid, Ian Rankin, Lee Child and John le Carre as a recognised tour de force. And has put Shetland firmly on the literary trail map.
By Ann Cleeves