21st February 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

Emphasis on location outdoes the story

Red Bones by Ann Cleeves. Published by Macmillan, £16.99.

Location plays an ever important role in crime fiction these days.

Inspector Morse, for example, would be somewhat lost were he not surrounded by the dreamy spires of Oxford as he cracked his crossword clues in between pints of real ale and solving the odd murder.

Few in Edinburgh could forget the inspiration Ian Rankin drew from the city to create his anti- hero John Rebus, while in the north east Stuart MacBride, with the antics of his world-weary DS Logan Mcrae, has really put Aberdeen on the grizzly crime-scene map.

Is Shetland ready to play host to a detective novel, though? On the evidence of Red Bones, the third instalment of Ann Cleeves’ widely acclaimed Shetland quartet, the answer is probably not.

Set in Whalsay, Red Bones follows the unlikely named Shetland detective Jimmy Perez – from Fair Isle – as he investigates the apparent accidental shooting of elderly woman Mima Wil­son.

Poor Mima, it turns out, was the grandmother of Sandy, Perez’s rather haphazard sidekick, who suffers a chronic lack of self-confidence and is saddled with a fear of saying or doing the wrong thing during every interview.

Everyone seems to hope the shooting can be put down to a tragic mistake by one hapless character out shooting rabbits on a dark and misty night.

That is until, eventually, there is another death – this time a keen young archaeologist who apparently commits suicide, despite showing commitment beyond the call of duty to a dig taking place on the island.

There is promising material to work with here, but Perez holds little interest to the reader as he gingerly explores the possibility the two deaths might be related.

In what is obviously intended as a slow-burner of a novel, the plot never seems to get out of second gear. It can prove quite difficult to identify with any of the people contained within its pages.

Cleeves is a resident of North Tyneside. That, of course, should not matter one jot, except you do get the impression she is clutching at facts and throwing them aimlessly at her storyline in a desperate attempt to give it more gravitas and meaning than it actually has.

Page after page, Cleeves provides explanations about Shet­land’s geography and culture through the spoken words of her characters – explanations which, in the real world, would never be offered without prompting, or even necessarily required.

She is, of course, pandering to a wider market, so we should perhaps recognise that not everyone in these isles needs as much explained. The downside is that it makes the narrative stilted and unbeliev­able, meaning the book fails to flow as well as other recent offerings from Messrs Rankin and MacBride.

There is also a smattering of blunders. Thankfully, most of these are fairly minor, and may only be apparent to a Shetlander – although sticking Laxo on the West Side is pretty unforgivable at this level. She also slips up on her Scots law by allowing the procurator fiscal to talk about holding an inquest – something that only happens in English courts.

I came to this book immediately after reading Mark Billingham’s excellent standalone thriller In The Dark, which had genuine can’t-put-down qualities. Perhaps Red Bones was just too much of a contrast.

Cleeves did win the 2006 Crime Writers’ Association Duncan Lawrie Dagger for her first book in the quartet, Raven Black, so she must be doing something right.

Some might see its story as having slow-burning intrigue. For most, I suspect, Red Bones would be best left buried.

Ryan Taylor

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