Detective goes back home to Fair Isle to solve lighthouse mystery


The final book in writer Ann Cleeves’ Shetland quartet, Blue Lightning, was launched at Shetland Library on Wednesday night.

The hugely successful series, which has attracted the attention of filmmakers and ITV, is the result of a 35-year love affair Cleeves has had with the isles.

Shetland in all its moods, weather, places and atmosphere has inspired the crime writer’s work, and in her latest book she goes back to Fair Isle, the scene of her earliest experience of Shetland.

Appearing with Cleeves at the library was fiddler Chris Stout, himself from Fair Isle, with whose family Cleeves has had a long connection. This continued as Stout complemented Cleeves’ readings from each of her four books with musical interludes.

Cleeves first came to the isles as a university drop-out – “you can read books anywhere” – to take a job as an assistant cook at Fair Isle Bird Observatory. On her first crossing to the isle the Good Shepherd had been skippered by Stout’s grandfather, and Cleeves later went to his parents’ wedding.

The usual “mad bunch” of birdwatchers would descend on the observatory every autumn, she recalled, and sometimes they would get stranded in the “wild gales”.

“I quite liked that,” said Cleeves. “No matter how rich they were they couldn’t get out.” People got tense and petty differences were blown out of all proportion – perfect ingredients for a crime.

Cleeves originally wanted to set her murder in the bird observatory (as a “traditional” crime writer there is always an early murder, a limited number of suspects and a resolution), but was worried in case someone with the same name as the victim might one day stay in the building. The trustees, however, were all for it “as long as they don’t die of food poisoning”.

In the end the crime scene was shifted to the “atmospheric” North Light lighthouse, where her detective hero Jimmy Perez (from Fair Isle of course, the descendent of a shipwrecked Spanish sailor) has to work without any outside help.

Cleeves’ latest work – which fans in the packed library who have already read it say is her best yet – is set in autumn. Each of the series has its own season (and colour). The first, Raven Black, is set in winter and was suggested by the sight of black crows against a backdrop of white snow. All that was missing was the red blood.

Cleeves’ reading of the episode of two drunken girls visiting the home of an elderly man on New Year’s Eve – “you know one of them is going to die” – set the tone for the evening.

The next reading, from second book White Nights, referring to the “playful” nature of Shetland in the summer with its “pretence and performance”, featured a rock star fiddle player, something that amused Stout. He agreed that Shetland “comes alive” in the summer, and followed the reading with a complex self-penned composition suggesting dance and birdsong, written, he said, after reading the book.

The third book, Red Bones, had been the most difficult to write, Clee­ves said. The idea of the “cor­rosive effect” of greed had randomly come to her on a “nightmare” train journey. It features an archaeological site, using the metaphor of digging into the past and into secrets.

Since her first success with Raven Black, which won the Gold Dagger award for crime fiction, Cleeves has been placed in the “scary” position by her publishers of having to produce a Shetland book per year. The series is now finished, she said, although she is unlikely to kill off her beloved Jimmy Perez.

The creation of a detective from an ordinary walk of life comes after many years of writing “really awful” books in which she felt (after reading Dorothy L Sayers crime novels which featured the upper-class Lord Peter Wimsey) that detectives had to be posh.

With the Shetland quartet Cleeves has found her voice.

As well as offering a superb selection of fiddle music from Stout, the evening was a chance to award cheques to winners of a short film competition, My Shetland, sponsored by Cleeves. Winners were Aidan Nicol and Roseanne Watt.


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