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Saturday, April 27, 2013

Hidden Depths. Anne Cleeves. Pan Books (2007)

A very engaging and enjoyable crime story that builds an effective tension between a large cast and sharp plot mechanics. A young man is strangled and laid in in his bath with flowers floating on the water, clearly staged to be discovered. Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope leads the investigation into the murder and rapidly finds a possible connection to the earlier, accidental, death of a friend of the victim. When a second victim, arranged in the same way as the first, is found by a group of bird watchers, the case becomes considerably more complicated. The investigation disrupts and reveals the lives of the family of the first victim and the birdwatching group as unexpected connections emerge and the story shifts among the cast. The reveals are very well staged and the conclusion is deeply and bitterly rooted in the choices the characters have made.
Vera Stanhope is unexpected and forceful, Anne Cleeves presents her in an aggressively unflattering light, overweight and cranky she is interestingly unsympathetic. At no point is Vera ever presented as being as at a disadvantage for being a female in a male profession. she is simply an assertively competent police officer who has a deep relish for unraveling the mysteries and problems of a case. Equally unusually there is no conflict with a superior officer, in fact there is no sign of Vera's boss at all in the story. By leaving out two staples of the genre Anne Cleeves has given herself the room to have a female detective who is both cranky, focused and comfortable in her position and her skin. Vera is a very uncomfortable character, consistently abrasive and sharp, she is never implicitly or explicitly criticized for this by the author which makes her a significantly more credible police officer and most importantly allows her to be a catalyst for the rest of the cast.
It is not the murders themselves that drives the tensions with the rest of the cast, it is the vivid and awkward presence of Vera, poking and inquiring that upsets and discomforts the cast. The story gives equal prominence to three other members of the cast besides Vera and the way that they respond to the actual events and the momentum created by Vera's investigation is very enjoyable. Anne Cleeves slowly reveals the hidden depths of the title as the lives of the cast are slowly revealed and secret choices are dragged into the light and new choices made. The plot mechanics of the crimes emerge slowly through the interp-lay of the cast and Vera's ability to think clearly.
Anne Cleeves is a generous writer, the the cast are given an opportunity to be complicated a, unsure and deeply ambiguous until the willingness to sacrifice others is called for and the dark hidden depths are revealed in unexpected places.

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