Pan, 552 pages, UK edition (c1999)
In this first book in the series, the alternating viewpoints are all of women. Rachael, Anne, and Grace are doing an environmental impact evaluation of a Northumberland site for a proposed quarry. During the first half of the book, Cleeves presents the same period of time as seen very differently by the three women. Vera’s point of view doesn’t come into play until the last part.
The three scientists are billeted in a cottage on the farm owned by Bella and Dougie. Rachael has been to the cottage before for various studies and has come to appreciate her friendship with Bella. Her shock is exacerbated, therefore, when she discovers Bella’s lifeless body swinging from a rafter in the barn. It seems to be suicide — there’s even a note — but Bella hasn’t really left an adequate explanation as far as Rachael is concerned. As she takes it upon herself to investigate, she wonders if Bella’s death doesn’t have something to do with the proposed quarry.
As Anne’s and Grace’s stories are added, it’s apparent there is an abundance of intertwining relationships. There are connections, for instance, to the local landed gentry, the Fulwells, a horse riding academy, and a sanitorium. And each woman’s past also muddies the water. Soon there are other deaths, and finally — finally — Vera is called in.
What a brilliant, independent, quirky, soul-burdened spirit Vera is! Even something from her past, when she was a lowly constable, affects the current problem. She is a curmudgeonly joy to watch in action. From her imperious dealings with underlings to her sad musings over her unusual relationship with her father, she is always interesting.
Cleeves has created a complex storyline, but it is told clearly and with excellent pacing. She differentiates her characters brilliantly and makes them whole, especially Vera.