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Sunday, October 12, 2014

White Nights by Ann Cleeves

Minotaur Books, 400 pages, $15.99 (c2008)

I was infamous at MBTB for (usually) not reading series in order. Even I will admit my scattershot approach has its bumps. I sometimes missed the lengthy background given to some characters in previous novels but, in my defense, I believe a good author will write a book that can stand alone. If there’s a backstory or character trait that needs explicating, then the author should explicate it. Which brings me to Ann Cleeves’ “Shetland Quartet" and the second book in that series, "White Nights."

I read two of Cleeves’ books out of order. Main character Inspector Jimmy Perez was well established in the first and a wet-behind-the-years junior in the next. Cleeves is an excellent writer, however, so all was not lost. Each time, she took care to explain the isolated and small community mindset of Shetlanders. There may be bad folk residing on their islands, but they are the Shetlanders’ bad folk.

Cleeves writes about a mixture of real places and fictional towns in Scotland’s Shetland Islands, north of the mainland. The islands are so far north that they experience the odd constant light during summer nights, giving “White Nights” an eerie atmosphere ripe for murder.

Biddista is a small, isolated village on the island, but it boasts more than its share of well-known folk. Bella Sinclair is a famous artist and her nephew, Roddy Sinclair, is a famous fiddler. They have brought business and tourists to quiet Biddista.

During one of Bella’s art shows, a strange man shows up, falls to his knees and sobs when he sees one of Fran Hunter’s paintings, then claims amnesia when Jimmy questions him. (In “Raven Black,” Fran was an innocent bystander who discovered the murder victim, and in this, she is a blossoming painter and being courted by Jimmy.) When Jimmy leaves him alone briefly, the man disappears. Later he is found hanging in a fishing shed.

No one will admit to knowing him. No one was seen with him. Jimmy must notify the higher-ups in Inverness. Inspector Roy Taylor (“the most restless man [Jimmy had] ever met”), another character from “Raven Black,” is sent to head up the investigation. He acknowledges Jimmy’s value in questioning the locals, and the two of them make a compatible, if uneasy, team.

It is disturbing to everyone in Biddista that there may be a black sheep among the flock, but it is like dripping water on stone to dislodge information from the inhabitants. Cleeves excels at depicting this slow-moving, closed life among people who must get along to survive. It is obvious that they don’t all love or like each other, but they are a strange sort of family, most of the older folk having known each other since they were babies. Everyone’s strengths and weaknesses are silently acknowledged. Bella is self-involved. Roddy is a wild man. But they belong to Biddista’s history, so they are tolerated. And so it goes with each of the other inhabitants.

It will take Jimmy’s intimate knowledge of how such communities operate to spring open the ages-old stories that brought the stranger to his death.

One of Cleeves’ other series, featuring Inspector Vera Stanhope, is wrier and has more black humor, and blunt Vera is a more fascinating character than taciturn Jimmy, but “White Nights” has menacing atmosphere up the yin-yang and a killer plot.

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