Dead Water by Ann Cleeves is the fifth book in the Shetland Island mystery series, featuring the return of Inspector Jimmy Perez as he helps Detective Inspector Willow Reeves solve the murder of a journalist (available February 18, 2014).
I’ve been a big fan of the Ann Cleeves’s Shetland Island mysteries since Raven Black came out. Dead Water continues this fine series with an intriguing mystery, well-rounded characters and the author’s signature setting.
When the dead body of Jerry Markham, local boy who made good as an important journalist, is found in a yoal, a racing boat in the local dialect, there is no shortage of suspects. Markham has a reputation as selfish and self-centered and he’d spent his youth on the island getting into trouble.
The more worrisome problem, however, is who will investigate the murder. The woman who would normally be supervising the inquiry is the person who discovered the body and so is in a position as a witness. Besides, the Fiscal (to American readers, a strange name for a government functionary) is clearly hiding something. And Jimmy Perez, the Chief Inspector, is on leave, thrown into a deep depression by the recent mugging murder of his fiancée.
So an outsider, Willow Reeves, is sent from the mainland to lead the investigation. Besides unraveling the identity of the killer, she will have to negotiate the insularity of the Shetland islanders and deal with her own feelings. She is both threatened by and attracted to Jimmy Perez.
It is wonderful to watch as Perez begins to come to life, fascinated in spite of himself first by the case and then by Willow.
But the setting and the sense of place is for me the most captivating part of the novel. From the very first page the reader is immersed in the world of the Shetland Islands, its exotic customs and unique climate. In one of the early scenes the reader is treated to a description of a three-legged ‘Hennie’, a celebration of a girl’s impending marriage by her friends. Tied together in pairs, so they have three legs, they go pub-crawling. It is a humorous passage that becomes important to the resolution of the case.
The Shetlands serve almost as another character. Descriptions of this out of the way place pepper the novel.
From the cairn he could see the sweep of the North Mainland... this summed up Shetland in one view, the bleakness and the beauty...” And later: “Shetland didn’t do pretty. It did wild and bleak and dramatic, but pretty would have been out of place.
These islands are an isolated place. Families have roots going back generations, with the friendships and the grudges that go along with that, and Willow both envies that rootedness and is intimidated by it.
Aith was away from the main road. Willow had checked it out on the OS map at home the night before. This was a single-track with occasional passing places, and it ran across bare hillside and peat bog. There were views of water everywhere: of the sea, salt-water inlets and small lochs. When they did meet a car, the driver waved or nodded. In a place like this strangers would be noticed, wouldn’t they?
But the modern world is encroaching on old ways. Part of the tension in Dead Water comes from the conflict between the old customs and the new
... the wealth that came from the sea and the hard, barren land. The past and the future. In the distance, in a fold in the land, the oil terminal at Sullom Voe, in this strange silver light looking almost magic, a lost city. Everywhere land and water, and land reflected in water. To the south the line of giant wind turbines, still now.
Now there is a new project for renewable energy to be piped to the mainland and like the oil and the wind farms it is generating opposition. On the eve of his murder, Jerry Markham was scheduled to meet with the protest group. Was the conflict between old customs and new ways the motive for Markham’s murder?
Then another body is discovered in a truly creepy scene, changing the investigation completely.
Throughout the book the cold rain and the damp come off the sea.
Out of Brae he hit a bank of fog. It had been gloomy all day, no wind and that grey drizzle that seemed to seep through the skin to chill the bones, but suddenly he could hardly see to the bend in the road.
It is hard to resist reaching for an extra sweater. Besides the Shetland Island mysteries, Ann Cleeves is also the author of the Vera Stanhope series (now on PBS as Vera).
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Eleanor Kuhns is the 2011 winner of the Mystery Writers of America/Minotaur Books First Crime Novel Competition. A career librarian, her most recent historical mystery featuring Will Rees, a Revolutionary War veteran turned weaver is Death of a Dyer. She lives in New York.