Book Review: The Darkest Evening Ann Cleeves
By Janet WebbSeptember 10, 2020
Just before Christmas, Vera finds a young boy, strapped in his car seat, in an abandoned car close to Brockburn, her family’s ancestral estate. Vera’s complicated family history—her father Hector grew up at Brockburn—plays into the narrative. She well remembers strained visits to Brockburn with her father.
That branch of the clan used politeness as a method of mass destruction. But Hector had always come away humiliated and angry. Vera, who’d never felt any obligation to be loyal to her father, had understood the family’s point of view. Hector would be rude and demanding, usually halfway drunk on the most recent visits. She’d been hugely embarrassed and they’d been kind to her.
Since her father’s funeral, she’d had no contact with his family. However, needs must. Vera must figure out who the child is and where his mother might be: “Besides, Vera thought, if she could face murderers and rapists, she wasn’t going to be intimidated by a few weakchinned minor aristos.” A glamorous Christmas party is in full swing. Her cousin Juliet ushers her into the kitchen, shows her the phone, and finds a nappy for the baby. Holly Jackman, Vera’s DC (detective constable), tracks down Miss Constance Browne, the owner of the car, who tells Vera: “I let Lorna use my car sometimes. Lorna Falstone.” Miss Browne says the little boy’s name is Thomas, but an agitated man interrupts the call.
‘I need to use that phone.’
‘Sorry, pet. This is important.’
‘There’s a woman out there. A dead woman. I doubt what you have to say is more important than that. The police need to know.’
Well. We can’t have that: ‘I am the police,’ says Vera, savoring his “incredulity” “just for a moment,” before going outside to look at the body. Vera’s competent staff are feeling their oats: they know how she likes to play it, but they also have detecting chops. Christmas is the season when family time is prioritized, so Vera’s single detective, DC Holly, comes to the fore. She knows her strengths and weaknesses, and although she follows Vera’s instructions to the letter, she adds a spin or two of her own.
She knew she was a competitive woman. It was pathetic, but she saw her colleagues as rivals and collaborative working had never come easily to her. Now she thought she’d do as Vera would want and check into the background of the male suspects of the case, but she’d do some of her own research too. Perhaps the ladies of the manor and the farmers’ wives weren’t as harmless or ineffectual as they first appeared, and she’d find the murderer before the rest of the team.
The second verse in Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening is the source of the title. “‘The darkest evening of the year’ would be the night before the Winter Solstice (December 21), which is the longest night of the calendar year.”
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
In the “lovely, dark and deep” woods near Brockburn is a secluded, run-down cottage; not fit for habitation but a place beloved by those looking for privacy. Vera learns Lorna was a talented artist: she is impressed with Lorna’s many renditions of the abandoned building. Uncovering Lorna’s backstory is difficult: no one knows the identity of her little boy’s father. Her relationship with her parents is strained at best. As a teen, she developed anorexia, eventually recovering in an expensive residential treatment center. Her parents could never have afforded the fees, so who foot the bill?
The Darkest Evening abounds in metaphors and memories. Food is an evocative Christmas memory for many, and we know Vera Stanhope likes to tuck in. We discover her feelings about homemade versus store-bought Christmas treats when she pays a visit to Thomas’s grandparents Jill and Robert Falstone. They happily embrace the joy of Christmas as they shower love on their grandson.
‘Could you manage a mince pie?’ Jill said. ‘Shop-bought. Obviously.’
‘Eh, hinnie,’ Vera smiled. ‘That’s just how I like them.’
It wouldn’t be a Vera Stanhope mystery without the colloquialisms of Scotland and Northern England: hinnie is a “term of endearment.” The setting of the books, “Northumberland, England’s northernmost county—lends itself to regional dialect.”
What is Vera Stanhope’s genesis? According to Ann Cleeves: “Vera appeared suddenly, in one of those incredible moments that make writing such a joy. The Crow Trap was never intended as a traditional detective novel, which is why she doesn’t arrive until a good way in. I never plan my books in advance and I was stuck! I needed to move the story on but couldn’t see how. I was writing a funeral scene and followed Raymond Chandler’s advice to authors struggling with plot; to have a door burst open to see who comes through. As the service starts, the chapel door is flung open and in bursts Vera, looking more like a bag lady than a detective.” “Bag lady,” what a description. But perhaps not far off from what Holly thinks while she watches Vera “writing furiously on the whiteboard.”
She reminded Holly of some elderly, eccentric graffiti artist, arms flying in wide sweeps, occasionally balancing on her toes to reach the top of the board. Finally satisfied, the inspector turned back to face them, eyes narrowed, soft bum planted on the edge of the desk behind her, stretching the dreadful crimplene trousers, which were her go-to office wear, into wrinkles round her belly. ‘Well, team, what have you got for me?’
If you’re on team Vera Stanhope, what Ann Cleeves has for you is a complicated, absorbing mystery. An early holiday present, if you like. We don’t just learn why a young mother was killed, we are drawn into the Brockburn orbit, from the slightly shabby estate to the tenant farmers that sustain it. Lastly, pets, we come away with a deeper understanding and respect for Vera, her failsafe methods of detection, and the choices she’s made for her life.