Book Review: The Rising Tide by Ann Cleeves
By Janet WebbSeptember 27, 2022
The Rising Tide will strike a chord of recognition with lovers of The Big Chill. Our deepest hopes, ambitions, and fears of failure are well known to the friends of our youth. They know where the bodies are buried, who feels guilt, who was betrayed, and who’s sitting on “long-held secrets.” The friends in The Rising Tide went to Holy Island for a school trip fifty years ago. On their first reunion, five years later, one of their group drowned, “lost to the rising causeway.” The group scattered over the decades, some pursuing careers in London, others staying local. Geoffrey Chaucer wrote centuries earlier that Time and tide wait for no man, an apt metaphor: life has treated them all differently. Ken has Alzheimer’s. He’s sixty-six, the same age as Annie, the glue of the group. Annie reflects on the passage of time.
Her first response was shock that they’d aged so much in the past five years. Perhaps it was Ken, sitting with Lou, attentive at his side, and Skip his dog at his feet, that prompted the thought. Ken looked misty-eyed, seemingly struggling to appear aware of what was going on, and horribly frail.
The #MeToo era fells Rick Kelsall, once a popular television personality and the charismatic star of the group. Annie takes on the guilt of his fall from grace, beating herself up for allowing him to snog her too forcefully: “Not that he’d raped her, nothing like that, but he’d come pretty close. Made her uncomfortable.” Could she have changed things if she had stopped him cold, been more confident when she shut him down?
Then he would have got the message earlier that he couldn’t behave like that. He wouldn’t have tried it on with his young colleagues. He might still have his show on the BBC.
Lou asks Rick if he really got it on with the teacher who arranged their first group gathering. Ordinarily, boasting about the past would be Rick’s preference but he remembers that even old friends might gossip about him to the press.
‘Honestly, Lou?’ Rick smiled. ‘I really can’t remember.’ A pause. ‘You’ll have to read all about it when my book comes out. It’s fiction naturally, but very definitely based on fact. You’ll find our pasts very much brought back to life. All our secrets, actually, finally seeing the light of day.’
Of course, they all demanded more details. He could tell they were intrigued. Some of them were a little anxious, which they deserved to be. Just you wait, he thought. Just you wait.
A tell-all book sounds ominous but per usual, they chat and eat, drinking heavily all the while before retiring. They’re leaving middle age behind. Does illness and age hide one’s true self or reveal it? Rick ponders that as he thinks about Ken’s deterioration, noting that “hidden anxieties were emerging and Rick wondered if they’d always been there.” Rick makes his way to his solo room and dons a dressing gown because pajamas were never his style. “From his bed, he could see the black, starless shape of the hill and the light-spangled sky behind it.” The phone rings. Is it an emergency? Rick’s drunk, slurring his words, and he’s not sure if he recognizes the voice. It’s a lot to take in.
He switched off his phone and shook his head to clear the memory of the bitterness at the other end of the line. Some mad person. Since the allegations had been made, he’d had a few of those calls. They weren’t worth bothering with. It was the price of fame. Soon, the bastards would realize he was more of a victim than his accusers.
“Soon” never comes. When he doesn’t show up for breakfast, Annie goes to his room. “Rick was hanging from a white plaited cord from the beam that crossed the vaulted ceiling.” His body is wizen and shrunken, dramatically different from the vibrancy he exuded in life. Annie comes to the obvious conclusion: Rick committed suicide.
Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope and her team are called in because it’s a high-profile case. Everyone is eager to pronounce Rick’s death a suicide but Vera’s not so sure. Detective Constable Holly Lawson is tasked with questioning the coroner, which makes her thoroughly uncomfortable. “Holly’s respectable parents were believers, evangelicals, members of their local church, and a doctor came a very close second to the Lord in their hierarchy of reverence.” She apologizes for her seeming impertinence.
‘Not impertinent at all. I would never say this to her face, of course, but the inspector is a very intelligent woman. She’s very often right.’
‘She asks if the hyoid bone is broken?’
‘Do you know what the hyoid bone is?’ Keating sounded genuinely curious, but Holly felt as if this was some sort of test. She wondered if Joe would be this nervous.
‘Isn’t it the bone at the front of the throat?’
‘Exactly. Shaped like a butterfly. Inspector Stanhope’s question is apposite. It usually is broken during hanging and strangulation. But not always. No, that is by no means inevitable.’
‘And in this case?’
‘In this case, it’s not broken.’ He frowned.
The coroner, even with an intact hyoid bone, is not prepared to walk away from a suicide verdict. But Holly’s next directive, for him to “take a swab of the nose,’ seals the deal. He takes a swab and shows it to Holly, asking her what she sees: ‘It’s yellow,’ she said. ‘Are they yellow fibres?’ Yes indeed. The coroner outlines the manner of Rick Kelsall’s death.
‘This tells us, I think, that Mr Kelsall was smothered. The cushion was placed over his face, and held tightly, so when he struggled for breath, some of the loosely woven yellow fibres were inhaled.’
Never bet against Vera Stanhope’s instincts. You’d think her compatriots and colleagues would know that. Now for the hard work. Who killed Rick and why and could events that transpired decades earlier have led to his murder? Vera has a plan, which she outlines to Joe Ashworth, her second in command. He asks if she is “planning to interview them individually.” No. Vera is very good at lulling potential suspects into a sense of complacency. They underestimate her and are somewhat dismissive because of her down-at-the-heels appearance.
‘I don’t want them clamming up, thinking of themselves as suspects. Though they will be of course. Much more likely that one of them is the killer than that some mysterious stranger turned up in the early hours and climbed in through the window.’
Her last instruction is prophetic—she tells Joe they’ll “need to check the tide times.” The Rising Tide is a winding, twisting tale of imploding friendship. Or was the group flawed from its inception? Readers will devour the 10th Vera Stanhope novel, a thoroughly surprising police procedural.
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